1977 was an unremarkable year for film. Admittedly it was the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters when Hollywood was beginning to cotton on to the power of the Blockbuster but otherwise there is little to get excited about. The era of the great American political movies was drawing to an end though auteurs like Scorsese (New York, New York), Lynch (Eraserhead) and Scott (The Duelists) were emerging.
Some great enduring films were still made: Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire; Ray’s The Chess Players, Allen’s Annie Hall and Herzog’s Stroszek are all classics but this was clearly a year of transformation and change.
But has that got anything to do with Parvarish, one of the great Amitabh Bachchan masalas?
Indeed if I had to compare it with anything else made in 1977 it would have to be with The Spy Who Loved me, an absurd Bond by any standards; but even that would be doing Parvarish a huge disservice. If I’ve learned anything these past months it’s that you just can’t judge Bollywood films by Hollywood (or European) standards.
Made in the same few years as Zanjeer (1973), Sholay and Deewar (1975), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Don (1978) and Naseeb (1981), Parvarish is, like all of those great films, an entertainment first and foremost.
Inspector Shamsher Singh (Shammi Kapoor) has encircled the bandit Mangal Singh (Amjad Khan) at his home just as his wife gives birth to a son, Amit. Some of the gang, included his brother, escape but Singh is captured. The dying wife gives up their son to the care of the inspector who takes him home to be cared for along with his own son Kishan.
Eight years pass and we learn that Kishan is becoming the naughty one whilst Amit is well behaved. Mangal Singh is released from jail and comes to reclaim his son. The Inspector refuses but Kishan accidentally comes to believe that he is the son of the bandit.
Jump ahead again and Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) is a police inspector himself whilst Kishan (Vinod Khanna), seemingly a teacher in a school for the blind, is actually central to Mangal Singh’s criminal gang. Now the film really begins.
Actually this is all familiar stuff – children separated from parents; mistaken identity; one brother a cop and the other a criminal - national duty v familial duty; nature v nurture; criminality and corruption as the reason for society’s inequities (though the police come out remarkably well in this one). So what makes it better than many other films of its type and era?
Bachchan and Khanna are at the top of their game as great action heroes but are funny and charismatic too, and the action (apart from the hilarious submarines) is, for a 70s masala, fairly slick; as is the editing. What elevates the film (into Seeta aur Geeta territory) is Neetu Singh and Shabana Azmi as sisters Neeto and Shabbo. They are skilled thieves and pick pockets, who become mixed up in the lives of Amit and Kishan. Ostensibly the ‘love interest’ they get the best lines, the best songs and easily steal the show. Indeed, the film loses some of its allure in the second half when they get less screen time and thus less of their exuberant charm and personality.
Here lies one of the most interesting issues in Bollywood film. We know that the male stars drive the industry and get paid far more than the female stars (5 to 10 times more usually) and that they are lionised in Indian society. We also know that, just like any other popular romantic cinema throughout its history, Hindi movies rest, rely and thrive on the magnetism and sex appeal of their female stars as well as that insubstantial mysterious quality, desire. Yet reading reviews, gossip columns and blogs it’s almost as though this obvious reality is hidden or blurred - that Indian society (?) can’t admit to the centrality of women and that the best films undoubtedly have the more interesting female characters.
Of course sensuality and eroticism are as central to cinema as light and shade. Even when the camera hasn’t objectified and gazed longingly at the female form (and the male form), desire lurks everywhere in the history of film. Desire, conceptually insubstantial as it is, IS different from objectification of women in films and from the sexism prevalent throughout the film industry. Texts are both about desire AND generate desire in the viewer, and though this can arguably said of all texts – literature (Deleuze and Guattari’s famously called literary texts “machines of desire”), art, music, theatre – cinematic texts are especially complicated in this regard. Lacan’s identification of the “ ’paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, even scandalous character’ of desire” gives one a sense of that complexity.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to separate out desire from sexual objectification – not at all - so to begin with I’ll concentrate on the more tangible aspects of sexism and objectification. Recent studies show the remarkable inequality in Hollywood films. Exact facts and figures are harder to find for Bollywood but all the evidence points to even worse statistics. Women have fewer roles, less screen time; they are more likely represent sexist stereotypes and so on. The movie business echoes and perpetuates the structural sexism throughout Western society. This is unequivocally the same in Bollywood. Objectification and the male gaze is a different aspect of this sexism and you only have to watch a couple of recent item numbers to realise that sexual objectification of women is a key part of contemporary Hindi films. Studies based on qualitative content analysis back up that impression.
A few critics have raised a different question. Does Indian cinema require a more flexible, nuanced critical framework from the seminal work done in feminist film criticism by Laura Mulvey and her successors? They did after all base their work on Hollywood films. In Hollywood the male gaze and the objectified representation of women can be astoundingly obvious and gratuitous (Transformers) or slightly less so (Leaving Las Vegas) but often we are so inured to it that it is only those more obvious ones we pick out for criticism. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t still much more prevalent than cinephiles would perhaps like to admit. Common sense (and my impression after watching 70 Bollywood films) would suggest Bollywood is no different – and probably worse. Nonetheless those dissenting critics ask if there is perhaps a different ‘Indian culture of looking’ that is not, still, mainly concerned with objectifying women. It’s a more reasonable and interesting question than one might imagine. Western cinema, has throughout its history, been based on realism and thus there is a voyeuristic element to watching other people’s ‘real’ lives play out. Indian cinema is melodramatic in form and thus far more concerned with performance. The ludicrous fight sequences, the breaks in continuity and the song and dance numbers make it clear that the movie you are watching is not realistic in the same way The Godfather is. Could this really make a difference to the dynamics of gaze and the interpretation of images?
Anyway, going back to Parvarish for a minute, it’s completely unsurprising that virtually all Hindi films, unlike Hollywood movies, rely on their (young) female stars. Indian audiences expect a bit of everything in their films–there has to be elements of romance or family drama even in an action film just as there has to be music. Whereas there are MANY great popular Western films that hardly feature women at all – The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Cool Hand Luke, The Great Escape, The Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch. So many indeed that we have to complain about a lack of interesting female roles again and again.
This makes life very interesting for any analysis of women’s role in Indian films. You might imagine a fairly simple dichotomy between films that offer up sexist stereotypes or glamorised pin-ups and those that offer more interesting female characters – or at least a clearly delineated spectrum. Another theory might suggest that all women’s roles are corrupted by the oppressive sexual politics and chauvinistic attitudes prevalent throughout Indian society.Neither alternative seems correct however. I wonder instead if there’s something unique to the masala mix that changes the equation in a more fundamental way. This isn’t to suggest that most Hindi films don’t incorporate various varieties of sexism and crude stereotype, or that they don’t objectify women - they do. This is tricky territory as I don’t want to fall in to any form of Orientalism. Nonetheless It’s one thing to embrace the differences between Bollywood and Hollywood and the differences in audience expectation and quite another to feel like I’m excusing sexism in Hindi films in any way. Thus my feeling is that Hindi films don’t require a more sophisticated critical framework for analysing the male gaze – but I’m going to do some more reading and get back to you. Rather I wonder if Hindi films do something unique with sensuality and with desire - though I’m perfectly willing to accept, for now anyway, that has more to do with my new found fascination for Bollywood.