Women In Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar's Movies: The Un-Taming Of The Shrew

It was a huge leap for Bollywood, where even today, a woman’s moral worth is tied to her chastity
Women In Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar's Movies: The Un-Taming Of The Shrew

The Bollywood of 50s and 60s was a genteel place. Leading men were chivalrous, women were pious and  the songs were written by stalwarts like Sahir, Shailendra, Majrooh and Shakeel. The language was redolent of the pre-partition Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb and even the villains were classy. Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Hrishikesh Mukherjee made socially relevant and sensitive stories of rural oppression, class conflict and gender inequality. The protagonists (excepting the raging bull Birju from Mother India) were Gandhian in their approach – negotiations, protest, non-violence, and reasoning were the weapons of choice.

But Salim-Javed with one dialogue shattered this decorous world – "Yeh police station hai, tumhare baap ka ghar nahi." Amitabh Bachchan with his untamed anti-establishment ferocity was unleashed on the public which was gradually getting disillusioned with the political ineptitude and economic stagnation after independence.  This enraged Amitabh Bachchan ditched the spiritual path of Gandhi and embraced the violent atheist Bhagat Singh in his fight against black marketers, smugglers and corrupt government officials.

Enough has been said about the emergence of the 'angry young man' and how the brilliance of Salim-Javed disrupted the cocooned gentility of scripts back then. But as I was watching Trishul (yet!) again, it struck me that Salim-Javed also broke stereotypes in portraying women on screen.  Not enough credit has been given to Salim-Javed scripts for bestowing economic, social and sexual autonomy to its leading ladies.  Cases in point are iconoclastic women in some of Bollywood's most iconic scripts – Zanjeer, Deewar, Don, Sholay, Kala Patthar and Trishul.  

Let's look at the character of Parveen Babi in Deewar. She is a high-class escort who hangs around smoke filled bars of Bombay's five star hotels. She drinks and smokes freely, approaches men without misgivings and is making a happy living for herself.  Juxtapose this with the tawaif (courtesan) of other movies of the era – melancholy souls with a deep sorrow and regret which pervaded their poems and relationships. But Parveen Babi is unabashed, independent and content.  More importantly, the male lead asks her to marry him, knowing her background fully well. Her past does not burden her and the movie makes no moral judgments on her choices.  

Waheeda Rehman in Trishul is another great example.  She is an unwed mother deserted by Sanjeev Kumar who chooses to marry his rich boss's daughter. But Waheeda Rehman decides to raise her son as a single mother through terrible hardships. She doesn't stigmatise herself or her child. She doesn't sanitise the story of his birth through falsehoods or apologies. Her child may have been born out of wedlock, but not out of sin. Contrast this with Yash Chopra's directorial debut – Dhool Ka Phool where Mala Sinha has a child out of wedlock with Rajendra Kumar. But when Rajendra Kumar turns his back on the shotgun wedding, Mala Sinha abandons her newborn in a forest rather than bear the ignominy of raising a fatherless son. Waheeda Rehman, on the other hand tells her son the entire truth, displaying that there is more honour in carrying a fatherless child than in renouncing it. Though a staple cuss word in Bollywood, not once is Amitabh Bachchan called a bastard or harami in the movie – even in the fight sequences.

Later on in Trishul, we meet two more women who, against the grain of the leading ladies of the time, are working professionals. Rakhee plays a secretary to Sanjeev Kumar. She is professional, ethically unimpeachable and proud of her work. She is surrounded by men at work but her gender does not play any role in her office dynamics. It is shown as a natural state of affairs that a woman goes to work and is an equal and integral part of office politics and machinations. Hema Malini, the other leading lady is a director of a real estate company. She is aware of her good looks and confident of her sexuality. Unlike the sanctimonious leading ladies of the time, she enjoys male attention and confidently indulges in witty repartee with Shashi Kapoor.

In Zanjeer and Kala Pathhar too, the leading ladies can fend for themselves. Jaya Bachchan in Zanjeer is a poor girl of the streets – but she has a fiery core – she sharpens knives for a living, negotiates deals with local goons and cops and scrapes through her tough life.  Rakhee in Kala Pathhar plays the cathartic foil to the brooding and scarred Amitabh Bachchan battling his demons from the past. But her persona goes beyond that of a hinge to propel the narrative forward. She is a successful doctor treating coal miners in hostile working conditions. And again, that she is a professional is not the focal point of her character: underscoring the notion that a female character can play any role in the plot, but at the same time her being an employed professional does not necessarily detract from the story.

Sholay –had one of the most sensitive love stories as a sub plot. The widowed Jaya Bhaduri is draped in a white sari and tends to her father-in-law.  But she does not wear her widowhood as a shroud.  As Amitabh Bachchan plays one of Bollywood's most haunting tunes on his mouth organ in the twilight, and Jaya Bhaduri walks around the haveli's corridors dimming the lanterns at twilight as they exchange furtive glances of muted love. There is self-restraint but there is no self-reproach in the feelings brewing between them. Most notably, the patriarch of the house – Thakur is supportive of this relationship. He remarks that society and its norms are formed to alleviate peoples' loneliness not to aggravate it. This was a significant show of solidarity – especially given how even today hypocritical religious practices prevent widows from participating in several religious rituals.

In Don, we find Helen and Zeenat Aman use their sensuality to charm the enemy. As Helen grooves to the tunes of RD Burman's classic 'Yeh Mera Dil' she entices Amitabh Bachchan to keep him busy till the cops arrive. Later in the movie, Zeenat Aman similarly seduces the Don, to get her vengeance. Leading women were never seductresses – that was the dubious reserve of the amoral vamps – promiscuous and scheming molls of gangsters who made their drinks and lit their cigarettes. But Zeenat Aman and Helen's use of their sexuality does not diminish or delegitimise the righteousness of their cause. In fact, no judgment is made at all. The narrative flows seamlessly and the viewer is more concerned about the outcome of the seduction, rather than the morality of it. It was a huge leap for Bollywood, where till date a woman's moral worth is tied to her chastity.

The Salim-Javed scripted renaissance of the female lead is also significant because of what followed immediately afterwards. In the mid 80s and 90s we witnessed the nadir of Bollywood, for which I have a hypothesis. Economics 101 tells you that a monopoly destroys consumer surplus – this is exactly what Amitabh Bachchan's unquestionable star power had done to Bollywood. His scripts became increasingly hero-centric and mediocre. No one cared about the female lead or her need for self-worth in his movies. His later hits like Mard, Sharabi, Coolie, Kaalia, and Nastik had weak female characters who were there just to make up the numbers. When Amitabh Bachchan took a political hiatus from movies to join Rajiiv Gandhi's government, it created a sudden vacuum. Films with ageing stars like Rajesh Khanna and Jitendra, and freshers like Govinda resorted to low-brow family drama focusing on domestic strife, much like the abysmal TV soaps of today. These movies had second-rate scripts and often portrayed the woman who worked, wore western clothes, was ambitious or enjoyed a drink as self-centered homewreckers. Abstinence, self-sacrifice, mute suffering and religiosity were extolled as virtues for decent women.

Couple this with the onslaught of liberalisation and influence of cable TV. Mediocre filmmakers used the cultural insecurity against the rapidly invading social mores to stress the superiority of an imagined homogenous value system. And as with any social upheaval, the site for cultural revivalism became the quintessential Indian woman at the center of the traditional family unit.

Whatever the causes for the disempowering the female lead in 80s and 90s may have been, their fall also reinforces the enormity of the silent revolution brewing in the Salim-Javed scripts of the 70s.  I think we should credit them with more than creating the angry young man.  They also helped shape the modern Indian woman on screen.

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