Mayawati, Mamata, Jayalalithaa — too hot for Bollywood
Indian politics is full of the stories of the rise of fascinating women from Indira Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee. But when women politicians show up on screen they lose most of their fire.
by Deepanjana Pal
When Kumari Mayawati Das was a girl, she was discriminated against for belonging to a caste of untouchables. People considered her unclean once her chamar identity was revealed. It stung but she was a feisty little thing. She studied hard, hoping to become a District Magistrate. The leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Kanshi Ram, met the twenty-something Dalit woman and urged her to join politics. They began working together and living together. With Kanshi Ram’s backing and armed with cunning and fiery speeches, Kumari Mayawati Das became Mayawati — cleanliness freak, wearer of diamonds, carrier of highly fashionable handbags; once the youngest chief minister of Uttar Pradesh; now one of the richest and most powerful women in India.
It sounds like a story tailor made for a movie. But though the reality of a woman making it in politics might be dramatic and fascinating, it seems it doesn’t have the kind of masala that Bollywood demands. Sonia Gandhi, J. Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Sheila Dixit, Mamata Banerjee, Vasundhara Raje Scindia all have fascinating stories. Their rise in a male-dominated society meets all the requirements of the underdog story – a perennial favourite in Bollywood.
But when it comes to our movies, our politicians are invariably male. They are also more often than not, wicked. Once the callous rich stood for evil. In the post-Emergency era, the politician replaced them as Bollywood’s favourite baddie. The servants of the nation were always conniving, obsessed with personal gain and heedlessly crushing anyone who stood in their way. The political spoof Kissa Kursi Ka centred around a corrupt politician and director Amrit Nahata made pointed jibes, like naming a birth control pill “Sanjay Sanjeevani”. The Indira Gandhi government was not amused – it banned the film and all its negatives were destroyed.
It has got worse for politicians since then. Raza Murad’s Mantriji in Tridev allies himself with the arch villain Bhujang and only sees the error of his ways when Bhujang tosses him in a cell after getting all the favours he needs. The script doesn’t give Murad’s character a name, turning him into an archetype. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the villainous politician and his cronies ruled in Bollywood scripts. This meant thriving careers for actors like Sadashiv Amrapurkar who got to ooze menace as slimy politicians in films like in Ardh Satya and Aakhree Raasta.
Although the stereotype of the hypocritical statesman lives on — remember the dishonest defence minister in Rang de Basanti? — there has been a shift in perceptions in recent times. Perhaps it’s because younger politicians like Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah have sparked a glimmer of optimism in the electorate. Now we see the hero who enters politics to clean the system – Anil Kapoor as chief minister for a day in Nayak or Ajay Devgan in Yuva. In Paa, Abhishek Bachchan’s being an idealistic politician is supposed to be redemption for telling his girlfriend to get an abortion after he impregnates her.
Indira Gandhi’s government might have been the one that hardened the public’s heart towards politicians, but in Bollywood women were still stuck being a leader’s wife/girlfriend/sister/daughter. Even when there are films about women politicians, the focus is always on her emotions, not her career.
Take Gulzar’s Aandhi, for instance, in which the central character, Aarti Devi (played by Suchitra Sen), is guilt-ridden because she chose her political career over her marriage. Incidentally, Aandhi was not allowed a full release in 1975 because the government found too much of a resemblance between Sen’s story and Indira Gandhi’s.
Gulzar made another film about a woman politician a few decades later - Hu Tu Tu. Unlike Aarti Devi, Suhasini Mulay’s Maltibai in Hu Tu Tu is guiltless about being inconsiderate towards her family. She is, in grand Bollywood tradition, a villain but while male politicians reveal their villainy by threatening the nation’s security and wealth, women politicians reveal their evil by the way they reject domesticity.
It’s only recently that a few directors have tentatively ventured towards exploring the idea that a woman entering and succeeding in politics is a good thing. But there are some basics that all these films share: the transformation from woman to politician is marked by snarling, wearing less make-up and more drab clothes. Whether it’s Sen in Aandhi or Raveena Tandon in Satta or Katrina Kaif in Raajneeti, there’s no space for a glam doll in the celluloid version of Indian politics.
This is particularly amusing when you consider how many actresses – all of whom continue to wield their warpaint – are members of Parliament and how well-coiffed many women MPs are. Mamata Banerjee might be the exception that proves the rule.
Frequently in Bollywood, the process of winning an electoral seat seems to suck the oestrogen out of the character and replace it with testosterone. In Aandhi and Hu Tu Tu, both leading ladies ignore their maternal instincts for a political career. The man-ification is emphatic in Vinay Shukla’s Godmother, which tells the story of how Rambhi (played by Shabana Azmi) becomes first a mafia don and then a politician. As she accrues power, Rambhi becomes increasingly macho, which means she must smoke, drive, get drunk and shoot guns without flinching. Ultimately, to win audience sympathy, she has to reclaim her femininity by exhibiting her bleeding maternal heart and pay for her Machiavellian attitude with her own life.
A woman also only enters politics in Bollywood because she is a victim of circumstances. Rambhi is pushed by her brother in-law much like Katrina Kaif in Raajneeti. First, Kaif’s character Indu, whose look was quite obviously modelled on Sonia Gandhi, is forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. Then she enters politics, after her husband is killed because her brother in-law, Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) urges her to do so, so that he can avenge the death of his loved ones. In Raajneeti, the political brains are Samar’s. One could argue that this reflects popular beliefs about many real women politicians. Indira Gandhi was dismissed as a “dumb doll” when she started in politics and later criticized for being a puppet in the hands of certain male advisors, including her son Sanjay.
More often than not in Bollywood, the heroine is forced into politics by a man who is, was, or will become a love interest. For Indu from Raajneeti it’s a double whammy: she enters politics for her husband whom she fell in love with just before he was killed and her campaign manager is her brother in-law, on whom she used to have a crush. In Satta, Tandon as Anuradha is pushed by her in-laws and mentor Yeshwant (Atul Kulkarni) to take the place of her debauched husband who goes to prison before an election.
That said Anuradha is one of the few women politicians on screen who is nuanced (it’s a blessing that isn’t granted to most characters in Satta). She’s conflicted but idealistic; writes her own speeches and has an extramarital affair with Yeshwant whom she first seduces, then opposes and finally outwits.
Our film heroines are expected to fit into a certain norm of how women behave. But the politicians break those rules. Mamata Banerjee is defiantly raucous, not demure and elegant. Didi, as Banerjee is known, seems determined to appeal to the electorate as a sister to whom one is expected to be loyal; she is not a lover or a wife who can be abandoned because someone more charming comes along.
Rumours of being mistresses to their political mentors dog both Mayawati and Jayalalithaa but they (like Banerjee and many other women in politics) remain steadfastly single, rejecting the ultimate signs of femininity: being a wife and mother. If the accusations of corruption leveled against Mayawati and Jayalalithaa are even partially true, then they have also shown the world that women can be as relentlessly corrupt as any man. For all their ruthlessness and hunger for power, they have a girly fondness for pretty clothes, bags and jewellery. In any case, it's not as though the wonder women of Indian politics are plain Janes through and through. After all, Shobhaa De did go on record with her observation that Mamata Banerjee's hair seems to be expertly dyed.
Politicians are rarely paragons of virtue. In the case of filmi women, this becomes a problem because we want our heroines to be traditionally feminine. But women politicians are complicated, with their own shades of gray. As Indira Gandhi famously said, “My father was a saint. I am not.” Our filmmakers would do well to remember the next time they want to tell the stories of Indu and Aarti and Anuradha on the big screen.
Deepanjana Pal is the author of The Painter, a biography of the Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma. She writes about art, books and anything that makes her blood pressure shoot up. Her recently published articles can be read at http://dpanjana.tumblr.com/. She is @dpanjana on Twitter.
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