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IFFI 2017: Bhumi Pednekar recalls when women in Hindi films had no profession

The Toilet: Ek Prem Katha actress highlighted the various ways in which women were and are stereotyped in the movies.

Bhumi Pednekar at the masterclass on breaking stereotypes. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Mayur Lookhar

Though all the three films she has acted in so far have been hits, the sight of Bhumi Pednekar conducting a masterclass came as something of a surprise. But it was a pleasant surprise. After all, in her short career so far, Pednekar has made a name playing strong female roles that break gender stereotypes.

Pednekar was an assistant casting director with Yash Raj Films. She recalls the brief given to her by seniors — we want a beautiful, tall, fit, fair girl as heroine. "I obliged them, but then I was offered Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015). All the stereotypes that we, including me, looked for in a girl were broken by that film,” said Pednekar, who played a plump young woman in it.

Before breaking stereotypes in the movies, however, Pednekar broke one at home. "I come from a very well-educated family, where someone is from an IIM [Indian Institute of Management], someone from an IIT [Indian Institute of Technology], some are CEOs, my sister is a lawyer. So I broke the first stereotype in my family by taking to films. You can be an achiever without a regular education, too. Not that I’m not educated. [But] I stared working at Yash Raj Films when I was 17. There was no option, or else I would have ended up studying in London,” she joked.

To highlight the stereotypes that have long plagued the Indian film industry, Pednekar discussed the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema over the decades. The country's first feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), had a man playing a woman because women were not allowed to work in cinema then.

"We had a revolution in the 1930s when we had the likes of Devika Rani, Mehtab, Zubeida," said Pednekar. "I think Devika Rani had the first kiss on screen, a pretty long one as well, and she also ran the studio, Bombay Talkies.”

The scene from Karma (1933) played on screen. "Our society was evolved then that a Devika Rani could do such a kissing scene,” remarked Pednekar, as she admitted that many of these things came as revelations to her as well while doing her research for the masterclass.

From the 1940s onwards, big money started coming into the film industry and cinema came to be largely controlled by men, who also constituted a majority of the audience. "I believe that was when corruption seeped into our industry," Pednekar said. "Stories were made to please men. The woman was viewed from a man’s perspective. A woman largely played a glorious mother or devoted wife/lover.

"We then had a Nargis who gave us Mother India (1957). We had Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, filmmakers who questioned society.” But those simply resulted in new stereotypes. "These actresses [of the 1950s and 1960s] tried to usher in change through their performances. Unfortunately, such performances also led to stereotypes that this is how a woman should be portrayed. A woman was assigned to be a mother, fast for her man. She had no dreams, no aspirations. In fact, I get really amazed that till the 1990s, women in the industry didn’t have a profession. They would be a good mother, wife or sister.”

Pednekar also reminded the audience that in between, in the 1970s and 1980s, revenge dramas ruled the roost and women were often reduced to damsels in distress. “Maybe the actresses got so bored with the sob stories that they became ferocious," she said. "That is why we then had a Khoon Bhari Maang (1988). I think that film inspired a lot of women.” 

The Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) actress then turned to the other popular stereotype: the vamp. “A  vamp was a woman who wore Western clothes, smoked, drank, partied, had the guts to get the man she wanted," she said. "I don’t know why she was called a vamp, because all those are great qualities. Maybe not the smoking or drinking. [But] just because a woman was brave, passionate, she was labelled a vamp. Thank god for Helenji. With her many [cabaret] numbers she broke every kind of stereotype.”

Globalization in the early 1990s changed India cinema along with the country's economics and politics. “Globalization exposed us to many new things," she said. "Mohra (1994) was a film in which Raveena Tandon broke the stereotype of not having a profession. She played a journalist. It was so refreshing to see a female actor have a profession. Sridevi played two vastly different roles in Chaal Baaz (1989). One represented the stereotype while the other showed us what our women needed to be."

Pednekar also deviated slightly from the theme to recall a horrific movie rape scene. “I don’t recollect the film or the actor, but it had a scene where the antagonist rapes the woman, tears her blouse, and says, 'Now tie me a rakhi’. That is disgusting. I was shocked.

"The new millennium, though, has seen a positive for women. I’m proud to say that out of those new films, three are mine.”

While on stereotyping, it must be noted that Pednekar is credited as the one who brought the small-town woman back into the cinematic limelight. One hopes the appreciation she received does not result in another stereotype — small-town girl, wearing traditional clothes, obedient.

"I don’t think my films worked because I played a small-town girl," responded Pednekar. "They worked because of the stories. The appreciation that has come is for the stories and the characters. She is not obedient in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017). Jaya leaves her husband because the family doesn’t have a toilet. In Dum Laga Ke Haisha, she slaps her husband.

"Clothes have nothing to do with a performance. Didn’t Rani Mukerji play a blind girl in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (2005)? Her character wore Western clothes, spoke English. Eventually, it’s not the physical part, but unless you perform as an actor, you film will never click.”

An audience member asked if Pednekar has roots in Goa. “Yes, I’m Konkani," she answered, "but I was born and raised in Mumbai. Out there we don’t speak much Konkani. My roots are here, in a village called Pedne. I remember when I was working for Yash Raj Films, our team used to visit Goa regularly, Unfortunately, I never got a chance to go. But today, I’m holding a masterclass [in Goa].”

The actress added that she would love to do a Konkani film if the script were good.

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