Mother Maiden Mistress documents the journey from a time in which cinema was considered a profession beneath the dignity of 'respectable' women to an era when women actors are icons and idols.
Authors Bhawana Somaaya, Jigna Kothari and Supriya Madangarli sift through six decades of history, bringing to life the women that peopled cinema and the popular imagination, and shaped fashion and culture.
Here's an extract from the book:
The fifties: hope and despair
A consumptive young girl writes a bittersweet play on the harsh realities of her life. The script falls into the hands of an idealist, a music composer, and he thinks it perfect for staging. His producer disagrees, for he is sure that the audience will reject it. The audience wants entertainment, not reality. The composer disregards the warning. The play is greeted with thunderous applause, leaving the producer stunned. The plot of the film Hum Log (1951), directed by Zia Sarhadi, was prophetic about the fate of the film itself - despite a cast of nearunknowns, and a story of a family struggling to survive in deprivation and despair in the city, the film was a runaway success.
The film was set in the young republic of India where four years earlier the sun had finally set for the British Empire. In its first general elections, the country voted in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister. The first Five Year Plan was announced. The nation was exhilarated but apprehensive - there were challenges to overcome. The British had left behind an inimical legacy - a country divided along class, caste and religious lines, and living in desperate poverty. The wounds of Partition were still raw. Feudalism held the villages in its Grip while capitalists had made the cities their strongholds. The emerging socialistic policies of the new government only added to the confusion. In the period of uncertainty and hope that was the fifties; the young nation was trying to discard its colonial past and to tentatively build its identity. It was during this decade that Hindi cinema established itself as a pan-Indian phenomenon, setting up a national presence as it firmly entrenched itself in the nation's imagination. At the same time, it created its own imagined India in its films, an India whose epicentre was Bombay, where all the action takes place, with spaces outside intruding as side characters or subplots. By 1956, Indian cinema - older than the nation - had already turned twenty-five, and to commemorate the occasion, the Silver Jubilee of the Indian Talkie 1931-56, celebrations were held in Bombay. The government had begun taking an interest in the industry earlier in the decade with the Central Board of Film Censors being instituted in 1951. The same year saw the establishment of the Film Federation of India (FFI) with veteran film-maker Chandulal Shah as its first president.
The National Film Awards were instituted and the first awards conferred in 1954.
Indian films were beginning to make an impact globally. While Satyajit Ray unfurled the art-house banner and more or less introduced and defined India and its cinema to the critical world, directors like Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan ensured that commercial cinema made waves internationally. In 1953, Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen won an award at Cannes. In 1955, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali won the Cannes Award for 'the best human document', along with several other foreign and national awards. In 1956, R.K. Films' Jagte Raho won the Grand Prix at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. In 1957, Mehboob Khan's Mother India was nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category. A festival of Indian films was held in the Soviet Union in 1954 where Awara began the long-standing love affair between Raj Kapoor and Russia.
In turn, Indian film-makers who were familiar with American/ Hollywood film-makers were now exposed to their contemporaries from Russia, Britain and Italy. In 1951, Russian film-makers Vselevod Pudovkin and actor Nikolai Cherkasov met with Indian film-makers in various Indian cities. With shows in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, the first International Film Festival of India, held in 1952, featured films not only from Hollywood but from countries like Czechoslovakia, Japan, Turkey and Italy as well. The neo-realist cinema from Italy, specifically Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves (1948), has often been credited with sowing the seeds of realistic cinema, or what would come to be called art or parallel cinema in the next decade, in India. The films left a lasting impression on young Hindi film-makers. By the fifties, with the studio system of the previous decades crumbling, Bombay had established itself as the centre of Hindi film production in India, as competitors Pune and Calcutta faded. Auteurrun banners were taking over and talent from across the country began to flood the city. The Anand brothers launched Navketan with Afsar in 1949; Raj Kapoor's R.K. Films got underway in 1949 with Barsaat; fresh from Calcutta, Bimal Roy kicked off Bimal Roy Productions with Do Bigha Zameen in 1952-53. It was also the time when production houses and directors from the south began to make forays into Hindi cinema.
The establishment of Bombay as the centre of film production, the creation of plots and heroes that the nation soon adopted as iconic, the pan-India popularity of Hindi film music, and the formalizing of structures and the conventionalizing of cinematic practices of the 1930s and 1940s made the 1950s the golden age of Hindi cinema. The preceding decades - the thirties and forties - had seen the marked influence of the theatre (drama) format on the narrative structure of Hindi cinema. Consider the narrative of a typical Hindi film even today.
The pacing of the plot, the twists and turns, the ornate background score crescendos that signify a turning point in the story, the duration of the film (typically two and a half to three hours), the intermission - all these are in the form of a natak, a drama. So is the use of song and dance as a device to further the plot or enhancing the content with bhava or rasa.
The fifties saw the tradition continue, but cinematic practices and script treatment began to shed some of their theatrical roots. The story and its development seemed to be fluid, either adhering to or combining indigenous melodrama with European influences of realism, neo realism and poetic realism. Take, for example, Hum Log, the runaway hit of 1951, where the setting, the costumes and the lighting set the narrative in a stark, realistic space, but the text maintained the format of a 'sentimental melodramatic romance'.1 The connection to reality was maintained but projected using the medium of a melodramatic and romanticized narrative.
This wasn't quite a new phenomenon. The bricks on the lane were set by directors associated with the big names in the industry too: Bombay Talkies - Franz Osten (Kangan, 1939); Prabhat Talkies - V. Shantaram (Amar Jyoti, 1936); New Theatres - P.C. Barua (Devdas, 1935) and Nitin Bose (President, 1937); Ranjit Movietone - Chandulal Shah (Gunsundari, 1934); and Filmistan - Gyan Mukherjee (Kismet, 1943).
In the fifties, this resulted in the creation of iconic motifs which were played out in the physical, intellectual and moral characterization of the protagonists and the supporting roles. Many of these roles were born out of the changes taking place in the social, cultural and economic structure of the country. Many of these iconic images continue to echo in present times: Raj Kapoor's naïve tramp, Mehboob Khan's Mother India, Guru Dutt's and Bimal Roy's angst-ridden Hamlet-like heroes.
The city as the protagonist gained prominence in this decade. The setting up of 'cities' by the English and the continuance of these centres due to industrialization had created an urban space in Hindi films. In the 1930s and '40s, urban spaces were largely used in cautionary tales against 'modernity' and 'upper-class values'. There were films that did look at the urban poor, but it was in the fifties that this subject created a genre rich with strong protagonists.
Zia Sarhadi's Hum Log and Footpath (1953) were significant in their realistic script and treatment of the urban poor and urban spaces. As portrayed in Hum Log, the city of Bombay was characteristically divided along the lines of occupation: there were the capitalists (the industrialists) and the working class. A third class was making its way into the mixture: the middle class composed of the English-educated youth who served as clerks and held mid-level positions in factories and government offices. Though a thriving industrial city, Bombay was struggling with the increasing influx of immigrants: Partition survivors, migrants from dying villages and youth seeking employment. Poverty and unemployment brought with them the usual vices. The streets of Bombay, its poor, its homeless, the crime and the corruption, the optimism and ambition of its people were often used as the context in which the protagonists played out their stories. Directors like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and the Anand brothers of Navketan Films created the Outsider - the predecessor to the 'vigilante' Angry Young Man. These heroes, the urban have-nots, were often morally grey characters, inhabiting the fringes of respectable society. As in Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), Raj Kapoor's protagonists are childlike, and innocent in their love and greed, but ultimately resist temptation and find redemption in their women. Chetan Anand's heroes for Navketan are losers whose lives are transformed by circumstances not of their own making, such as in Afsar (1949) or Funtoosh (1956), which was inspired by Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941).
The city also created a new genre in Hindi films - that of the film noir - which brought with it the criminal underworld and its lingo: the don, the don's den, the gangster's moll and her night-club cabaret. This is the world that many of the protagonists of Guru Dutt's earlier films inhabited - Baazi (Navketan Films, 1951, directed by Guru Dutt), Aar Paar (1954), House No. 44 (1955), and Raj Khosla's CID (1952) for Guru Dutt Films. Crime and redemption, the corruption of the individual's soul and his emancipation, with the city as backdrop, formed the theme of such films as Guru Dutt's Baazi (1951) and Jaal (1951), Zia Sarhadi's Footpath (1953), and V. Shantaram's Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957) and Shakti Samanta's Insaan Jaag Utha (1959) where the scene of action was the village.
The decay and decadence of the modern capitalist city is shown in Guru Dutt's later works in the decade. The films were as much a critique of the increasingly consumerist culture in the city as they were a depiction of the artist caught in the conflict between art and societal norms. In Pyaasa (1957) the poet-hero seeks release from the corruption and artifice in society and, writing bitterly about the underbelly of the city - the flesh trade, the sex workers, says: Zaraa is mulk ke rahabaron ko bulaao ye kuuche ye galiyaan ye manzar dikhaao jinhen naaz hai hind par unko laao jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahaan hain In Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) the artist-hero is exiled from his art and from society for his failure to be a success. The harshness of the colonial legacy of poverty, and the reality of corruption and exploitation by feudal and capitalist forces, is also seen in Phir Subah Hogi (1958) which portrayed the reality in which independent India found itself. Jitne bhi building hai, sethon ne cheen li hai Hai footpath Bambai ka, aashiyana hamara … Taalim hai adhuri, milti nahi mazoori Maalum kya kisiko, dard-e-nihaan hamara … Bombay also gave Hindi films another popular protagonist: the mill worker, often in conflict with the rich and corrupt mill owner. The worker, though as oppressed as the Outsider, is a do-gooder. Nehru's socialistic fervour, which pervaded the nation's economic and political policies, could be seen in films like S.S. Vassan's Paigham (1959), in which the capitalist mill owner eventually repents and unites with the working class to create a better world. In romanticized representations of the social divisions, for example in films such as Shree 420, the urban poor are impoverished but principled, live with honour, love without prejudice or agenda, and are pure at heart, while the bad guys are often rich, pot-bellied, westernized, and all-evil.
Book: Mother Maiden Mistress: Women in Hindi Cinema, 1950-2010; Author: Bhawana Somaaya, Jigna Kothari, Supriya Madangarli; Price: Rs. 299; 272 pages; Category Cinema, Film, Non-fiction/Film; Publishers: HarperCollins India