THIS YEAR was supposedly a good year for women in cinema. There has been much fuss about the emergence of the ‘new woman’ in Hindi movies. She is the woman who settles scores like a hero and avenges her man while bearing the weight of her pregnancy in Kahaani; she is the middle-class girl who unabashedly expresses her sexual fantasies in Aiyyaa; she is the mother of two who reclaims her identity in English Vinglish, she is the hurt and lashing superstar of Heroine.
And then, as if to counter this new woman, to put her back in her place, Bollywood reverted to a favoured stereotype with the return of the retro woman. She is non-threatening and non-demanding — a purely male construct, this throwback to the ’70s and ’80s is the perfect foil to the masculine hero, simultaneously modern and traditional, coy and inviting, sensual and virtuous. Sonakshi Sinha with her old-world voluptuousness and vows of ‘no kissing, no stripping’ has embraced the role, which in her own words, sets her apart from other actresses.
Only four films old, she is assured of a blockbuster with Dabangg 2. Her last film Son of Sardaar broke a few box office records and so did Rowdy Rathore earlier this year, making her the female mascot for the all-boys Rs 100 crore rarefied stratosphere. Next year she’ll attempt to repeat the feat in Prabhu Deva’s action thriller Namak, in Ghajini director AR Murugadoss’ remake of Tamil hit Thuppakki with Akshay Kumar, and the sequel to Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai.
Her dedication to playing the part of “bharatiya nari” (Akshay Kumar’s moniker for her), who’ll save us from corrupt western culture, is matched by the gusto with which her heroes objectify her in films; Ajay Devgn calls her “bhaari piece” in Son of Sardaar and Akshay Kumar pinches her waist and calls her “mera maal” in Rowdy Rathore. There is a feeling of déjà vu — the same actor serenaded Raveena Tandon 18 years ago with Tu cheez badi hai mast mast, the years in between are nullified, the woman remains the object simultaneously looked at and displayed by a patriarchal subconscious of society, as British film theorist Laura Mulvey argues in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’.
Since her debut in Dabangg, Sinha, 25, has played the same character in every movie, with the same social background, the same story arc, the same facial expressions, even the same wardrobe — traditional Indian wear in gratingly bright colours. “She brings back the Bhojpuri element to Hindi cinema, playing the nubile village girl, someone who allows access but restricts entry,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, “In every film, she compliments the hero who’s good at pawing rather than talking, but do we know what her story is? Who is she?”
She plays a girl from Patna in Rowdy Rathore, in Joker she is an NRI who must pretend to be a village belle, and in Son of Sardaar she hails from rural Punjab. Her character is always introduced as the hapless damsel in need of rescue. The hero leers at her and she swivels her eyes coyly, he falls in love and in the name of wooing, harasses her; she says no, but we are made to believe she means yes. Five songs and four scenes later, she accedes to his nasty stalker-like behaviour.
Traditionally, our cinema has legitimised a certain degree of licentiousness, all sorts of behaviour being permissible in the name of love. As Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the University of London, points out, “Films often stray into dangerous territory where the hero makes unwanted advances, ending in harassment. When Shammi Kapoor’s character teased women, people said it was like Krishna and the gopis. Although Shammi would be a gentleman in his interactions with women, it was still a kind of eve-teasing, challenging women in the public space. I found the role of Shah Rukh Khan in Darr and Dil Se… also quite threatening.”
The success of action potboilers has ensured what were stray instances become character graphs cast in stone. They’ve brought back a certain form of cinematic wooing which spells danger in a society like ours. Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, two young women directors, have repeatedly spoken about the influence of cinema on society and the responsibility of filmmakers. “Popular films have a huge impact on society and we as filmmakers are putting out a lot of nonsense about women to a society that does not understand the new Indian woman. Our films have repeatedly legitimised the harassment of women and there is a co-relation there with the spate of crimes against women,” Kagti said recently.
Sinha cannot be held responsible for prejudices against women, but she does stand for a certain kind of cinema that spells regressive misogyny. In a recent TV interview, when she was asked if it offends her sensibility to be called “maal” and to portray the roles she has been doing, Sinha said that she sees it as harmless fun, as part of the job. “It’s part of a film that I like to watch, it’s funny for me and it works for the film, it’s what the masses catch on to,” she said.
Feminist filmmaker Paromita Vohra says, “She harks back to a time when women were women and men were men, someone who belongs to another age. Heroines now have a little more clout, are less unrewarded, and there are more films where the female character matters.” She draws a fascinating parallel between Vidya Balan and Sonakshi Sinha, who are similar in terms of body type and the desi girl image, but the crucial difference is that Balan has agency over her body and Sinha is the obverse of that. “She perhaps allays the fears and represents a response to the anxiety that must arise with someone like Vidya Balan, who is not westernised, is completely Indian, but in control in every way.”
In an irony of sorts, Sinha’s idea of what behoves the modern woman seems out of whack. She has cried herself hoarse saying she will never bare skin, never kiss, and always listen to her parents, setting herself up as a role model for good behaviour, never once realising how she let us down.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.