Three unforgettable women-oriented  films of Bollywood

Veteran film critic talks about his three favourite women-oriented Hindi films on the International Women’s Day

Three unforgettable women-oriented  films of Bollywood

Subhash K Jha

Amar Prem (1971): Playing the  kothewali with a heart as  pure as  the Gangotri Sharmila Tagore brings to her character Pushpa a sense of sublime  selfnegation and  craving for unconditional  love that makes her shower  her motherly affections. That Sharmila Tagore plays the woman whom men of all ages gravitate to in pursuit of some heavyduty nurturing is a very happy situation for the screenplay. In the film a 7-year old boy and a 30-plus man both  desire the same kind of emotional attention from her. This prostitute is not about sex. She is about soul.

Sharmila brings to this timeless adaptation of  Bibhutibushan Bandhopaddhyay’s story, a kind of simpering beauty that levitates the lyricism  of  the tragic but uplifting tale  to the level of  a supremely seductive saga. Sharmila’s character, a homeless childless woman  who is tricked into a life of prostitution, is not just a mother-figure to the lonely neglected near-divorcee Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna) she is also the woman the ill-treated neighbourhood imp Nandu (Master Bobby who played pivotal roles in a number of films including Ek Phool Do Mali and Amar Prem before disappearing into adulthood) keeps running to for solace and samosas,  in spite of being severely punished by his stepmother(Bindu).  Says Sharmila, “I had seen the original Bengali film before doing Amar Prem. Shakti-da had made both me and Kaka(Rajesh Khanna) see it. I quite liked the original film. It was more about the woman and her relationship with the child.I had recently become a mother, so it was relatively easy for me to do the motherly character. And Kaka’s role was to be done by Raj Kumar. But Kaka who had done Aradhana with me and Shakti Samanta, insisted on being a part of the film.Since Uttam Kumar had done such a fabulous job in the original Shakti-da made Kaka model his performance on the original. This was one of those films that just turned out right. We were not looking at the boxoffice.

We just felt emotionally connected to the characters. The film  became a hit and it continues to be liked by new generations. That’s the magic of  the story. Also, I’d say a major reason for the film’s success was R.D Burman’s music and Anand Bakshi’s lyrics. The music and the words carried the story forward. I remember the premier of Amar Prem was attended by Field Marshall Manickshaw. And the very next day after the premiere, the 1971 Indo-Pak war broke out.”

2. Arth (1984): Playing the  housewife whose  life in an idyllic  bubble  is burst when her husband  informs her that he’s leaving her, Shabana’s  Pooja  echoed  the plight of thousands  of women  across  India who are  deserted  by their  husbands. Says Shabana, “To this day women specially housewives come  up to me to  tell me how much Arth  matters to them.”  Director Mahesh Bhatt recalled, “Arth came into my life after a string of duds. These included Vishwasghat and Lahu Ke Do Rang which were fairly big-budgeted commercial films. Arth was a personal statement on the man-woman relationship that shattered the belief of the traditional power centres within our film industry that only a certain kind of formula works at the boxoffice.  I made Arth on the firm belief that any work which originates from a filmmaker’s heart inevitably connects with the aam junta. And it hit home in ways that shocked the industry, but not me. I remember  India won the Cricket World Cup on the very day when Arth was declared a hit. I remember I was at the Plaza cinema in Delhi watching the film on the Friday when it was released. We were tense, since this was not the kind of entertainment the public was used to. The scene where the deserted wife Shabana Azmi rejects  her husband Kulbhushan Kharbanda and walks away from him  got a standing ovation from the so-called front-benchers at this hardcore mass-entertainment theatre. I knew then and there that our film was a hit. It was because of Arth that the Rajshree’s Saaraansh, Rajendra Kumar’s Naam and Mudra Vudeotech’s Janam came my way. I think Arth worked so well because it was an honest film. It was an autobiographical  film. The film’s emotional truth was sourced from my life’s welters and wounds. I think the audience connected with my honesty. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil gave their very best to the film. Their rivalry was more a public perception than a reality. The two of them respected one another’s talent. They did not pretend  to be the best of friends on the sets. But they worked like professional actors of the highest calibre. Without Shabana and Smita, Arth would not have been what it was. People said Parveen Babi was emotionally affected because I had cannibalized my relationship with her in Arth. But Parveen was genetically predisposed towards mental illness. To say that Arth was responsible for her breakdown was absurd. I wasn’t affected by accusations of cannibalizing my life for the screen. How can the truth hurt the filmmaker?”

3. English Vinglish (2012):  English Vinglish is a fabulous fable of a woman’s self-actualization. Shabana Azmi used to do such films in the 1970s. The issues in those films about unfulfilled wives were largely socially-defined: infidelity, adultery, betrayal. The betrayal of the unforgettable woman in English Vinglish is far less dramatic and therefore much more profoundly deep-rooted. Shashi breaks up a little every time the three most important people on her life – her husband, daughter and son – crack up at her vernacular accent. Then comes the chance for redemption. A 3-week vacation in the USA, a clandestine crash course in English and best of all, a chance to feel wanted and special when a fellow-classmate, a quietly striking French chef , gives Shashi the attention she doesn’t get from her husband. This is the complete Middleclass Woman’s Fantasy. Go out on your own and find happiness.

Debutante director Gauri Shinde won over the audience at the story-level itself. And then as a bonus, she proved herself a master storyteller. The delicacy and grace with which Gauri Shinde builds Shashi’s life of half-fulfilled domesticity proves a master story-teller is at work here. Much of Shashi’s inner power comes from Sridevi owning the role. This actress simply vanishes into her character living every breath of Shashi’s voyage from laddoo-making to self-actualization. The journey is so excitng for us the audience because we feel a new world of experiences unravel for Shashi even as she savours the newness of it all. Sridevi had said, “ I could never imagine it would connect in such a way with people all over the world. It’s a life-changing film. My daughters were a part of  my life when it happened. Of course they had seen my films on television. But this is the first time I did a film that they saw happening . But they liked what I did in English Vinglish. For me that was the greatest happiness. my character in English Vinglish was something I could have never imagined playing. It just fell into my lap. And the experience of playing Shashi Godbole was so beautiful. I  am sure my children will show it to their children  and proudly tell them that this is what their mother did. English Vinglish has given me so much respect.I am really thankful to the director Gauri Shinde and her husband R Balki. They blindly believed in me. It took me 15 years to do English Vinglish.”

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