Women have always been a part of India’s public life busying themselves in the market or the fields. But in 19th century Britain women in the city were seen as sources of pleasure and danger. Nineteenth century Britain saw the rise women’s movement when the changing the industrial age believed a woman in public was to be a prostitute.
Now modern Bollywood has thrown that idea on its head. Not only are women again on centre stage, it seems dancing scenes are mini fashion show, a virtual mobile fashion catalogue, to titillate a female customer .
Lets back track to 19th century England again. Britain hungered of visual experiences, in the form of exotica bought from the Empire. For chromophobe Britain the bustle and colour proof of Eastern barbarity and decadence writes Ranjani Mazumdar in Women and the city: Fashion, Desire and Dance in Bombay Cinema)
This idea carried over to Colonial India and revealed striking difference of viewpoint!
Officers began to fear their men would go ‘native’, lured by seductive Indian girls. This image was perhaps enhanced by men like ‘Hindu George’, who wrote back inviting men to India to catch a wife. (Hindu George waxed lyrically of ladies in wet saris bathing in the river described the ancient equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest.)
Unsurprisingly, gender became a flash point of nationalism and colonialism. Western materiality contrasted Eastern spirituality: Outer versus inner. The fluid Bazaars were contrasted with the stable forms of western displays of wealth.
Now fast forward to Independent India: Scholars have often mapped Indian women’s sexuality, and especially her imagined purity, against the Westernised licentious and public women of say Hollywood.. Of course there are many examples of characters in affairs. For example, In Dev Anand’s The Guide, a dancer loves the hero but will not marry him, and in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak the hero discovers the budding actress he is with is married.
From the 1950’s, Bombay films contrasted the chaste homely heroine with the dancing hyper sexualised vamp. The vamp of unrestrained westernised license is found in night clubs and cabarets and given to vices unknown to the Indian woman.
Of course, no homely heroine ever provocatively dance at a night club with its gangsters, gambling and sex! Then in the 1990’s with the imperative of global fashion and commerce the dichotomy disappears. The heroine begins to dance with public displays of desire.
Dances are no longer performed in morally coded spaces of night clubs, observes Ranjani Mazumdar. They are relocated throughout the cities of a globalised world. Romantic desire is no longer coded to places of ill repute.
Mazumdar’s example is the the drunken heroine from DivaleDulhania Le Jayenge ( We Will take the bride away), who transitions from fantasizing of a red dress in a Swiss shop , then to different locations and counties.
It seems that the introduction of cable TV, hollywood soap operas and their Indian equivalents have turned movies into window shopping gestures of performance that eroticise women’s fashion.
Film sequences seem to mimic the music video, as the new display windows of a consumerist society. They are the video equivalent of the turn century America catalogues from Sears, Roebuck and company that movie markets from shop to home embedded a world of entertainment and fantasy (Alexandra Keller , Disseminations of Modernity: Representation and consumer desire in early mail order catalogue in Leo Carney, Vanessa Schwartz (eds) Cinema and the inventor of modern life, Berkley, London., 1995).
They were designed to sustain desire of female audience. Now Indian song routines do the same, combining travel, fashion photography and the rhythm of a mini fashion show.
With the monuments of other cities offer markers in a global backdrop different changes of clothes of the heroine in the dance routine, Bollywood creates a utopian world that glide across different landscapes.
Globalisation and technology have changed Indian cinema. Formerly the audience travelled the narrative interspersed with dance sequences , but now the speed of change throw a character from Indian village to the Eiffel Tower with no explanation of how the characters arrived there. We are thrown under the spell of a visually fluid unmeasured experience, drifting through a world of consumption.
A jumble of images in the dance sequences go beyond the possible and bring the world to the Indian audience.
The researcher Anne Friedberg (Window shopping: Cinema and the post modern, 1993) compares the cinematic experience to the 19th century British fascination with exotica. Just as Britain was fascinated by its empire, Bollywood brings the world to India.
But most directors are men, occasionally blamed in the press for Bollywood’s incredibly shrinking sari. Have we bought women under the panoramic gaze and gendered control of public space? The village market is more free than the expectations of a director who brings his heroine, flittering from one outfit to another the ‘phantasmagoria of Indian modernity,’ as Ranjani Mazumdar called it, fills India with the same hunger for visual experience as 19th century Britain.
Commodity and fashion, are juxtaposed with globalisation and spectacular travel. Sexualised dancing, once, coded for the vamp, now appeals to youth. It seems Indian cinema becoming a mini fashion show, a virtual mobile fashion catalogue, to titillate a female customer.
The speed of sweeping contradictory generalisations, gives a false and glamorous view of the outside world seems to target many different women at once. It reinforce the hierarchy of the middle class family while challenging India’s patriarchal assumptions.
Is the unleashed frenetic energy of Mumbai’s cinema sustainable? Capitalism does not want you to remain satisfied for long lest you don’t buy the latest model gadget.
I realise people want to escape. But, could the production of a life style myth do more harm than good in a country of vast inequalities?
How can rural people who were once stratifies by tranquillity of the village remain unaffected by the glossy consumerism advertised on the Bollywood screen?