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NEW DELHI — At the climax of “Anaarkali of Arrah,” the new Bollywood film about a folk artist who specializes in suggestive dances and bawdy songs, the brash heroine calls out a powerful college chancellor for groping her during a performance.
“She tells him, ‘Whether she is your wife or a whore or less than a whore, don’t touch a woman without asking,’” says 29-year-old Swara Bhaskar, an established star in the Indian film firmament whose portrayal of the unapologetically sexual Anaarkali has drawn praise from film critics and feminist commentators throughout the country.
Featuring a female protagonist and delivering a clear message of female empowerment, “Anaarkali of Arrah” “is among a wave of women-centric films sweeping Bollywood, by some measures the largest film industry in the world.
The films are helping fuel an unprecedented debate in India about violence against women as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has called for — and sometimes violently promoted — a return to traditional values in Indian society.
“The plot turns on a powerful man demanding that [the heroine] come to his bed, and she says ‘No,’” said Shubhra Gupta, author of “Fifty Films that Changed Bollywood,” a history of the Indian film industry from 1995 to 2015. “She may or may not be peddling her body, but when she says ‘No,’ she means ‘No.’ That is a huge statement.”
It’s also a huge change from Bollywood’s treatment of women as self-sacrificing mothers, virginal heroines or doomed vamps, said actress Richa Chadha, who played the foul-mouthed moll of a rustic criminal in the 2012 film “Gangs of Wasseypur.”
“Earlier, women often appeared just for a song or a molestation scene that was sort of strangely gratifying,” the 30-year-old actress said. “The aspiration of the heroine was purely to get married — often our films ended with the marriage.”
In contrast, more recent films such as “Queen” in 2014 have focused on powerful women who don’t necessarily need men. In “Queen,” the female lead takes a European “honeymoon” by herself after her fiance jilts her.
“With every alternate movie revolving around a woman character, feminism is being redefined in the hitherto male-dominated industry these days,” critic Giridha Jha wrote in the magazine Outlook India this month.
“No longer does one see any female protagonist fitting into the stereotypes of Mother India with no gray shades whatsoever in her character, nor do we encounter any damsel in distress waiting for her prince charming to rescue them,” Mr. Jha wrote. “What the audience, instead, has today is a surfeit of powerful roles played by young actresses from the millennial generation who have no qualms in wearing their attitude or sexuality on their sleeves with aplomb.”
The trend spans several traditional Bollywood genres. Last year, a bevy of crime dramas centered on strong, independent female leads.
“Pink” is a courtroom drama about sexual harassment that brought the debate over consent to the big screen for the first time to Indian mass audiences. In “Dear Zindagi,” the unmarried heroine lives alone and sleeps with several men. “Dangal” tells the story of the rise of India’s most successful female wrestlers, sisters hailing from a state where female feticide remains common.
This year, Taapsee Pannu, the 29-year-old star of “Pink,” plays a secret agent in the title role of “Name: Shabana,” who is recruited to the job by the promise that the clandestine agency will help her take revenge against the men who killed her friend in an altercation over sexual harassment.
“Now people are waking up to the fact that heroism is not about a gender,” Miss Pannu said.
Another current film causing a buzz is “Maatr” (Mother), a rape revenge fantasy starring Raveena Tandon, a 42-year-old actress whose heyday was in the 1990s.
The films mirror debates occurring in Indian society.
Since the infamous gang rape in Delhi in 2012, when the assailants lured a 23-year-old woman and her friend onto a private bus and raped her, India has enacted strict laws against stalking and other crimes against women.
But lawmakers have stopped short of criminalizing marital rape, and many pundits, politicians and right-wing activists continue to frame the discussion of violence against women in moral or patriarchal terms. A post-2012 slogan posted on many taxicabs, for instance, presents women’s “honor” as something that is a man’s duty to protect.
As a result, Indians are discussing and disagreeing over consent and sexual harassment more widely and publicly than ever before.
Across the country, Hindu nationalist vigilante groups — often supporters, though not necessarily members, of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — have attacked young men and women socializing in bars.
Other groups have launched an organized campaign against interreligious romances that they say are the result of an orchestrated program of “love jihad” — Muslims supposedly converting Hindu girls to Islam by wooing them romantically.
The firebrand Hindu cleric Mr. Modi recently selected as the chief minister of the country’s most populous state, Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, has cracked down on romance in the guise of a battle against sexual harassment on the street. Critics say “anti-Romeo squads” — catcallers are known in the local slang as “roadside Romeos” — have targeted canoodling young couples as often as they stop unwanted advances.
India’s censor board this year barred a film called “Lipstick Under My Burqa” about four unfulfilled women who take charge of their sexuality, saying, “The story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life.”
“Where it comes to women, this [group] would like them to be back in the kitchen,” said the film critic Ms. Gupta. “That’s what Bollywood has been working against in its own way.”
For Miss Bhaskar, “Anaarkali” marked a step forward because the film eschews the weepy, apologetic tone of earlier movies centered around social issues.
The title character “is unapologetic about the fact that she is sexually promiscuous and sexually free,” said Miss Bhaskar. “She’s not a victim, which is the way you usually see female sexuality depicted in India.”
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