On the verge of extinction
With the redefinition of the Hindi film heroine by the actresses themselves, the vamp has become a memory of yesteryear.
Soon to be a memory: Helen, a popular vamp in the 1950s.
THE vamp in Hindi cinema is a species that is fast vanishing. Her natural habitat, the dance hall or cabaret show, has been eroded and replaced by far less environmentally friendly locations like the discotheque, the college canteen, the streets of Zurich and Geneva or even the common bedroom. Naturally, cut off from her life-sustaining ambience, the vamp has exited. Very soon, the only time we will see her in Hindi cinema will be in the cloistered environment of the National Film Archives, Pune.
But the primary cause of the vamp's disappearance is undoubtedly that ferocious predator, the mainstream heroine of the 1990s. When Madhuri Dixit danced to Ek, do, teen in "Tezaab", or later when she gyrated to Choli ke peeche kya hai in "Khalnayak" and when then teeny boppers like Shilpa Shetty, Raveena Tandon, Karishma Kapoor broke the cotton curtain to enter the specialised domain of vamp dancing, the professional died. Like the T-Rex of the Jurassic age, the Hindi film heroine destroyed the smaller sex symbols of cinema and became the dominant species of her genre.
In her extraordinarily perceptive book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974), film critic and scholar Molly Haskell examines the vast range of images spanned in the iconography of the American woman in cinema. She draws on her wide reading of Hollywood movies to show how producers, directors and even film critics from the 1920s onwards have constantly altered their presentation of women through the years.
A similar examination of Hindi movies from the classic vamp of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (Nadira, Mumtaz, Helen, Bindu, Aruna Irani) to the "item dance numbers" performed by mainstream heroines today, both in cinema and in shows for the Indian Diaspora in Europe and the U.S, would be very revealing. It would be fascinating to trace transition in the images of the Indian woman in popular culture.
It is vital to look at this change from the perspective of the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s. The key word since then has been corporatisation individual performers, partnerships and smaller companies being amalgamated into a larger whole. This affects all businesses, and film is a business art. Just as smaller advertising agencies have been taken over by the larger sharks, the heroine has taken over the vamp's job. It makes more economic sense the producer has a single mainstream heroine who can worship, dress up or dress down, dance, be moral, altrusistic and occasionally sleazy as well. The package deal is easier to market the actress becomes a product with a specific image or `brand'.
In the past 18 months or so, ever since the success of the film "Murder", Mallika Sherawat" has become a star by successfully projecting herself as a heroine with sexuality, and her own individual set of principles. A glut of such films "Girlfriend", "Julie", "Zeher" has followed with remarkably similarly positioned heroines in Amrita Arora, Isha Koppikar Neha Dhupia and Udita Goswami. It is a reasonable contention that rapidly altering economic factors in consumerist India are responsible for triggering this trend. Change in the iconography of Indian women in cinema is invariably connected to economics women in any society being fuel in the engine of consumerism.
Another important reason for the changing mould of women in Hindi cinema is that the actresses of today have, without exception, begun their public career on the ramp. Perhaps the first advertising model to break the film barrier was Zeenat Aman in the 1970s, but today every film star is a model and frequently continues her modelling career even after appearing in movies.
In the 1950s and 1960s they came from stage, from certain "movie families" or had relatives connected to the film industry.
Today we have Miss Universe (Sushmita Sen), Miss World (Aishwarya Rai) and any number of Miss Indias. One of our biggest stars, Preity Zinta, was better known as the "Liril" soap girl not so long ago.
This means, very simply, that all these women were working professionals in advertising the profession that survives on the creation of icons before they arrived in cinema. They are clearly self-possessed, economically focussed and with no inhibitions when it comes to marketing or selling themselves as products or brands.
The notion of a vamp in Hindi cinema, therefore, became extinct the day this generation arrived in the 1990s.
Never mind the vamp, even the extra or the "junior artiste" in Hindi cinema (the group dancer accompanying the heroine) is from a professional class today. A number of them are models or aspiring models. When Hindi films are shot in Europe, rather than fly in "junior artistes" for the song sequence, the producer hires European dancers and models and the dance director teaches them the Indian dance steps. It is entirely possible that one day a "junior artiste" will become a mainstream heroine. In economic terms this is the creation of a socially mobile class.
Quite naturally, the look of the Indian heroine comes from the modelling universe. It is not just the Western influence of their dress designers; it is presentation. When Aishwarya Rai first arrived in Hindi cinema with the dreadful film, "Jeans", her walk was the "runway walk", her talk was the "baby doll" talk and she would move her head, not in response to movie dialogue, but to the superior camera angle. This was not acting, by any stretch of imagination, but a few years down the line she is an icon of Hindi cinema. She still poses more often than she acts, but such is her skill in marketing (an ability she acquired as professional in the glamour and show business world) that she can command the making of a movie.
In short, there is a very strong case for the argument that today women have had a vital role in shaping their own present representation in Hindi cinema, much more so than in the days of the Hindi film vamp.
With that thought, one has to admit that the vamp in Hindi cinema has been almost entirely a male creation, invention if you will.
If she has vanished, it is largely because of a redefinition of the Indian heroine, by the actresses themselves.
Since the aesthetics of Hindi cinema has always been less interesting than its fascinating sociology and economics, at least to film scholars, the notion that consumerism of the 1990s could have empowered women in Hindi cinema more than it has enslaved them is an idea that could be debated.
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