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Of Divas & Desire

Female beauty has a long history of propelling the narrative of Hindi films, an essentially safe space where core issues, especially relating to beauty and the female form may be pondered and questioned but is ultimately addressed within a conventional framework. Edited excerpts from the story.

Waheeda Rehman

Beauty. Noun: A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. A beautiful woman.

These two broad definitions of beauty from the Oxford dictionary set the tone for the use of the word in universal parlance. The realm of poets and philosophers, the domain of artistes and aesthetes, beauty in Keats’ ode is truth, in the popular phrase lies in the eyes of the beholder, and in advertising is the outcome of the cream in a box.

When we use the term ‘cinematic’, we think of scenic locations, moody lighting, aesthetically pleasing visuals. Beauty no doubt is intrinsic to all cinema. But it has interpretations beyond the obvious and literal, especially in films that break out of the mainstream. In Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), we follow a plastic bag suspended in the air while the VO confesses: ‘Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.’

Abhishek Chaubey, Udta Punjab, 2016. Alia-Bhatt as Kumari Pinky. Image Credit: Balaji Motion Pictures.

Hindi cinema has its own relationship with beauty, exemplified by the female form. How this form is represented, what it signifies and which truth it reveals is a little explored line of thought. Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel trace the contours of beauty, sexuality and consumption in their 2002 book Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film. But this is not a conversation that many voices join in.

Madhubala.

Early Indian cinema’s female beauty ideal was inherited from the idealised art of Raja Ravi Varma, an image that directly fed the calendar art featuring doe-eyed maidens and enticing apsaras. Devika Rani’s pencilled eyebrows and painted lips gave way to the ethereal Madhubala. With her angel face and naughty grin, Madhubala became an emblem of post-Independence womanhood, challenging the established order with humour (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, 1958) or defiance (Mughal E Azam, 1960).

The eras of the style icon Sadhana, feisty Mumtaz, alluring Hema Malini and sexy Zeenat Aman all had their own feminine ideals. The delicacy of Mere Mehboob (1963) was an ode to courtly love, while Jai Jai Shiv Shankar from Aap Ki Kasam (1974) was a wild celebration of it. The heroine is coy in one and exuberant in the other, representing the two longstanding female ideals in Hindi cinema.

Raj Kapoor, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, 1978. Image Credit: Shemaroo Video Pvt. Ltd.

Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Raj Kapoor’s 1978 film, centred around the beauty obsession and the predominant role of physical beauty in our romantic lives. Roopa, played by Zeenat Aman, fields a scar on her right cheek and neck that disfigures an otherwise perfect form, and relationship with Rajeev, played by Shashi Kapoor. The disfigurement – its concealment, revelation and circumventing – form the plot of the film. Raj Kapoor, in a good illustration of what feminist critic Laura Mulvey termed ‘the male gaze’ in 1975, treats his heroine as an erotic object created to please the male heterosexual viewer, with high blouses and low skirts showing off a ‘beautiful’ figure, and the offending scar mostly hidden by a veil or strategic shot-taking.

Rehana is a Mumbai-based writer-editor.

To read the full article, click here.

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