While mainstream Indian cinema has been breaking away from stale narratives, and even exploring stories that centre on women, Bollywoood’s portrayal of widows has remained mostly static for decades now. They are almost always shown as blank, emotionless beings who are constantly blamed for every mishap that occurs in their lives. Apart from being extremely divorced from reality, these portrayals don’t do much for changing the gendered ways in which we view women.
From Shakti Samanta’s Kati Patang (1971) to Ravi Chopra’s Baabul (2006), the ‘rescue narrative’ has been a prominent theme in Hindi movies. The damsel in distress, wrapped in white, is always rescued by a “filmy” hero who pretty much embodies conventional masculinity (and all the toxicity that goes with it). A movie that could have been about the woman becomes a story of how a man revived that woman’s life.
Kati Patang is about a widow who faces several ups and downs by herself, only to fall into the arms of the hero at the end. Although, the story is not about widowhood, her characterisation is highly problematic. The perpetually miserable Madhavi sings melancholic songs describing herself as a ‘severed kite’ until the quintessential hero Rajesh enters her life. The cinematic tone undergoes a shift with his entrance when the music switches to ‘Ye Shaam Mastaani’ – implying that only a man can fix this severed kite and bring joy into her life.
Rani Mukherjee-starrer Baabul is another film that relies on the same trope and glorifies her father-in-law, the baabul, for getting his widowed daughter-in-law remarried to a man of his choice. As is evident from the title, the film is more about a ‘kind’ father and less about a woman and her aspirations.
Pale outfits and asexual characters
Widows are always shown wearing white sarees or dull clothes. One cannot deny that this has been the trend in some places in reality as well, but showing it on the big screen implicitly normalises it for audiences everywhere, feeding the idea that a widow is supposed to live like that.
Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay had Jaya Bachchan playing a widow who rarely utters a word and doesn’t really contribute anything to the overall narrative. The film shows how she changed from a cheerful woman to a distressed widow after her husband’s untimely death. However, the filmmakers didn’t invest considerable time in elaborating that process of transformation, presenting this abrupt change as expected and natural.
It’s true that the movie was not about Bachchan’s character, but she clearly deserved to be more than just a silent character whose only routine seems to be switching on lamps at night.
Apart from depicting them as eternally depressed and dull, Bollywood has always painted widows as asexual hermits who instantly give up all their desires when their husbands die. If we pause just a moment to think about this, we’d realise how unnatural and strange such a conception of a human being really is.
While mainstream Hindi cinema has consistently resorted to stereotypes, some offbeat films have tried to challenge these stereotypical depictions of widows. Rituporna Ghosh’s Chokher Bali (2003), based on Rabindranath Tagore’s story, is about a widow engaging in a sexual and romantic relationship with a man who is not her husband. Draped in a white saree, she is not apologetic about her desires and laughs whenever she feels like it. The film doesn’t gloss over the social ostracisation and oppression of widows but paints the main character in more nuanced shades of grey rather than a stark black or white.
Similarly Nagesh Kuknoor’s Dor (2006) has a widow who dances on her favourite tunes and liberates herself without the help of any man. Although we see widows in pale attires in both of these films but they are not shown as mute and asexual characters. Both of these women take charge of their lives and their sexuality and do not curse their destiny in the process.
We see them in the white clothing meant for widows or being subjected to illogical restrictions but even while showing these tropes, the directors in the both the films made sure that the characters don’t remain mute spectators and express their desire. A film based on a commentary against regressive social customs need not have women breaking walls or fighting villains. A small deviation from the usual characterisation would also count as pathbreaking and unique.
Widows aren’t any less human than anyone else but Bollywood has largely shown them as unhappy robotic creatures who are waiting for ‘the’ man to bring colour back into their lives. Films can’t and shouldn’t shy away from depicting social evils but scriptwriters can at least try to avoid cardboard characters. Films like Chokher Bali and Dor are examples of how widows could be portrayed in Hindi cinema. It is high time we see widows celebrating life and taking their life decisions themselves. They’re not Disney princesses waiting for princes and they are definitely not asexual beings with nonexistent desires.
At a time when Bollywood is venturing into bolder portrayals of women, like Vidya Balan in Tumhaari Sulu or Kalki Koechlin in Margarita With a Straw, it is strange that women with deceased husbands can’t get the same humanistic treatment.
Featured image credit: Youtube/Sholay