The trope of the 'Foreign Return' woman in Indian cinema, and why she's a character viewers love to hate

Kuzhali Manickavel

Sep 14, 2019 09:59:17 IST

Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.


Read part 1 of this column.

In this exciting column, we will be investigating the trope of the Foreign Return woman which appears in some Indian cinema. Is this a ridiculous thing to investigate? Absolutely! Not only does this trope involve a woman, it involves a woman who isn’t even real. And anyway, she’s like the worst person ever. Why should we worry about the allegedly problematic representation of an awful woman who doesn’t actually exist? Because! That’s just how we do here! Let us enumerate the various things that apparently made this Foreign Return lady so god-awful.

She Allegedly Spoke English — It behooves us to say ‘allegedly’ here because she usually never went beyond ‘get out’ and ‘shut up’. But allegedly or not, is it bad for a woman to speak English? Because we were once ruled by an English-speaking nation which shall remain nameless, this is obviously a bad thing. And while it is simply glorious when the man does it, it is unacceptable when a woman does it, even if she doesn’t. So is this a bad thing? Yes.

 The trope of the Foreign Return woman in Indian cinema, and why shes a character viewers love to hate

Illustration courtesy Amrai Dua for Firstpost

She was Shameless and Arrogant — Apart from being rude to people and animals, a Foreign Return woman was always shameless, no matter what. Why? Because she was a Foreign Return. The same logic did not extend to the men, though if it did, it seemed to be a playful aspect of their otherwise amazing personalities. The shamelessness of the woman on the other hand, was so deep and so overpowering that everyone had to keep talking about it and of course, sing about it. The only thing that rivalled her shamelessness was her arrogance. Young men would sing about this arrogance, which was a blight so terrible it made women wear pants. Accordingly, many of these songs were about how she should stop wearing trousers and start wearing saris like a “real” woman.

But this Foreign Return lady was stubborn. It was only when she was slapped repeatedly by the hero or raped by the villain that she was finally put in her place — demure, quiet, and wrapped in the most sari-est sari ever, she finally became a “real” woman. If she was the heroine, she got to marry the hero in a shy, indifferent sort of way, which made you wonder if she was being forced into it. If she was the side piece, she had one dream sequence with the hero, after which she pursued a virtuous, spinster life while pining for the man who probably dislocated her jaw a number of times. A confusing personality, certainly. Is this a bad thing? Just to be on the safe side, let’s say yes.

She Wore Dresses and Trousers — Some might say that it was probably the director, a dude, who made her wear these immoral things but the point is, she wore them and was immoral as a result, which is totally on her. And when your chances of being raped are always directly proportional to your clothing, this is obviously a bad thing.

Some people believe the Foreign Return woman was a weird manifestation of everything that was thought to be wrong with the upper classes. Others believe she was symbolic of “them”. It was never clear who “they” were but one thing was certain — “they” were not “us”. There was one good thing about the Foreign Return woman though: it was deliciously easy to be judgmental about her. And that was something all of us could really enjoy.

In Conclusion: The Foreign Return woman is problematic because she is awful. She is not problematic because she is not real. So to be safe and to put an end to this tedious column, let’s just say the two cancel each other out.

Next time, an exciting foray into the allegedly problematic world of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom! Wow!

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

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Updated Date: Sep 15, 2019 13:33:14 IST