I am from India. Hence, befalls upon me the duty to blog at least once about the industry that is the beating heart, deep soul and the throbbing pulse of India-The Indian Film Industry aka BOLLYWOOD.
Indian film industry is based in Bombay (now known as Mumbai). It is fondly known as Bollywood, possible name origination from Hollywood. It is massively influential not only in the home country but has a growing popularity internationally as well. With India being on the global map, Indian cinema’s popularity has exponentially increased.
Bollywood churns out twice as many movies as Hollywood in a span of one year. With movies such as Slumdog Millionaire and exports like Freida Pinto, an increasing number of Western audience are becoming familiar with not only the colorful song and dance routine that is so integral to Bollywood movies, but thanks to the portrayal of slums, the debilitating poverty in India as well.
For the purposes of this blog and because I am an insider, I will introduce you to a quintessential theme in Indian cinema that is patently latent for the foreign eye, yet prevalent in most Indian movies. It is also a little insight into the pre-disposition of the Indian brain, especially the male brain.
It is the Madonna-Whore theme on celluloid.
Women are an integral part of Indian cinema. In most Indian films women are portrayed in two ways. Either they are shown as a pious, sacrificing, maternal figure or Madonna. Or they are depicted as the wanton, sexy, lustful, glamour doll or whore.
The sacrificing maternal figure may as well be called a sacrificial lamb. The adversities of her life are higher than Mount Everest and insurmountable; not even Edmund Hillary in flesh and blood could peak the heights of such misery.
The hardships start at a young age when she is coerced into marriage against her will to a much older man and from there on the misery chapter of her life starts. The script usually goes like this-she gets pregnant after marriage; one of her kids is born without a limb and is handicapped; the burden of taking care of this child falls entirely upon her slim shoulders; the husband is an alcoholic loser who drinks, gambles and at the end of the day beats her up; she works like a dog doing menial jobs where again she is abused and exploited by her employer and then the poverty, oh such cruel poverty that two square meals will be considered to be a banquet. Despite all these calamities, she is able to educate her handicapped child who in turn becomes a famous doctor and just when one would think that the anguish is about to end, she gets cancer and dies. Throughout the movie she is dressed in a white sari, the color of grieving. It is a perpetual saga of despondency, melancholy and wretchedness.
One of the great classic Indian movies of all times named Mother India, is a perfect example of this ideal, sacrificing woman.
The audiences come out of such a movie with tears rolling down their cheeks and a renewed respect and reverence for a woman.
This mother or “ Madonna” figure is the signature illustration of an ideal Indian woman in Bollywood. She is pious, sacrificing and wallowing in eternal suffering. The audiences bow to her-she is Madonna.
In the opposite extreme you have the woman depicted as a seductress. She is an enchantress, a femme fatale, a temptress, a vamp all rolled into one tight package. She oozes sexuality and lust with flat abs, protruding breasts, luscious lips, cascading ravenous hair, skimpy clothes and a husky voice. Most of the camera frames are angled to focus on her anatomy, especially the sexually stimulating body parts such as the plump lips, heaving breasts and swinging derriere.
The sexuality interpreted through this woman is so over the top that it makes all the Victoria’s Secret models look like nuns.
The audiences come out of her movie panting with lust and sexual tension. This woman is purely objectified as a sex-object-she is a whore.
You must have noted the dichotomy in Bollywood movies by now. Women are either put on a pedestal and given the veneration and respect of a Madonna or simply portrayed as an object of lust.
Interestingly, most Indian cinema is hesitant to portray Indian women as both being a mother and also a seductress. The two concepts appear to be diametrically opposed and do not seem to merge in a Bollywood woman.
In all honesty, the tides are changing in Indian cinema. Modern cinema is becoming trendy, issue based, somewhat intelligent and more realistic. But for the past many decades the true and tried formula of the Madonna/whore theme has been a sure shot success at the box office.
What is your opinion? Can meaningful cinema depict a woman both as a Madonna and a sex object?
Ahhh the tug of war begins between the lure of fair or tanned skin. Do we prefer dark or light skin? Black or white? Creamy or brown complexion? Does the color of your skin make you pretty, attractive, seductive, exotic, erotic, ugly or even repulsive? Is the deciphering of one’s skin color a form of racism? Is the international perception of beauty in keeping with the “western” skin color and hence the aspiration for fair skin? The debate has continued from times immemorial and will continue to be a subject of contention.
The history of fair skin goes back many centuries to when fair skin was a sign of noble lineage, a sign of belonging to the “upper” class or nobility. The reason being that the “upper” class led such a luxurious and decadent life that they never had to weather the harsh rays of the Sun. They were shielded from the harsh UVA/UVB rays by their expensive hats or a multitude of servants carrying umbrellas to shield the milky white skin of the “fair” ladies from the unforgiving rays of the brutal Sun.
In contrast, the “working” class had no option but to toil and expose their skin to the harsh elements of nature, thereby “imperiling” their skin to the rays of the Sun.
The quest for light or dark skin is also marked by cultural and continental demarcations. For example in the Western world a tanned complexion is a sign of a lady of luxury. One can picture a lady languoring and basking in the glory of the Sun to such a point where her skin color is akin to a shade of shiny liquid gold. You can imagine such a lady with a glass of martini between her long manicured fingers, in the most expensive lycra bikini, shades of gold in her hair, exorbitantly priced sunglasses perched on the bridge of her nose….in a nutshell the “Gucci girl.”
By contrast in the Asian world, specifically in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, a woman’s beauty is defined by the fairness of her skin. A possible reason is that Western women have been considered the epitome of beauty for centuries, with their fair skin, blue eyes and “golden” hair, just as in the fairy tale “Goldilocks.”
That is why you will often note Asian women driving with white gloves in the heat of summer as they do not want the rays of the Sun to tint their creamy complexion.
In most of the countries in Asia the aisles of the beauty stores—and even grocery stores—are stacked with an array of skin lightening products, including lotions, potions, bleaching creams, etc., all derived to enhance the fairness of the skin by a shade or two.
In India, before the marriage ceremony, a turmeric concoction is rubbed on the entire body of the woman to make her fairer for the big day in order to lure her husband. In fact, there is a popular brand of creams and lotions produced by a major company called “Fair and Lovely,” specifically to bring out the “white” of the skin.
Surprisingly, even men have jumped on the band wagon and the top Bollywood heroes are brand ambassadors for fairness creams.
Crack open any Asian paper, especially from the sub-continent of India, and you will not be able to escape a matrimonial ad wanting a “young bride, highly educated with fair skin, for a handsome fair skinned boy….” Alright, so much fairness makes me get up and dowse myself in a tub of cream!
What is the reason for the lure of a particular skin color? Aren’t we born with a color that nature has bestowed upon us, best suited for our facial features? In my opinion it is a primitive thought process holding on to antiquated pre-conceived notions. Fair skinned girls are associated with innocence, fragility and submissiveness (just like the princesses or fairy tale characters such as Snowhite), which works well in societies dominated by men. Yes, such societies can find dark skinned women attractive, but often in an erotic, exotic way, mostly to derive sexual gratification rather than entering into a long-term meaningful relationship.
I remember a famous ad-maker once said that he looks for fair skinned girls to cast in wholesome family ads as they portray a picture of stability. On the other hand, if he is making an ad for a condom or a lubricating cream, he will look for dark skinned girls as they are associated with eroticism, fun, and sexuality, but not wholesome goodness.
In my opinion, the color of one’s skin is a façade, a mask, a shield. We cannot determine a person’s goodness, value system, sexual preferences, or biases by their skin. We need to dig deeper for that!!! So, let’s raise our glasses to both “my fair and my dark ladies”!
India’s official entry for the race to the Oscars. What are the first two thoughts that enter your mind when you think of movies from India? Well, either it is a BOLLYWOOD bonanza or a documentary depicting the dire straits of the poor in India. Either the images of festivities, exotic international locales, gorgeous long lustered gamine-esque lasses dancing around trees, men with bodies sculpted as if Michelangelo himself decided to sculpt David II pop into your head, OR you see the images of a poor, hungry, emaciated woman who sells herself such that her family can eat two square meals. Yes, extremes are shown in films from the sub-continent of India.
Well, brace yourself—this movie is neither. Yes, it has a dose of stark reality depicting the very bleak, basic, glamour-free rural India. Yes, it portrays the plight of the back-bone of India, THE FARMERS. Yes, it shows the wickedness of the politicians and the exploitation by the media of these naïve farmers.
But the film is also interwoven with intelligent and realistic humor. The humor is peppered throughout the film from the extremely salty expletives used by the 90 year old crippled mother to the almost nonchalant attitude of the farmer who is on the hook to commit suicide in a mere 72 hours. From the perfectly formulated British English of the aggressive TV correspondent to the various political angles of the politicians. At times it reaches such absurdism that one is compelled to guffaw out aloud.
The basic plot is that farmers are on the brink of losing their only ancestral asset to the government due to an unpaid loan. The government has a program that if a debtor commits suicide, the loan is waived to help the surviving members of the family. A poor unsuspecting farmer becomes a pawn between the media and the various levels of the corrupt government.
It is a movie about hope and moving on. It truly depicts the resilient spirit of rural India. It portrays the essence of a true Indian; no matter how difficult the circumstances, one can find the courage to move on. A lesson to be learnt for those of us who rely on Prozac to deal with the “not so dire straits” in life.
P.S. The cherry on the cake is the excellent music by the band named Indian Ocean.