Sunday, July 24, 2005

Bollywood's Good Girls Learn to Be Bad

Coming from a person who enjoys Bollywood movies once in a while, I totally agree with this article. I always wonder why I still watch them & there are several reasons:

1. I love the language and Hindi movies allow me to retain it
2. I enjoy the music
3. I enjoy the light nature of most Hindi movies
4. It's fun to watch parts of my culture screened in films

However, it is rather disturbing how sexualized Hindi films have become in the past decade. A lot that is featured in the films is not representative of Indians or Indian culture, but I guess the same can be said for Hollywood films too. I distinctly remember of how the social culture around me changed in Dubai with the advent of satellite TV. Most Hindi films revolve around fluffy love stories, although a lot of that is changing with new young directors trying to explore new topics. Is this good or bad? I honestly don't have enough brain cells to analyze that at this moment!

From NY Times:

HALFWAY through "Aitraaz" ("Objection"), a Bollywood take on Barry Levinson's "Disclosure," Sonia grabs hold of Raj. Once upon a time, they were lovers. But when Sonia, an ambitious model, opted for an abortion instead of child and marriage, Raj left her. Now she is his boss. Sonia starts to undress him, whispering, "Show me you are an animal." When he refuses and walks away, she screams: "I'm not asking you to leave your wife. I just want a physical relationship. If I don't have an objection, why should you?"

The actress Priyanka Chopra had a difficult time playing this scene. A former Miss World, Ms. Chopra was a sophisticated, globally feted celebrity and she had prepared for her role by studying the calculated seductiveness of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." But on the day that scene was shot, Ms. Chopra broke down and cried. The directors, brothers who go by the hyphenate Abbas-Mustan, had to spend a few hours convincing her that she was only playing a character. Filming didn't start until late afternoon.

Ms. Chopra wasn't just being dramatic. She is a Bollywood actress, and as such, trained to play the role of a virginal glam-doll, not a sexual aggressor. By tradition, a Bollywood heroine is a one-dimensional creation who may wear eye-popping bustiers or writhe passionately during a song in the rain. But she is unfailingly virtuous. Whether girlfriend, wife or mother, she is the repository of Indian moral values. In the ancient epic "Ramayana," the hero Lakshman draws a furrow in the earth, the Line of Lakshman, which represents the limits of proper feminine behavior, and requests that his sister-in-law Sita not step outside it. As if heeding his exhortation, Bollywood heroines have rarely stepped out of line, even for a kiss.

But a decade-long cultural churning has overturned stereotypes in India. In 1991, the threat of fiscal collapse forced the government to introduce wide-ranging economic reforms and allow multinational corporations to operate in India. The same year, satellite television arrived. Today, consumerism, globalization, the proliferation of semiclad bodies in print and television, and the emergence of a more worldly audience have redefined the boundaries of what is permissible. Sex has been pulled out of the closet and actors have become more willing to experiment with their images. The latest Bollywood heroines seem to be taking a page out of Mae West's book: when they are good, they are very good, but when they are bad, they're better.

Mallika Sherawat, 24, a statuesque actress, needed little convincing to step out of the stereotype. Ms. Sherawat made her leading-lady debut in 2003 with "Khwahish" ("Desire"), which grabbed headlines for its 17 kisses. Her follow-up was even steamier. "Murder," released last year, a rehash of Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful," had her playing a lonely housewife in Bangkok who has a passionate affair with an ex-boyfriend. Ms. Sherawat pushed the edge of the sexual envelope as far as the Indian Censor Board would allow. The lovemaking scenes featured bare backs, cleavage and passionate kissing.

Bolder still was the idea that a respectable upper-middle-class woman could have sexual desires and cheat on her husband - and get away with it. "Murder" made back its investment, approximately $750,000, several times over. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, a senior fellow at the Bangalore-based Center for the Study of Culture and Society, said the film established Ms. Sherawat as an Indian "postfeminist icon." The self-anointed "kissing queen of India" now has bigger ambitions. She plays an Indian princess in a coming Hong Kong movie, "The Myth," starring Jackie Chan. After making a splash on Mr. Chan's arm at the Cannes Film Festival, she is, she says, negotiating with Creative Artists Agency for representation.

Ms. Sherawat's journey from a traditional small-town nobody to an international sex symbol is a modern-day fairy tale that has already had an impact. (For Ms. Sherawat, it also has a downside: She says her father refuses to speak her.) Film studios here in Mumbai are overrun with starlets fiercely trading on their sexuality, and even established actresses are now taking chances. In "Fida" ("Crazy"), released last year, Kareena Kapoor played a scheming hedonist who beguiles her besotted lover into robbing a bank for her. Ms. Kapoor, a fourth-generation star, is Bollywood aristocracy. Her great-grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor was a leading man in the 1940's, and her grandfather (Raj Kapoor), parents, uncles and sister are famous actors. There were audible gasps from audiences when her true character was revealed with a dramatic flourish in "Fida": she steps out of the shower with a man who is not her lover.

Heroines aren't just discovering sex, they are positively reveling in bad behavior. In a forthcoming, still-untitled film, Sushmita Sen, a former Miss Universe, plays a protagonist who "enjoys being negative," she said. "She cheats, lies, sleeps with men, even kills them and gets away with it all. I want to give this bad woman a tremendous conviction. You have to fear her."

Aishwarya Rai also hopes to induce fear. Her ethereal good looks have been immortalized in wax at Madame Tussauds in London. In the July issue of the British magazine Harpers & Queen she is listed as the ninth most beautiful woman in the world. But in "Dhoom 2" ("Cacophony 2") to be shot later this year, she is to play a vamp. Ms. Rai won't comment on how badly her character will behave. "In this film, you can't define heroes and villains, but it's a character I've never played before," she said. "Why get pigeonholed?"

The good-girl heroine isn't the only standard Bollywood type to be transformed. The vamp, Hindi cinema's designated bad girl, was traditionally just as important a part of the typology. She did things that upright Indian girls weren't supposed to do - drink, smoke and have sex - and was usually seen on the villain's arm in garish dens or smoke-filled bars, wearing feather boas and revealing outfits. But in the 70's, a slew of more Westernized actresses appropriated the vamp's glamour for heroines by adopting more flashy clothes and more sexually assertive body language. By the 80's the vamp had disappeared.

A decade later, globalization further scrambled neat moral divisions. "The heroine," says Gyan Prakash, director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, "now dressed by a fashion designer and placed in a consumerist mise en scène, was liberated. She could appear in a club and wear revealing clothes without being coded."

But though she was sexy, she wasn't necessarily having sex. In the last five years, however, the heroine has come full circle and outvamped the vamp. Even the good-girl heroines are becoming more complex. One of the year's biggest is "Bunty aur Bubli," a sanitized "Bonnie and Clyde" about two small-town con artists who go on a looting spree across India. The woman, Bubli, unapologetically uses her sexuality to cheat people. But she is not evil or predatory; she's just looking for a good time. Her disdain for the housewife role she is forced to play is comic: "If I have to make mango pickle one more time, I'll die," she tells the police officer who arrests the couple.

Interpreting the Hindi cinema heroine's latest avatar as a feminist, however, may be stretching the truth a bit. Earlier films like "Hunterwali" ("The Woman With a Whip," 1935) and "Amar Jyoti" ("Eternal Flame," 1936) featured more powerful female images - a whip-wielding, crime-fighting action heroine, and a female pirate who keeps men in captivity.

The scriptwriter Bhavani Iyer dismisses present-day heroines as "naïve attempts to portray reality," but admits that they are preferable to the deified women in earlier films.

They are, in any case, just a beginning. At present, Lakshman's line may be bent out of shape, but it is still visible. The box office occasionally applauds the sexual daring of a Mallika Sherawat, but as the director Karan Johar, who has made several wholesome, family-centered blockbusters, put it, "In Bollywood, the No. 1 position will always be reserved for the girl you can take home to Mom."

That's why most actresses are hedging their bets. Ms. Chopra got rave reviews and awards in "Aitraaz," but she has followed up with good-girl acts. "I'm not sure I can play such a sexually aggressive character again," she says. "My family and friends were very shocked."