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DAWN Tuesday Review, Oct 31-Nov 6, 1995

Importance of Being Eve

By definition popular cinema is a document of the collective fantasies of a people. In our cinema there is so much emphasis on love stories that it can certainly be used for analyzing the images of female sexuality in the male mind (Yes, I would consider our cinema as a manifestation of the male unconscious because all movies are fashioned by men’s choices and all female roles appearing within them are "male-identified", or "women as perceived by men rather than women as they really are.")

A study of the Pakistani cinema over the past 45 years will leave us with at least five distinct images of the female role. In this article I will try to describe in brief each of these types and then interpret them for their socio-psychological functions.

The daughter of Eve

This woman is initially unaware of her own sexuality. In pure innocence, she faces the man with all her charms, giving little thought to what will happen if he falls for that charisma. Rather unlike Lord Krishna of the Hindu mythology (and Shammi Kapoor of the Indian cinema) the Pakistani hero is typically unable to court her without hurting himself too deeply. Yet the woman remains unaware or indifferent to the harm she has brought to the unsuspecting man.

Most remarkably played by Sabiha Khanum in Saat Lakh (’57), this manner of woman was more popular in the 50s than later. The role of Shabnam in the ’80 film Nahin Abhi Nahin can be regarded as an occasional revival of this stereotype. However, this type was present in quite a number of movies between the 50s and 80s, although mostly in the background -- for example, Arman ’66.

The function of this woman in a Pakistani film is usually analogical to Mother Eve in the Genesis story: she relieves the human male of all guilt by existing as an object worthy of all the blame. She is the temptress. She is the siren. She offers him the apple without knowing herself that this is the fruit of carnal knowledge and contains the seeds of sorrow.

The kind prostitute

To the viewer of the Pakistani or Indian cinema the concept of a kind prostitute may seem just as old as the profession of prostitution itself. Even in Saat Lakh, there is one of this type who is presented along with ‘the daughter of Eve’. (The role is played by Nayyar Sultana). Typically, a kind prostitute is a good dancer and a melodious singer, two qualities that are rarely united in a single prostitute in the real world. Yet she is not greedy, and will not agree to betray the hero at any cost (in Saat Lakh she declines money.) Also, she looks upto the hero as some kind of a saviour (in Saat Lakh, Santosh Kumar actually saves her life. In Anjuman (’71), Umrao Jan Ada (’74) and many other movies, a kind prostitute expects the hero to "take her out of this life of shame.") In almost every case this woman ends up sacrificing her life for the sake of the hero.

Some of the movies have been named above. In the 70s Rani was probably the most popular actress for this type of role. However, the stereotype has outlived Rani. Naam Mera Badnam (’85) and Bazar-e-Husn (’89) are some examples to illustrate the point.

What is the social function of the prostitute? Indeed there is solace for all kind of men: the unsatisfied and the unhappy. By offering herself as an object of sale the woman promises accessibility to every member of the male sex. When, in an Indian or Pakistani movie she gives herself away to the hero for nothing at all she boosts her self-esteem to the highest degree (and that of the viewer too, since he identifies himself with the hero).

Not just that, in a way she also pledges to get out of his life whenever her presence may seem to be creating a problem. This is epitomized in her final sacrifice.

Nobler than the nobles

Apparently this is the most reasonable type. This lady is endowed with some education and a lot of common sense. She is judicious. She does not fall headlong in love with the man but when eventually she does so, she fulfills her vows to the last. If faced with a dilemma she decides carefully and in accordance with the values of her time. Whatever those values may be, she is capable of making brave decisions.

For instance, in Arman she (Zeba) is forced to choose between fulfillment of love and honour of the family and she chooses to uphold the name of the family although is causes her unbearable troubles, including rejection by her lover. She never breaks under pressure. Facing the undeserved blame she retorts, "I may not be accepted as worthy of living among the nobles but I am better than many of them."

In a typical plot she alone holds the key to the resolution. In Arman, Zeba appears at the last moment with her song and stops Waheed Murad from jumping off the cliff. Typically this type of woman delays the resolution of the story due to her own well-defined values.

This type evolved most characteristically in the movies of the 60s. Some of the most memorable (apart from the ones already mentioned above) are: Saheli (’60), Aulad (’62), Jahan Tum Wahan Hum (’67), Andaleeb (’69) and also Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat (’76) -- the last one starred Babra Sharif. In the 70s and afterwards the role did not disappear from our films altogether but shifted to secondary importance. The role played by Atiqa Odho in the recent release Jo Darr Gaya Woh Marr Gaya is rather like an understated manifestation of this same character.

And what does the man do in the moments of crisis when the woman is fighting the storm? Typically he leaves her alone and lies in a corner to lick his own wounds. In Arman (in fact in most Waheed Murad movies) the hero throws himself into the arms of Bacchus and becomes an alcoholic. In most films he either marries another girl (Arman) or gets engaged elsewhere (Andaleeb). Indeed, this woman by the strength of her will and commitment makes it possible for the debonair hero to take a trip to escapism and fantasy. He does not have to worry about the realities of the world, the woman out there will deal with them.

Mod girl

The "westernized girl" was an object of blame in the movies until the 70s. She goes out for enjoyment, she dances and (sometimes) she drinks. She has little regard for family values and virtually no consideration for the norms of society. In movies like Dil Mera Dharkan Teri (’67) she was represented as the source of all evil in the society. In other studies like Devar Bhabhi (’67) and Piya Milan Ki Aas (’68) she was declared a breeder of unhappiness for herself as well as for the others around her. These views changed with the social revolutions of the 70s. Through films like Mulaqat (’74) and Mohabbat Zindagi Hai (’75) her function in the plot began to change until she was accepted with Aaina (’77). In this film Shabnam meets Nadeem and falls in love with him. She marries Nadeem, who is much below her social status and almost without the consent of her parents. Consequently she finds it difficult to settle down in a home situation that is essentially devoid of the luxuries she had always taken as granted. She leaves Nadeem but ultimately luxuries of a rich father’s house are no substitute for a husband’s love.

There can only be one explanation of this phenomena: the anxieties of the middle class male about the upper class female. Since she was virtually inaccessible in the 60s he tries to humiliate her. Waheed shifts to her lovely house only to find out she is promiscuous. Utterly disgusted, he leaves her and she is killed in a road accident.

Probably the social and economic upheaval of the 70s was the reason why our film-makers’ attitude towards this woman changed. In those days people had started thinking about breaking the class barrier. Not only the so-called "economic reforms" of Mr. Bhutto but also other factors such as the "Dubai Chalo syndrome" are to be taken into account. All this put together, there were reasons for the man of the lower classes to think about moving upwards on the social ladder. The woman of the upper class (possibly also symbolizing the upper class itself) ceased to be an object of hate because she was now seen as accessible.

Miss Hong Kong

The woman who can take care of herself amidst a bunch of would-he-rapists was epitomized in Miss Hong Kong (’80). Holding a black belt in karate, this virtually unassailable beauty is a terror for the guilty. It is not surprising that she sings a song on the super boxer Muhammad Ali’s signature tune, and even includes the famous slogan "catch me if you can". And they can't! She falls in love with a harmless man and adores him not for his bravery by for his innocence.

Later, towards the end of the decade this type further evolved through such films as Hasina 420 (’88) and Kalay Chore (’90) into a sex symbol-cum-martial arts expert. In such roles she moves amongst the criminals, incites them into her bedroom and then emerges somehow chaste and untouched. She blurts out vulgar dialogues that would make the "kind prostitute" blush. In such roles this type becomes a virtual impossibility, a distorted fantasy.

With the Afghan War on the borders and General Zia-ul-Haq in Islamabad, this was perhaps quite a reasonable dream for the Pakistani male. The desire to be approved by a warrior woman can be justified when the ruling class in the country is the military. Also, for a motion faced with the dual realities of the Nawabpur gang rape and the Hudood Ordinance for Islamisation, it was a nice idea to think about a woman who will not burden her man with the necessity of saving her against the danger, but will also come to his rescue in any critical situation.

What about the future?

I think a sixth type is emerging through such films as Jeeva and Jo Dar Gaya… with all the gloss and glamour available to the modern Pakistani photographer, cinema is now presenting a type of woman who is nothing more than a sex object (and remember that there can be a difference between sex symbol and sex object.) The roles played by Resham and Reema in the respective films are among the worst examples of objectification of a woman in our cinema. They do not serve any purpose in the plot. They are not active in any part of the story.

But surely this is just the tip of the ice-berg. We need to see more of it in order to interpret its socio-psychological meaning.

See Also

Cinerama 1, 3, 4, 5


This is the second of a five-article series on the subcontinent's cinematic culture. The third article on the function of film songs follows next.
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