Double-Speak about the Body
Between the moral authority of the state’s censor board and preoccupation with women’s bodies through strategic camera angles and movement is the gratification and scopic pleasure that filmed bodies, especially those of the vamp, offer to both male and female viewers. The vamp is presented as the sexual – ized woman, craving men and their attention by inviting their gaze upon herself, her body, her eroticized gestures and movements. This exhibitionism, pleasurable to the audience, is simultaneously condemned as immodest, prurient, and “bad" Thus one can enjoy the visual pleasure, the spectacular and erotic dance numbers, while airing moral indignation by condemning the woman in unison with the narrative in which she is inevitably punished.
This doublespeak is evident not only in films but in the entire discursive culture surrounding films. It operates no differently in associated texts such as the film magazines. During my search for secondary sources on films and film history in the Indian National Film Archives at Pune, I was struck by one preoccupation in film magazines through four decades ofpost-independence cinema. The industry positions itself as demanding freedom of expression and opposing censorship. At the heart ofthis wrangle is the contentious issue of how much the films can show—a debate that is really about nothing more than the right to show and see the woman’s body. In magazines that reproduce ad nauseam stills, centrefolds, pin-ups, shots from films, and close-ups of physical details of the female stars, the accompanying written text virtuously repudiates the industry and the film stars for their declining values. The visuals show the reader what is being decried. Such doublespeak continues in the films’ texts, which invite us to see and then condemn the “bad” woman.
Culling a few candid moments from the discourse in the film magazines, I cite a film fan, who, in an unusually plain-spoken way reminds us of film’s nature—intrinsically and organically linked to the pleasures of voyeurism and scopophilia. In the 1940s this fan wrote unselfconsciously to the magazine Film India about his admiration for a new actress, Begum Para. He marvelled at her diaphanous sarees, which enabled him to gaze at her magnificent breasts. In a similar vein, Pandit Indra makes a case against the puritanical censorship advocated by Film India’s editor and the state. The open depiction of sex and the body are, he argues, part of India’s classical poetry. He quotes at length from various Hindu poets, including the fourth-century poet Kalidasa’s poems in shringaar rasa,12 full of descriptions of gods and goddesses, their bodies, details about their lovemaking, and frequent references to the breasts and buttocks of the amorous women. Analogously, he goes on, films “without romance will be as tasteless as food without salt!.. .The editor should not try.. .to destroy the sweetness of our life leading us towards [the] darkness of so-called purity” (P. Indra, Film India, July 1947).13
While the discourse on the extent to which films can or should “show” (women’s) bodies continues to this day, the figure of the vamp has become conspicuous by its absence. We can only speculate about the changes that prompted this. The distance travelled can be graphically measured by the extent to which
the heroines substituted for the vamps. As the Helen-type figure atrophied in Hindi films during the 1970s, the female lead by the 1980s was transformed from a childlike innocent to a sexually alluring creature. In short, if heroines could satisfy what Begum Para’s admirer sought in the movies, the vamp was redundant. Much of this had to do with changing boundaries within rules governing sexuality: the boundaries “good” women could occupy expanded slightly. Eroticizing the heroine marked a new trend; the vamp’s figure thereafter was banished from Hindi films.14