Is the pouty-lipped voluptuous Mona darling passé? Bindu, Padma Khanna and luminous Helen are no more. You never see them like in Deewar or Hera Pheri of today.

Are women an integral part of the films on underworld? Are they a needed component for the films to survive?

With ‘Deewar’ as a landmark in realistic gangster movies the beginning seemed humane enough to see things in a different light. The women of the don gelled well with the narrative. In ‘Deewar’ released in 1975 Anita (Parveen Babi) is a whore who chance meets Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) the underworld don in a bar where he is a regular visitor. Vijay’s story touches Anita and she feels like living her life afresh. She takes a decision. Her role as Vijay’s love interest is upgraded when she takes an independent decision of marrying and bearing Vijay’s child. She is portrayed to be a tragic character who had been exploited. Just when you thought that the character of Anita will be an independent and matured one and not remain a bimbo till the end, Yash Chopra very cleverly makes her a victim of the situation again. She dies before having an opportunity to live life on her own terms again. Then came ‘GreatGambler’ where again there were twists of look alikes etc. but the depiction of woman with the gang was sort of ambiguous. The hardliner woman is bad while the one who has concealed her identity to be a part of the gang to avenge her brother’s death( Zeenat Aman) becomes deviated from her mission and exists more as a love interest of the hero.   

The trend of depicting the women as humane and capable of taking decision on their own was getting reduced over years. Apparently women in underworld movies did get smarter and closer to real life but at some point of the script they had untimely departure. A close examination of the recent releases may reveal the patterns.

In ‘Satya’ Urmila Matondkar`s and Shefali Chaya`s character as girl friend and wife respectively never reach any extra dimension. Only that Shefali`s life doesn’t fall apart when Bhiku dies. But Urmila`s character is a step further for her life not only comes to a stand still but she in fact looses any interest to live on. She is the epitome of uncorrupt innocence who although living in a ‘kholi’ of Mumbai dosen`t have any realistic independent mind at all. Satya is her blindman`s stick. Company released in 2002 has two female characters. Like in ‘Satya’ one of the female character is a romantic add on and the other is a wife.  Saroja  played by Manisha Koirala is Malik`s( Ajay Devgan`s) live-in – girlfriend. In ‘Satya’ the women don`t even think of taking any decision, in ‘Company’ (almost 3hr screen time) both these women do try to take independent decisions but are either pushed to the margins to regret later or are physically killed. Neither Manisha nor Anatara`s character have anything to do with power game played right in front of their noses. Saroja`s character follows Deewar trend. She is a woman who wants to lead a normal life by marring Malik and wants to act ‘bibi’ to Malik. But Verma has other plans for her. Just to prove once into all this then there’s no way out he makes the character look so stoned that she is often oblivious to her surroundings. And her proposal of marriage is continuously refused by Malik. Both have NO say in Malik`s or Chandu`s decision and do not get any chance to act independently. They merely pose themselves as passive entities. 

Does that mean that Bindus and Helens were better off? Yes and No at the same time. Many instances can be sited. ‘Zanjeer’, a cult film in mainstream cinema is a better example. Mona( Bindu) in ‘Zanjeer’ is not only the sexual interest of Teja( Ajit) but also very much a part of the gang. Though she doesn’t decide but is considered as an executioner. Till this point one may argue that she is just an executioner! But there’s a twist waiting – she strikes a deal of profit sharing (though unequal in percentage).

That she rises herself to the level of sharing the booty is an element of gender sensitivity from the director’s perspective. Before she becomes a key player at the decision-making level – she has to die.

‘Deewar’ again takes an attempt to make Anita look as a whore with golden heart but takes up obvious consequences that might happen to women who has been an associate to the bad world. Pregnant Anita is murdered by Madan Puri`s gang on look out for Vijay.

In all these films the women had been marginalized consciously to bring in the baseline – CRIME IS A MAN‘S WORLD BABY. You better stay at “home” – it’s a big bad world outside. When this seemed a set pattern ‘Maqbool’ was released. What was so different about ‘Maqbool’? The grimness of underworld is claustrophobic all the more because it is Shakespearean world transposed at it’s best.  With the Bard‘s ghost around all rules of women’s depiction in Gangster film take a turn. Nimmi(Tabu) is the perpetrator. She sets all her dark desire free to germinate the seed of horrendous crime. The true Macbeathean style follows, as the politics of lust and passion becomes the key theme. Nimmi played by Tabu is diametrically opposite to the cult statement. Her cunningness is enviable and in the turn of events for a change it was she who became the ‘kingpin’ instead of Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur). Her lust for life that’s not sterile asserts the fact that portrayals are largely dependent on their creators. ‘Maqbool’ is yet become a yardstick of politically correct depiction of gender in a gangster movie but it might so happen in near future. How long would we want women in reel life to be an epitome of innocence?

Nilosree Biswas

Short filmmaker, writer, extensively working on social development issues particularly on gender, environment, and education. In last eight years she had made many documentaries on issues of primary education, traditional crafts, marginalization of occupation. Contributor to PII (Press Institute of India) & publications like People, Outlook, Tehelka, Anandabazar & Telegraph. Based in Kolkata, India.