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The Fire Within

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By: Arya Aiyappan
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
The creation of gender identities facilitates the understanding of the position of women in India. Gender is culturally constructed through cinema which depicts and captures the 'real lives' of women in the social and economic sphere, and some crucial categories like the tussle between tradition and modernity, oppression and liberation, etc.

Culture is the integrated pattern of human values, customary beliefs and practices of a social group. In India, traditional conception of womanhood is based on the purity of body and sexual life. Hindi cinema, with its own culture, customs, and language depicts this, with commercial cinema reinforcing and experimental cinema contesting this outlook. The harsh and orthodox rules of the society try to ensure that a woman is confined to the four walls of her home.

Kalpana Lajmi's Rudaali presenting an alienated, yet strong and sensitive 'rudaali' (mourner) without a peer, Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen portraying the emergence of a sexually abused woman as a dacoit leader and spokesperson of the dalits, Deepa Mehta's Fire exploring lesbian relations challenging the world where the very existence of woman is overlooked and even negated, and Jagmohan Mundhra's Bawandar picturing the evolution of a physically abused woman as a renowned political figure - all focus on the violation of physical space and human rights, misuse of religious freedom, rampant violence, and the mental and emotional traumas of women.

Women are often viewed as objects of desire, through the objectification of female body and the repression of female identity. The woman becomes an object and not the subject. Gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, etc determine 'looking relations' and social divisions. The society shapes the identity of women according to established notions of patriarchal truth. The differences ingrained right from childhood are fostered throughout the woman's life.

Indian cinema has changed across the ages and women are identified as the harbingers of change. Women are now symbolic of the rage against the oppressiveness of patriarchy. The women once caught between the conflicting interests of passive femininity and regressive masculinity strive to achieve a stable sexual identity. Contemporary socially relevant films like Madhur Bhandarkar's Page Three, Revathi's Phir Milenge, Mahesh Manjrekar's Astitva, Prakash Jha's Mrityudand, Kalpana Lajmi's Daman, etc, portray women who strive to make a mark of their own in the domestic sphere as well as the public sphere. They no longer subscribe themselves to the harsh and oppressive patriarchal truths.

Gender shapes the identity of women and decides the institutions, customs and practices. Woman's empowerment and her need for space will become a reality in Indian society only through the depiction of her struggle to regain their selfhood and self-expression. 

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