Women in Proper Noun Roles

Most societies in the world are patriarchal, meaning the male of the species is the boss in leadership areas. That is changing, more significantly in the First World than here in India. Such male dominance shows itself up in cinema as well, because cinema is often a mirror of the society we live in.

A couple of years ago, The Pudding, a US-based digital publication did a huge study of male dominance in Hollywood. The researchers made a primary list of 8000 films, then shortlisted 2000 of them, in which they looked at screenplays and dialogues in detail. A strong yardstick of actors’ importance in a film is the number of words they speak, as a percentage of the total words in the feature. This is not very different from the percentage of time a team has possession of the ball in hockey or football. When the researchers examined the data, they found that only in 22% of American films did actresses have more spoken words than actors. The study also looked at the connection between dialogues and ageing. They discovered that after the age of 40, actresses had a sharp decline of dialogues written for them, while for actors it was in fact the reverse: they spoke far more in the 42-65 years range than when they were 32 to 41 years old. It’s a no-brainer then that men get to act in lead roles longer than women. The details of that study can be found here: https://pudding.cool/2017/03/film-dialogue/

But what do we find here in India?

In the last two years itself, the Censor Board has had issues with two films, Padmaavat and Lipstick Under My Burkha, both women-centric narratives. To see what was up, a study was conducted in late 2017 jointly by IBM Research India, Delhi Technological University, and Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology. They scanned roughly the last 50 years and found that in Bollywood, women-centric films have risen from just 7% during 1970-1975 to a still-small 12% today, while for male-oriented films, the figure is marginally down from 38% to 36% in the same years. In other words, nothing has changed substantially.

This really means that by and large, one or more of these people—the audiences, the filmmakers, or the male actors—have an issue with more importance given to actresses. It is for that reason that many actors do not easily agree to work in women-centric films, where they will be subordinate to the fairer sex. The title of the story too becomes of crucial importance in such films. It’s easiest for the male ego if it’s a woman-centric film but the title itself is a neutral concept. Examples are Adalat (1958), Sadhana (1958), Inteqaam (1969), Aandhi (1975) and Bazaar (1982). One step more difficult is eponymous titles of the common noun kind, like Anpadh (1962), Ardhangini (1959), and Badi Bahu (1951). In such films, the titles are named after women, but that accent remains somewhat weak. It is at the really upper end, where the title of the film is a proper noun, named after the female protagonist, which makes it hardest for the male actor. Examples of these would be films like Anuradha (1960), Purnima (1965), and Razia Sultan (1982).

In this situation we can safely add a desi tadka. Indian cinema has a key difference from films made in other countries: we are essentially musical. Songs remain fundamental to the ethos of our films, even if more and more films are now being made without any music in them. Songs give enhanced value to the actor who is miming them. So, while we cannot find studies on dialogues, we certainly have more knowledge of the songs lip-synched by actors and actresses. Armed with such information, let’s look at these songs, all performed by actresses in ‘Proper Noun Country’, their names finding a mention after the movie titles:

  • Anarkali (1953. Bina Rai). Aa jaan-e-wafa (Geeta)
  • Champakali (1957. Suchitra Sen). Chhup gaya koi re door se pukaar ke (Lata)
  • Miss Mary (1957. Meena Kumari). So gaya saara zamaana (Lata)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1qOLDQLlIc
  • Sharda (1957. Meena Kumari). Jana gana mangal daayak Ram (Lata)
  • Lala Rukh (1958, Shyama). Alvida jaan-e-wafa tera nigehbaan Khuda (Asha)
  • Madhumati (1958. Vyjayanthimala). Zulmi sang aankh ladi (Lata)
  • Sujata (1959. Nutan). Kaali ghata chhaaye mora jeeya tarsaaye (Asha)
  • Anuradha (1960. Leela Naidu). Kaise din beete kaise beeti ratiya (Lata)
  • Razia Sultana (1961. Nirupa Roy). Aaja re deewaane lagi dil ki bujhaane (Asha)
  • Saranga (1961. Jayshree Gadkar). Koi ghar ayega, pyaar jataayega (Lata)
  • Shama (1961. Nimmi). Dil gham se jal raha hai, jale (Suman)
  • Aarti (1962. Meena Kumari). Kabhi to milegi, kaheen to milegi (Lata)
  • Benazir (1964. Meena Kumari). Gham naheen gar zindagi veeraan hai (Asha)
  • Chitralekha (1964. Meena Kumari). Sansaar se bhaage phirte ho (Lata)
  • Jahan Ara (1964. Mala Sinha). Haal-e-dil yoon unhen sunaaya gaya (Lata)
  • Purnima (1965. Meena Kumari). O is desh ke rehne waalo (Lata)
  • Amrapali (1966. Vyjayanthimala). Jao re jogi tum jao re (Lata)
  • Anita (1967. Sadhana). Main dekhoon jis ore sakhi ri (Lata)
  • Noor Jahan (1967. Meena Kumari). Sharaabi sharaabi ye saawan ka mausam (Suman)
  • Mahua (1969. Anjana Mumtaz). Pyaar mera jo tu ne loota (Asha)
  • Jwala (1971. Madhubala). Dekho ji aankhon mein dekho (Lata)
  • Seeta Aur Geeta (1972. Hema Malini). Haan ji haan maine sharaab pee hai (Lata)
  • Anamika (1973. Jaya Bhaduri). Baahon mein chale aao (Lata)
  • Julie (1975. Lakshmi). My heart is beating (Preeti Sagar)
  • Mili (1975. Jaya Bhaduri). Maine kaha phoolon se (Lata)
  • Noorie (1979. Poonam Dhillon). Chori-chori koi aaye (Lata)
  • Razia Sultan (1982. Hema Malini). Aye dil-e-naadaan (Lata)
  • Umrao Jaan (1982. Rekha). Dil cheez kya hai (Asha)
  • Henna (1991. Zeba Bakhtiar). Main hoon khushrang henna (Lata)
  • Roja (1993. Madhoo). Dil hai chhota sa (Minmini)
  • Zubeida (2001. Karishma Kapoor). Dheeme dheeme gaoon (Kavita)
  • Padmaavat (2018. Deepika Padukone). Ghoomar ghoomar ghoomar ghoomar ghoome re (Shreya Ghoshal, Swaroop Khan)

Through the above songs, we are not just recalling women in meaty roles, but also in a sense celebrating all the actors who accepted subsidiary roles in these films. Also, it is interesting, especially from the songs’ point of view, how some films misled in their titles. We do not know for instance, how many words Prithviraj Kapoor had in his role as Mughal-e-Azam (1960), but it seems certain that at least equal screen space belonged to Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. The lady in fact had a few songs to lip-synch, while these men had none. You wonder if this was a trade-off, a kind of win-win for all, with Prithviraj taking the title, Dilip arguably with the best-spoken words, and Madhubala the songs.

Talking about women-centric films also reminds me of a wonderful science-fiction film called The Last Man on Planet Earth, made in 1999. In the story, World War III is in progress, when someone releases a biological weapon that selectively targets the Y chromosome, which is found only in men. Result: most of the world’s men lie dead. In this environment, a female scientist, worried about the future of life on our planet, succeeds in cloning a man who is free from any violence or oppression.

Perhaps in such a balanced world will we experience cinema which has no gender bias. Also perhaps then women will earn as much as men, a point of crucial importance not examined by the above surveys.


Published in DNA Jaipur on 10 October 2018, page 13 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2018-10-07

Featured image: from Dil hai chhota sa

2 Replies to “Women in Proper Noun Roles”

  1. Great to read as always, Manek Sir! Never knew that ‘Lala Rukh’ is a female pronoun. I had thought it was a film about some money-lender and would’nt have been surprised uf Kanhaiyalal had played the lead. My only exposure to ‘Lala Rukh’ was a lovely song by Khayyam Saab and Rafi combo – ‘Hai kali kali je labh par tera husn ka fasana’. Never knew that Lalas too possessed ‘husn’.

    I am excited, whether you would be or not, to find some missing female titles in your list. I am surprised that you have chosen to ignore or forget ‘Lajwanti’. Other prominent titles that can be included are ‘Bobby’ ( though one was misled to think that it was Rishi Kapoor’s name in the film, till one saw the film), and ‘Chandni’.

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