Playing the `hard` woman on screen

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 16, 2004 07:02 hrs

Some years ago, Urmila Matondkar played a strange and stunning cat-and-mouse game with Manoj Bajpai in Ram Gopal Varma’s expertly executed horror thriller Kaun. Who was the victim and who the aggressor? It was hard to tell.

Now in a ravishing reprise the battle lines in the gender equation are far more clearly etched in debutant director Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Haseena Thi which opens this Friday. While Saif hatches his grim-plans Urmila suffers the con’s sequences, and finally turns the tables on her tormentor.

In a 1983 family drama Mujhe Insaaf Chahiye/i>, a middleclass girl played by Rati Agnihotri ganged up with a lawyer (Rekha) to fight the playboy (Mithun Chakraborty) who impregnated and deserted her. 20 years later Urmila Matondkar takes on her tormentor played by Saif Ali Khan in a fight to feverish finish.

The hero who displays his fangs and the heroine who fights back with all she’s got! Films about the woman on a warpath have fascinated filmmakers in fits and starts. Though it isn’t one of Bollywood’s favourite formula (simply because female-oriented films don’t always work) there are many film on the theme of the woman scorned and her hellish fury that made a deep dent.

In 1984 cinematographer Pravin Bhatt (Vikram Bhatt’s father) turned director with Bhavna, an emotionally cathartic tale about a woman (Shabana Azmi) who fights her own caddish husband (Marc Zuber) to bring up her son with dignity, and even slaughters the villainish spouse to ensure her son’s future. Shabana’s bravura performance, reminiscent of Nargis’s benchmark performance of a woman scorned in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, won her a richly deserved Filmfare award for best actress.

In 1988, Rekha stunned audiences in Rakesh Roshan’s Khoon Bhari Maang with her performance as a woman who’s fed to the crocodiles by her gold-digging husband (Kabir Bedi). She emerges cosmetically transformed to seek revenge. Like Shabana’s Bhavna, Rekha won a Filmfare award for her performance.

In Anil Sharma’s Shradhanjali (1981) Raakhee took on Suresh Oberoi and defeated him in a corporate battle. More recently there was Preity Zinta in Kundan Shah’s Kya Kehna seeking redress from her rich impregnator Saif Ali Khan.

Now Saif returns to play the cool cad in Ek Haseena Thi, taking the theme of the male oppressor beyond the rape-and-revene routine where films on female vendetta usually go.

It’s interesting to see the gender battle played in the above films on a more sly subtle and damning plane than in the conventional man-woman drama.

Sex in these film isn’t an issue. Morality is. And that’s what makes the battle lines so contoured. Whether the wronged woman finally rights her wrong or not, one thing is for sure: Bollywood is ready to see a change in the woman’s ttraditional role vis-à-vis the male sex.

She takes it lying down. And then she gives back as good as she gets.