Intolerance: Big Fuss Over Indian Actresses

Ms.Aishwarya Rai 'Bollywood's Good Girls Learn to Be Bad'-- An Article by Anupama Chopra. Halfway through 'Aitraaz' ('Objection'), a 'Bollywood' take on Mr.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?' Ms Priyanka Chopra Ms Priyanka Chopra The actress Ms.Priyanka Chopra had a difficult time playing this scene. A former 'Miss World', Ms.Chopra was a sophisticated, globally fêted celebrity and she had prepared for her rôle by studying the calculated seductiveness of Ms.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 hyphenated 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, globalisation, the proliferation of semi-clad 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 Ms.Mae West's book: when they are good, they are very good, but when they are bad, they're better. Ms.Mallika Sherawat Ms.Mallika Sherawat Ms.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. Ms.Mallika Sherawat'Murder,' released last year, a rehash of Mr.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_USD, several times over. Mr.Ashish Rajadhyaksha, a senior fellow at the Bangalore-based 'Centre for the Study of Culture and Society', said the film established Ms.Sherawat as an Indian 'post-Feminist 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 Mr.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.Mallika Sherawat Ms.Mallika Sherawat 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 over-run with 'starlets' fiercely trading on their sexuality, and even established actresses are now taking chances. In 'Fida' ('Crazy'), released last year, Ms.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 Mr.Prithviraj Kapoor was a leading man in the 1940's, and her grandfather (Mr.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, Ms.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.'
Ms.Aishwarya Rai also hopes to induce fear. Her ethereal good looks have been immortalised in wax at 'Madame Tussauds' in London. Ms.Aishwarya Rai In the 2005-07 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?'
Ms.Aishwarya Rai 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 70s, a slew of more Westernised actresses appropriated the 'vamp's' glamour for heroines by adopting more flashy clothes and more sexually assertive body language. By the 80s the 'vamp' had disappeared. A decade later, globalisation further scrambled neat moral divisions. 'The heroine,' says Mr.Gyan Prakash, director of 'The Shelby Cullom Davis Centre 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 sanitised '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 Mr.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 Ms.Mallika Sherawat, but as the director Mr.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 mum.'
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.'
Ms.Priyanka ChopraPriyanka Chopra 'Bollywood's Good Girls Learn to Be Bad', Anupama Chopra, Mumbai, New York Times, 2005-07-24


Anonymous Anonymous said...

They are all drop dead gorgeous! They are so sexy but so virginal and prim at the same time. Very confusing signals methinks. What is going on? Is it the degenerate influence of the West? or some weird cultural thing?

7/31/2005 12:22:00 am  
Anonymous digger said...

The culture is to be sexy in private (Kama Sutra ring a bell?), but not in public. The Bollywood thing is about being able to watch a move with the whole family. But because of the pressures from Hollywood through TV and satellite, they would rather their fellow indians lusted after Indian girls than American ones, or at least that way they can exert some cultural control or something. fact is if they don't, they'll lose out (like everywhere else has) to the International porn industry and the decadence of the wetsren freemarket.

7/31/2005 12:26:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bollywood is aspirational, like Hollywood was with Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

As a country reaches or comes into reach of what has been shown as aspirational, then the target has to move, and it generally moves away from aspirational toward warnings and social comment.

Hollywood shows Americans a lifestyle, and when they got there, they grew bored and began doing sex and drugs. Movies reflected this and that's what is happening in Bollywood.

7/31/2005 12:30:00 am  
Anonymous Prof said...

Maybe all these comments are right, but people here seem to have forgotten about globalisation. Perhaps Bollywood wants to complete in a wider market, and to do that they have to meet the needs and standards outside India.

How much longer can Bollywood keep churning out the same old safe stuff?

Maybe they need to be challenging their boundaries, addressing their real issues, and winning a few international movie prizes.

India can do this, as has been shown with the whole pageant thing. When they set their minds to it, they can do anything....one year they won ALL the international pageant titles (Miss World, Miss universe, etc), and I mean ALL... despite these girls being shunned at home in India for even taking part.

Bollywood has the capabilities to mass produce films the world wants to see, and they could give Hollywood a run for its money... Hollywood is all-american these days, cartoons and comic books. the French inductry is struggling financially, and the rest of Europe is in decline as China (and especially Hong Kong) are rising along with some of the eastern european states. The field is wide open.

With so many channels and so many broadcast hours to fill, the only viable competition to Hollywood is Bollywood... only Bollywood can give us films with all the glamour and polish we demand, but without the over-bearing Americanness of High School, Hockey, Basketball, comic books and science fiction.

Indians are somewhere between negro and white... a bit like The West but with a tan. They speak good English, and are capitalistic enough to pull it off. They are also more acceptable to the Arab world... in Bollywood lies the potential for a great deal of the future in many many ways.

7/31/2005 12:45:00 am  

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