When a film industry grows a hundred years old, one wonders what kind of images it has sown into the minds of its audience. Pondering this makes me return to my own experiences of watching Bollywood films in my teens. As I realize now, Bollywood had a far deeper impression on my budding mind than I would like to admit.
Those were the days of Dil To Pagal Hai and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. After playing the cunning desperado in Darr, Shah Rukh Khan had decided to turn into a mellower Rahul. Fan-girls wanted to be like the woman on screen who gets Shah Rukh Khan — or the ‘prince charming’ — in the end. This would be the ‘good girl’ — innocent, gentle and properly clad — as opposed to the free-spirited ‘bad girl’. Bollywood was telling me exactly which kind of women got to marry the prince charming.
This is not a new phenomenon. Hindi films have always pitched one woman against another, as have epics and fairy tales. In the 1970s and 1980s, this contest was far more black-and-white. The ‘heroine’ was there to cast coy glances from behind trees in saris and marry the ‘hero’ in the end, while the ‘vamp’ would dance seductively in revealing clothes and get killed at last. Bollywood would occasionally have its Black Swan moment in films like Seeta Aur Geeta, but there too, both Seeta and Geeta would appear identically benign and sari-adorned by the end of the film.
By the time the 1990s came, the heroine and the vamp had merged into a single woman who could carry off both a sari and a low-cut dress with aplomb, and be both cute and seductive in her dance moves. Madhuri Dixit’s “Choli ke peechhe kya hai” helped. With the death of the ‘vamp’, Bollywood had finally realized that there were indeed no good girls gone wrong, just bad girls found out. Or so it seemed.
When I look back at Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I realize that the bad girl may have turned into an alter ego of the good girl, but Bollywood and its audience still want the good girl — however elusive — to win. The mini-skirt clad Rani Mukherjee had to singh “Om jai jagdish hare” to win the prince charming’s heart. And Kajol, the carefree tomboy, had to subdue herself into a sari-clad ‘Bharatiya Nari’ in order to be accepted as a prospective bride for the same prince charming.
What about 2012 — the prejudice-free 21st century? With a mature Bollywood, surely the ‘good girl’ and the ‘bad girl’ are now relics of history? Surely a woman is just a woman today, with all her virtues and vices? I would have been content in this notion had I not watched Cocktail recently. The good girl and the bad girl are as starkly present as before. But the film attempts to conceal this demarcation by making the two girls mimic each other’s attires and lifestyles. Fashion today is seen as free of prejudice. It is therefore convenient for a film to hide its prejudices in designer clothes. This is what Bollywood has arrived at after one hundred years of cinema. The audience agrees. No one wants to be labelled ‘old-fashioned’.