Reverence, Rape—and then Revenge: Popular. Hindi Cinema’s “Women’s Film”1
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The academic interest in popular Hindi cinema’s dramatic reinscription of women as avenging daredevils, although belated, is welcome. The increasing popularity of these films in the 1980s and 1990s is accompanied by some turmoil over how to read this move (Ghosh 1996; Gopal 1997; Gopalan 1997).2 Persisting complaints about static two-dimensional portrayals of women as victims or vamps, madonnas or whores, suffering mothers or pleasing wives, are now replaced by the charge that these women, figured as retaliating rape victims, are merely grist for the Hindi film mill furbished by and for male fantasies. The question is, do the victim-heroines masquerade as avenging women or do they indeed represent a politics of transformation and agency, dare I say a feminist one? Feminist anxieties around the eroticization of rape might, I argue, shift our focus away from other pernicious aspects of women’s representation.
Taking my cue from the literature on film history, or rather films as history, I look back at Hindi cinema’s record in dealing with what I designate the “women’s film” genre. I use the term loosely to signal film narratives centring on a female protagonist. If literary and artistic representations are part of public discourse refracting the context within which they are produced, then popular Hindi films too, contrary to conventional wisdom, are indexi – cal referents, records of that discourse. One strategy then is to track the trajectory of the woman’s film over time and examine its discourse before the arrival of the avenging heroine to assess discursive shifts, or the genre’s transformation.
To plot this transformation I discuss three films, Teesri Manzil/Third Floor (1965), a thriller (though not strictly a woman’s film); Aradhana/Prayer (1969), an exemplary maternal melodrama;3 and Insaafka Taraazu/Scales of Justice (1980), which inaugurated the avenging heroine subgenre. Shifting representations of women circle metonymically around rape in each of these films. They reflect a discursive history in which revenge ultimately displaces the repression and erasure of rape, or reverence for the female protagonist’s suffering. I suggest we view the impact of shifting discourses on women’s representation, particularly feminist anxieties about their overdetermined and increasing eroticization, in terms of specific transactional changes in stereotypical female figures, which complicate the recent history of that representation. And within an international frame this representational shift resonates with other scenarios discussed in this anthology: Frank Burke’s analysis of women in Italian horror films (chap. 11) and Suzie Young’s description of women in the Hong Kong martial arts genre (chap. 12). This representation shift is a response to the pain of real women who have suffered violence, pointed out by Zoey Michele, and acknowledges Dorit Naaman’s argument that figurations of violence against women in the postcolonial state encapsulates tensions in women’s subjecthood.