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Indian women on film and the independence struggle
Payel Majumdar  15th Aug 2015

A still from Mother India.

Our history begins with 15 August 1947. Our collective memory is blank before then, on screen and otherwise. Yet, the independence struggle inspired various narratives on film, that in turn set the stage for how we define ourselves as a nation. We had the soldier figure, the martyr, and the revolutionary; but mostly, these tales were the tales of men and their valour. When it came to women, Bollywood gave us a rare yet complicated narrative. The characters that emerged from commercial cinema on the independence struggle were often too obtuse to have realistic resemblances from the past. Commercial cinema often opts for simplified narratives, but every now and then it would also serve upstories that set the tone for these very stereotypes, establishing a basis for such clichés. A cliché is a cliché for a reason, at the end of the day.

What Mother India did was underscore the importance of the mother figure in the larger picture of nationalist rhetoric, represented by the land that the young country had fought for. This mother was to be protected, but also played protector. She was the reserve of all values that bound the young country in its nationalist idealism, a post-colonial threat to the overarching racial structure that had abandoned the natives as lesser mortals, not blessed or considered important enough for equal opportunity. Instead of being a majoritarian oppressive force, this nationalism was subaltern, for our independence was still fresh and untarnished. The mother figure in Mother India, also represented the people — once oppressed by the ruling class, considered demure and meek, who seeks to fight for her rights. Mother India was an allegory for the nationalist movement, as perceived in public memory then, a united fight against imperialism, but also a revolt against patriarchy.

The mother figure was given acknowledgement, a position on a pedestal, representative of the core values of a society, a centre stage in nationalist rhetoric.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rang de Basanti, a tale that rewarded the new generation with a curious catharsis, by recreating the events around Independence. Drawing parallels between current political situations and the lives of krantikaaris during the independence struggle, Rang de Basanti provided context to a generation that had not lived through the struggle, and whose experience of independence was second-hand, pieced together from oral family narratives and history textbooks. Rang de Basanti's women Soha Ali Khan, and Kiron Kher, as mother of the main protagonist, play significant but subordinate roles. Soha Ali Khan and Kiron Kher both represent the grieving wives and mothers of martyrs. Khan had a more significant role as the instigator, the accomplice of the revolutionaries, an insider, but not someone who led from the front.

Mother India was an allegory for the nationalist movement, as perceived in public memory then, a united fight against imperialism, but also a revolt against patriarchy. The mother figure was given acknowledgement, a position on a pedestal, representative of the core values of a society, a centre stage in nationalist rhetoric.

Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ritwik Ghatak's cult classic, had Neeta, the sole bread earner of a post-partition family, struggling to survive in a refugee slum, looking after her brother who had given up caring. Neeta's thrust for life and survival rung as strong as The South's celebrated heroine Scarlett O' Hara from Gone With The Wind. Struggling with tuberculosis, her resilient character is one of the most poignant portrayals of the everywoman, the revolutionaries for whom everyday survival was heroic in a young country in the midst of economic turbulence.

Anup Singh's Qissa (2013) is another film that looks at the partition period, playing out complex gender equations informed from that era. Kanwar Singh, a girl raised as a boy by her Sikh father Umber Singh (Irrfan), in his crazed desire to have a male child. Kanwar grows up as a boy, and is even married off to a woman; only her wife knows her secret. As the story progresses, Kanwar is forced to confront her gender identity, and the conflict that arises from having kept it a secret her whole life. The role of men as perceived protectors of the family gets reversed in this situation, as the filmmaker questions gender stereotypes within its context. Black and white gender roles are hard to find, even in the most conservative of societies.

Train to Pakistan, the adaptation of Khushwant Singh's novel had Nooran, the Muslim girl in love with the local Hindu dacoit Jagga. The very act of love in a polarised village, where she was a subaltern, was also an act of bravery, defiance, and a nod to the new liberal thought of the times. Nooran and Jagga's (Nirmal Pandey) love story is star-crossed and heart rending, but it is also a story of resilience. It complicates the two-dimensional communal polarisation of the village, and the dramatic ending of the movie builds this point in deeper. Nooran and Jagga's love story was the archetype of what is now a classic Hindu-Muslim cliché; a representation of the nation coming together, and burying the communal hatchet.

Pinjar, a film by Chand Prakash Dwivedi, had Urmila Matondkar playing Puro, a representation of one among many kidnapped women during Independence. Puro, belonging to a Hindu family, is kidnapped by Rashid, as revenge for an ongoing dispute between the two families. Puro and Rashid's relationship is initiated by violence, but turns to affection. Puro is deserted by her own family post the kidnapping, while Rashid vows to do anything to have her back when she runs away. Pinjar is not an out-of-the-blue exceptional story. In one of the largest migrations ever witnessed in history, where over two million people were displaced, kidnappings happened by thousands in both East and West Pakistan, and women were the most obvious victims of this sordid statistic.

 
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