Simi Garewal: Women in Indian cinema

Published May 4, 2013

When your website has been up for five months and has received more than 5 million hits, you may justifiably be called a celebrity. In her native land Simi Garewal is known as a movie actress, and as the host of Rendezvous, a provocative television program on which she has interviewed Indian film stars, politicians, cricketers, and even Rupert Murdoch.
On 7 May Garewal will deliver the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture at Melbourne University, on The Evolution of Women in Indian Cinema. She will be the special guest of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne in a year which marks the centenary of cinema on the subcontinent. It is not, however, the anniversary of women in Hindi films, because in the early days of the industry female roles were played by men.
The elegant Garewal would be a star attraction in any capacity, but her lecture topic could hardly be more timely, as a recent series of brutal sex crimes have turned a spotlight on Indian attitudes towards women. Garewal sees the prevalence of rape and sexual violence as a consequence of the rigidly patrarchal nature of a society that tends to treat women as male property.
It could be argued that the Indian popular cinema is complicit in this process. Women are almost always viewed as sex objects in Indian films. In marriage they are self-denying to the point of martyrdom, while mothers become tragic goddesses, as in the role played by Nargis, in the famous 1957 melodrama, Mother India. If a woman is raped in a Hindi movie the customary way of restoring her honour is to commit suicide.
“What really upsets me,” Garewal says, “is that films continue to perpetuate values and customs that should have been buried long ago. It’s a problem because there are a lot of people in India for whom films are their school, their way of learning. They may be illterate, they may not read books. Instead they look at films and think: ‘This is the way things are. This is what I am and how I should be treated.’”
Even those films which seem to challenge stereotypes frequently end by reinforcing them. Garewal cites Homi Adajania’s Cocktail (2012) in which Deepika Padukone plays a modern young woman who indulges in drink, drugs and extra-marital sex. Despite their mutual passion, her lover ultimately ditches her in favour of a nice, respectable girl he can bring home to his mother. It seems there is a long way to go before Indian women can enjoy their freedom on screen without being stigmatised.

Garewal’s own career in film began with an act of rebellion. When her cavalry officer father opposed her wish to become an actress she went on a hunger strike until he relented. The deal was that she had a year, no more, to get her break in the industry.
She succeeded, and went on to appear in more than 50 films, including features by leading directors such as Satyajit Ray (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969) and Raj Kapoor (Mera Naam Joker, 1972). She caused a minor sensation in 1972 when she appeared in a sex scene in the American film, Siddhartha, although it seems incredibly tame by today’s standards.
Although she could have starred in many more movies Garewal cut short her acting career when the roles she was being offered no longer appealed. Rather than playing the dutiful wife and mother, she decided to step behind the camera, directing a documentary on Raj Kapoor, and later a three part film on Rajiv Gandhi. Her move into TV, and her success as an interviewer, put the sealer on her career change.
Now in her sixties, single and independent, Garewal feels frustrated that the kind of roles which induced her to give up acting are still being trundled out today.
“Where are those films seen from a woman’s perspective? Where do they show a woman’s ambitions and grievances? What she goes through, or where she comes out victorious? The perspective is relentlessly male. It’s a male dominated industry in which leading actors will not work in a feature in which a woman has the bigger and more important role. If the story focuses on the heroine it’s always doomed to be a small film at the box office.”
Garewal believes the Indian woman on screen has been designed and defined by the male. “If she’s a wife she has to put up with all her husband’s nonsense. If she’s a girlfriend she has to play a little first, but finally succumb and worship him. The lyrics of popular songs exhort a woman to worship her husband even if he is wicked, even if he is cruel.”
In most Bollywood films if a woman has an intellect, a career or ambitions, she will have to pay a price. Garewal believes the actresses accept this state of affairs because they would rather be in the industry than out of it.
It’s a bleak picture, but Garewal, who knows the value of a happy ending, is excited by the changes taking place in the Indian film world. This is largely due to a new level of education among younger, independent fillmmakers who look at the cinema from an international perspective. There is a growing audience for films which avoid the Bollywood song and dance routines in favour of a harder, more realistic approach.
In her lecture, Garewal will pinpoint breakthrough moments, such as a lesbian love affair between housewives, played by Nandita Das and Shabani Azmi, in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996). She will sing the praises of iconic actresses such as Supriya Chowdury, and  celebrated newcomers such as Vidya Balan.
Garewal believes that the Indian cinema has an under-utilised power to bring about fundamental social change. “Film is such a powerful medium,” she says. “You don’t have to carry on propagating old ideas about what a woman should be. You don’t have to portray her as subservient and subjugated. You can make an audience see that it’s allright for a woman to be modern, to be smart, and to be a working wife. There’s nothing wrong with that!”