The Sexed Body and Ocular Pleasure
Before turning to the charge of masculine subterfuge employed in depicting rape scenes, I want to make an observation about the figure of the vamp—a liminal figure, favoured for decades in Hindi cinema, that significantly attenuated in the 1970s and had disappeared by the 1980s, coinciding with the emergence of the avenging woman. In a film about mystery and intrigue, the chicanery Sunita and Anil perform differ only in degree from the subterfuge in which Ruby engages. Yet Ruby is singled out as Sunita’s opposite: the vamp. Ruby, a nightclub worker, makes a living as a vaudevillian. The “difference” between Ruby and Sunita is that Sunita, because of her feminine status, is the object of desire. Ruby, however, transgresses the line: a sexualized subject with a desire of her own, she aggressively pursues the man she loves. She appropriates “phallic power” and must pay for it with her death.
The actress Helen, who plays the Ruby-like figure in scores of films, is iconic of the vamp. In the roles she repeats again and again, Helen portrays not so much the “wicked” woman as the naughty, sexually alluring, immodest one—coded by her erotic, nimbly performed dance numbers—a wonderful medley of flamenco, jazz, modern, and belly dance movements set to adaptations of rock ’n’ roll or jazz rhythms. Located in the public sphere, in the world of men, she is somehow bereft of a man of her own. Desired by all, yet loved
Figure 28 Scene from Teesri Manzil/Third Floor, 1965 (with permission of Screen).
by none, she inevitably—as in Teesri Manzil—zeroes in on the hero in her search to be loved by one man.
Yet within the pleasures and dangers of a liminal but exciting nightlife experienced by the privileged few, Helen is the “bad” undomesticated woman. For this she is punished with death, always an accidental act of “fate.” Not altogether insignificant are the communal overtones of Helen’s off-screen minority status as a Christian. Perceived as part of the Anglo-Indian community, an “impure” breed that could never gain legitimacy in a society acutely conscious of“origins,” Helen plays with the pleasure and anxiety that the oth- erized Western lifestyle elicits.