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Imagery Of Showgirls In Hindi Cinema Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 4609 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Bollywood is a term which was coined by the English language press in India in the late 1970s. It has however become the dominant global term to describe the box-office oriented Hindi language film industry located in Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995). The Bombay industry actually produces about 150-200 films a year. Feature films are produced in approximately 20 languages in India and there are multiple film industries whose total output makes India the largest feature film-producing country in the world. 20% of these films are Hindi films. (GANTI, Tejaswini, 2004). The Bombay film industry plays an important role in constructing and defining dichotomies like “traditional/modern,” “global/local,” “Western/Eastern” and categories such as “culture,” “nation,” and “Indian” (Ganti 2000). These distinctive features of popular Hindi cinema – song and dance, melodrama, lavish production values, emphasis upon stars and spectacle – are common to films made in the southern Indian industries as well.

Defining the Showgirl (own definition in review paper)

(Filter to qualify as a showgirl – more study on filtering; definition according to various researchers: no man’s land etc)

If one is to look at the concept of the showgirls, one must understand from where the concept arrived. Bollywood, or Indian cinema has always looked up to Hollywood due to the colonial influences. Bollywood films incorporated quite a few characteristics of the Hollywood musicals. One of these was the dance sequence moulded according to India. During the narrative, the characters would suddenly enter a dance sequence and one of these large, fantasy numbers became a must in Indian films thence.

A showgirl, according to the Oxford Dictionary is an actress who sings and dances in musicals, variety acts, and similar shows.

Muvley describes the performing showgirl as “no man’s land”.

Portrayal of women in Hindi Cinema

(The roles women have played in Hindi cinema and the place of Women in Indian Industry; heroine’s perspective)

For over the years, women have played an important role in cinema. Narrowing the range to Bollywood, the role of women undoubtedly has been quintessential, but has been manipulated particularly in context to a man – the hero. When on screen, it is understood that every element used in the shot or the film is intentional. Thus, it becomes critical to not only analyse the presence of something, but also the absence (Berger, 1972).


(The stereotypical roles played by women: the mother, sister, love interest; the heroine and then vamp; transformation of stereotypes; blurring of stereotypes)

When one is to analyse the non-women centric cinema, it includes a male protagonist handling the storyline himself. Role of women have come to depict certain stereotypes that remain common to each film. Either it is the helpless heroine in the form of love interest, mother or sister; or it is the bold girl in the form of a vamp or show girl. In the cases where the stereotyped love interest of the protagonist is missing, the presence of women becomes more sexual as an “item girl” or the vamp with the villain. These “bad” women have been depicted as Westernized, blond-haired, individualistic and sexually aggressive, ready to lead men into ruin.

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The heroine: The heroines, despite having some sensuous moments on screen, which included revealing clothing and dancing on sultry dance numbers with hip shakes and breast thrusts were still pure, because their moves were portrayed as being from the point of view of the hero. These acts done by the heroine were done with or in the presence of the male protagonist during his moments of passion and desire and it comes across as being his point of view of the woman he loves and desires which is much more legitimate in the minds of the audience than the open and unrestrained sexuality of the already immoral vamp.

The Showgirl: Traditionally the woman objectified has functioned on two levels, being an erotic object to the characters in the film, plus , to the audience. The stereotype of “the showgirl” does both the functions without breaking the flow of the narrative. Among these stereotypes were the women who would be cabaret dancers in bars and pubs, the cigarette-smoking, sexily clad, sensuous women who were open about their sexuality and easily flirt with and entertain either the male protagonist or the male antagonist in the film. Some of the most popular actresses who have played these roles in films were Helen Jairag Richardson, Aruna Irani and Bindu Zaveri from the 70s and 80s.

The Vamp: As opposed to the portrayal of women as ideal wives and mothers, the other popular portrayal is the exact opposite characterization, that of the vamp. “She flouts tradition, seeks to imitate Western women…drinks, smokes, visits nightclubs, is quick to fall out of love…portrayed as a morally degraded person…unacceptable for her behaviour… punished for it” (Gokulsing & Dissanayake, 2004). One of the most popular actresses to play vamp was an Anglo-Indian actress named Helen Jairag Richardson. She played the sexy stripper, the vamp, the cabaret dancer at the bar, etc. Helen was always considered best suited for the vamp role and never played a heroine or a main lead.

Two actresses, Zeneth Aman and Parveen Babi have played the relatively more unconventional female leads – relatively more westernized in their outlook as characters, more revealing wardrobe and sensuous dance sequences. While on screen, the only real difference between the vamp and the heroine in terms of their objectification was purely in context to the story. In fact, the main difference between them was probably that the vamp characters are more open about their sexuality on screen. They were seen as “bad” and “immoral”, pursuing cabaret dancing, wearing revealing and sensuous clothes, openly flirting with men, etc. all of which was depicted as their matter of choice. They were portrayed as characters that chose this way of living.

The Courtesan: One of the early stereotypes discussed is the Tawaif/the Courtesan. Earlier, acting, singing, or dancing for an audience was linked with prostitutes and courtesans, and thus lay outside the boundaries of decent society. Dance and music, came from the male and female descendants of the courtesan tradition in India. Courtesans in the subcontinent had existed for centuries and were traditionally seen as female elite in kingdoms with strong influence, under the patronage of kings or other ruling nobility. These women were often the exponents of high culture in the courts and performed classical music/ dance in their salons for royal patrons. Viewing them as cultured and finely trained women, royalty would frequently send their sons to the best-known courtesans for training in etiquette, manners, the art of conversation, and the appreciation of literature, poetry, and other arts. The difference between a prostitute and a courtesan was that the latter had more control over her body and sexual activity and often entered into a one on one relationship with her patron. In the traditional (i.e., masculine) conceptualisation of female identity, women who desired male attention and a sexualised male-gaze (and thus implied that their bodies might be beyond social control) were considered to be women of ill repute almost by definition. As one film hero (Devdas) explains it to one tawaif (Chandramukhi, in the 2002 version of Devdas), “a woman is a mother, a sister, a wife, or a friend; and when she is nothing, she is a Tawaif.” (BOOTH, Gregory D., 2007)


(Voyeuristic fantasy; placing it in context; female as commodity)

Traditionally the woman objectified has functioned on two levels, being an erotic object to the characters in the film, plus, to the audience. Mulvey’s work explains that there is pleasure of looking at other as an object. Thus in its extreme condition, it becomes an active controlled visual to satisfy sexual gaze on an objectified other. Muvley terms this feeling of desire as ‘voyeuristic phantasy’. (MULVEY, Laura, 1975)

In many of the dance scenes, the female characters are often objectified under the collective male gaze. The Indian female stars are often established as having a lack of control over her body and life.

The objectified screen portrayal of women characters in Bollywood films is a criticised aspect of cinema (Kasbekar,2001). The woman is transformed into a commodity, while at the same time as spectator, becomes a consumer. According to him, Bollywood films must persuade women (and men) to participate in their own exploitation as commodity.

Male gaze

(How showgirls have come to symbolize male desire; Sexuality in movies; auto eroticism)

Apart from just the way the showgirls are dressed and presented, cinematographic techniques also reinforce the portrayal of women as sexual objects. For example, focussing the camera on women’s assets, or filming them from an angle that exudes vulnerability and make them look fantasized, tends to mimic the way in which men visually apprehend women, with respect to sexualising them. . In Mulvey’s work she asserts that ‘as the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like – his screen surrogate’.

Society & cinema

Cinema as reflection of society

(Researchers supporting that cinema is a reflection of society; justifying the portrayal)

Although there are researchers who argue on the imagery of women in Indian Cinema, Prabhu claims that society is the source of influence in the audience-cinema relationship: “If the image [of women in the cinema] is submissive or secondary, it is the society who is responsible for it . . . filmmakers, keeping in mind the commercial aspect of films, simply highlight what exists” (Prabhu 2001).

The Hindi film industry is under constant pressure to make cinema which viewers want to see, in order to make a profit. There has to some commercial element (symbolic sex, song and dance, hot girlfriend and yet the most homely wife etc.) for the film to be satisfying or worth to the largely male audience and as long as the audience is groped by it, cinema with women in monotonous roles is going to continue. Hence, having a ‘modern’ woman onscreen which mostly means wearing more revealing clothes, dancing sensuously, etc. caters to the male fantasy/desires of the modern day Indian woman, who he apprehends as both the decent and the stripper.

“New Wave” cinema

(The people who wanted to project women as bold and independent eventually started being called new wave cinematographers)

The Indian film industry caters to a wide range of audiences. While some unconventional ideas and films may have appealed greatly to the wide-ranged audience, such occurrences are rare.

There have been a few women centric movies in Hindi cinema since the beginning like Mother India, etc.


(Of showing the showgirls/women as male fantasy)

Muvley argues in his article that scopophilia is one of the many pleasures than cinema provides based on Frued’s three essays on sexuality. In Instincts and their Vicissitudes, Freud developed his theory of scopophilia further, relating it to auto-eroticism where the pleasure of the look is transferred to others. The active instinct in this case develops into a narcissistic form. It explains that there is pleasure of looking at other as an object. Thus in its extreme condition, it becomes a active controlled visual to satisfy sexual gaze on an objectified other. (MULVEY, Laura, 1975)

Legitimizing Voyeurism

(By showing the villain’s perspective; absence if hero; concealed seating)

Muvley argues in her work that this feeling of desire or ‘voyeuristic phantasy’ is very subtly encoded in the films. It projects a sealed world to the audience, which also seated in dark (creates illusion of voyeuristic separation), allows them to indulge in this desire being projected to them. Women are simultaneously looked at and displayed while their dress, body language, expressions and the environment they are put in are encoded according to the male’s desires and wants and provide a strong visual erotic impact.

Escape Sequence

(Song and dance sequence; as a medium to express sexuality freely; manipulation of the song sequence; as guilty pleasures)

The inclusion of unrealistic music and dance sequences and the importance given to these music videos in Bollywood movies are a continuation of the escapist quality of films desired in the 1930s and 1940s.

Since the inception of MTV the 1980s, Bollywood dancing has been heavily influenced by Western dance styles, and borrows elements from American MTV and Broadway. Sometimes, the musical numbers are released as separate music videos, and the soundtracks are released prior to the film, in order to further advertise the upcoming premieres. In modern Bollywood films, the musical numbers are oftentimes based on the hip-hop style of dance as well as the variations on hip-hop dance found in the music videos that are played on MTV in both the United States and in India.

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These musical numbers in Bollywood films most often include either the hero or heroine of the story, in addition to a large group of background characters who have been hired as dance extras. The dance sections are often part of dream sequences or large production numbers that are of no relevance from the plot line of the movie or have little to do with advancing the story. The songs being sung are most often Hindi, but may be heavily influenced by Western culture, or in some cases may be completely westernized – English or other language lyrics. Dressed in colorful and flashy costumes, the dancers perform on elaborate sets either on location in scenic regions or in a designed indoor set. These elements add up to present a scene that is glamorous with intricate details, brightly lit and embellished, and that feels strikingly different from the “real world.” There are usually multiple such numbers throughout a film, but most Bollywood films are characterized by one major show-stopping performance. This number, referred to as the “item song,” is probably the longest and most fantastical of them all; characters are seen in various costumes within the same song, and often dance around one ornate location to other and back again.

The escapist nature of these songs described previously causes these “imagined spaces” to be created, and allows for audience members to avoid reality and seek comfort in an imagined and fantasized world. In the case of Bollywood, audiences often see bejewelled women with dark eyes and long, dark hair singing in a different language and dancing in ways, in locations that are unrealistic/foreign, providing the exotic and escapist quality of early and modern Bollywood films. In Munni, Sheila Chkini Chameli, Fevicol (popular item numbers from recent movies like Dabang, Tees Maar Khan, Agneepath and Dabang 2 respectively), we find the denigration of women being emphasized extremely. The female body, the male gaze – collective, voyeurism – all of which popular cinema relies on are present in these item numbers. They are only an additional package of entertainment that the movie is supposed to provide to viewers. They even enhance the repeat value of the film, in some cases, being promoted more than the movie itself.

With the growth of ¬lm-song-based programs on television by the late 1990s, film makers see songs as the main way of enticing audiences into theatres, and producers have been spending huge amounts of money on the visualization of songs. Regardless of their theme and plot many ¬lms have an elaborate production number with lavish sets, spectacular costumes, hundreds of extras as dancers, and special effects, costing millions of rupees. Members of the ¬lm industry affirm that for a ¬lm to be a hit at the box-office, it must possess a quality that makes people want to see a ¬lm not just once, but multiple times at the theatre. The most successful and popular ¬lms of Hindi cinema have been marked by the phenomenon of repeat audiences – people watching a particular ¬lm 10, 20, 50, even a 100 times. Soon post the release of the movie: Khalnayak, there were reports in the press about how often people were going to see the ¬lm, but stayed in the theatre only until the main item number of the ¬lm – Choli ke peeche kya hai? The heroine’s costume and the song’s provocative lyrics were the cause for national debate about the limits of acceptable erotic display in the cinema; but normatively, the heroine’s performance was framed as a bait to lure in the audience from the perspective of a villain and was therefore entirely conventional.

In earlier Bollywood films, the style of dancing used was based on classical Indian dance or folk dances from throughout India. These dances included primarily the Kathak and Bharatanatyam. The traditionally modest heroine depicted in films of the 1960‟s has also been replaced by a heroine that is portrayed as more independent and conforming less to what is expected of her by Indian tradition. In the early 1980‟s, women characters were portrayed as fending more for themselves and also making independent choices regarding their marital partners and work. The Indian woman of the 1990‟s took on characteristics that were perceived as less traditionally Indian and more associated with the Western world, for example in the way she dressed. “Now the distinction between the vamp and the heroine is getting more and more blurred, so now we have the two-in-one heroine, who is this sultry sexy siren before marriage and then becomes the chaste wife after. That reveals the schizophrenia that we have in society”

– Shabana Azmi

From Madhubala to Kareena Kapoor the woman holds the look, plays to and symbolises the male desire, mostly by a dance or song sequence.

Muvley argues that the performing showgirl is brought in where the spectator identifies himself with the male protagonist, he projects his look on to the showgirl, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipresence.

Prasad also argues that the female body as spectacle is a public representation, a show of erotic imagery for the public that does not violate the code that prohibits the representation of the private. This is because such spectacle occurs in song-and-dance sequences which are conventionally coded as “contracted voyeurism”, rather than an unauthorized view of a private world (Prasad, 1998).

Amita Nijhawan (2009) analyses the song-and-dance sequences in Bollywood films which have become a rage. He argues that by combining traditional Indian dance moves with contemporary elements, new sites of sexual desire and identity are created and popularized in Indian culture whilst concluding that women in Indian cinema are given more freedom to express their sexuality and femininity today.

The tawaif sequence: Naturally, tawaifs are routinely shown dancing for others in scenes in which the hero is not present, and in which a respectable hero should not be present. The mujra, the traditional gathering that takes place in the kotha in which the tawaif dances and sings for her patrons, while they socialise amongst themselves, smoking, drinking, and admiring the performers. The tawaifs in these performative introductions (e.g., Tawaif, Amiri Gharibi, and Ek Nazar, and perhaps most famously, Pakheezah) are pictured as smiling flirtatious young women, apparently willing participants in the construction of their gender. Mujras are conventionally employed as a means of simultaneously introducing the tawaif, establishing her identity, and imposing on her a general quality of to-be-looked-at-ness with regard to the collective male gazes.

Song and dance sequence: The film creators must accommodate sometimes incompatible desires within the same film and make them concordant with existing cultural and moral values of the society in which it circulates. This is done by resorting to a variety of strategies. Kasbekar argues that the most important strategy has been to create an idealised moral universe that upholds the official definition of femininity within the main plot, and then to provide unofficial erotic pleasures to its target audience through the song-and-dance sequences. Having “devised the dance performance as a strategy to legitimise erotic voyeurism, film- makers must plot socially acceptable motivations within the narrative for such erotic exhibition”.(Kasbekar, 2001)

A new stereotype is built around that eye candy, defeating the purpose of trying to break stereotypes. Films find ways to justify why the heroine is performing these song and dance sequences and more often than not, they will be a love sequence between the hero and the heroine or a sequence where the female lead is doing something for the sake of the male lead, either to save his life, or help him out of a situation. The fundamental idea of the male gaze, male fantasy and perspective is not lost yet. Merging the Madonna and the whore by suitably justifying the synchrony of roles is just a different way of catering to those fantasies, yet being within the parameters of what is or is not socially acceptable.

The courtesan has had many celluloid incarnations. She was sometimes a hereditary member of the profession or a girl from a respectable family who has “fallen” through an unfortunate series of events. She was sometimes the divine nymph (apsara) of Hindu legend or the Persian fairy (pari ). In the 1960s, she was a cabaret dancer, and in the 1980s a disco queen. In the “social” genre of Hindi €ln, which is concerned with modern life and social problems, the courtesan allows the filmmaker to present a woman singing and dancing on screen. She further allows the director to incorporate themes of love, sexuality, and passion. Eventually, many

films came to feature the courtesan as the main character and established the courtesan genre as a sub-genre of the social film.

The Nachni Woman: The Nachni woman, On the other hand, enjoys an entirely different notoriety.

On The one hand, she is the local entertainer, drawing a huge audience for her performance, [to Cull out a living from her contracted shows and yet on the other hand, constantly battling for her recognition and acceptance in the daily lives within her society where her presence is that of a fallen individual, who lives an immoral life. (MUNSI, Urnimala Sarkar, 2011)

Stereotypes of Songs (categorizing in review paper)

(Courtesan – info available; cafe; cabaret; item)

Gokulsing & Dissanayake (2004), quoting Richards (1995), mention three categories of sexual objectification of women in Indian cinema, the tribal costume, the wet sari sequence and the behind the bush scene.

Costume analysis

(Perspective of costume designers; ex. Bhanu Athaiya, Neeta Lulla for Devdas) – more material needed

The tribal costume — used for cabaret dances; exposure of vast expanses of the woman’s body particularly the pelvic region; short skirts, brief blouses and veil-less upper torso all allow for maximum female exposure in Hindi films. The pictures below are a few examples of how these costumes could work to the advantage of the male sexual fantasy. The camera’s point of view caters primarily to this male sexual fantasy. The wet sari — This sequence is legitimized by “a sudden torrential downpour that soaks the woman’s flimsy sari and allows for a very provocative and sexually tantalizing exposure of the female body.” The other popular portrayal is the “behind the bush” act. The sexual act is considered too private and is prohibited from being explicitly shown, but a representation of the sexual act by means of creating a sense of voyeurism through song and dance sequences and “behind the bushes” moments conveys the act, yet protecting the privacy of the moment (Gokulsing & Dissanayake, p. 81).

Clichés: “the Rain Song”, “the dream Apsara song” (categorizing in review paper; Techniques to represent the heroine as a sexual object – ex. legitimizing it by the eyes of a lover)

A common scenario that has become a cliché is one with characters singing and dancing in the rain. “Rain has always been invested with erotic and sensual significance in Indian mythology, classical music and literature, as it is associated with fertility and rebirth.” (Ganti 2004).

“Ill-fate” card: (where the heroine was shown as going through ill fate/ gaining sympathy from the audience or helping the hero achieve his goal)

The music and dance scenes that are omnipresent in the conventional Hindi cinema might seem to contradict the characterisation of heroine behaviour since they regularly employ revealing costumes, highly sexualised choreography, and suggestive lyrics in the erotic display of these allegedly respectable heroines; but these scenes are conventionally managed. Under most conditions, heroines only dance when the hero is present in the scene either as spectator or as participant. Heroines normally dance for others only under compulsion or in connection with some ruse that has a place in the narrative.Both heroines and vamps had many similarities in terms of what they wore and how they danced and how they were objectified on screen, the confines within which they exhibited their sexuality on screen, psychologically demarcated them in the minds of their audience as either being good or bad, moral or immoral. A very clear example would be sholay – wherein both Helen and Hema Malini dance in front of males, but one is depicted immoral and the other moral.

This is achieved by bi-polarising women characters in the film. The “heroine” versus “vamp” is such a ploy that is sometimes used. In the films Pakeezah (1971, Kamal Amrohi) and Umrao Jaan (1981,Muzaffar Ali), the heroines are depicted as both victims and vamps simultaneously. While the audience acknowledges that these women characters are courtesans, through the narrative structure, the audience learns of their unjust fate. So, film-makers are therefore subjected to commercial and ideological pressures to make a “spectacle” of the woman, but at the same time must deploy strategies and subterfuges in order to legitimise such erotic voyeurism without antagonising the state, civil society, or female members of the audience.

Journals: Global Media Journal; media watch global


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