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On the 60th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo that has one of the best ‘impersonating’ performance, a look at the imposter who ‘pretends’ to be the real character, and the ‘performance’ of a character by a character in Bollywood.
Let us look at the concept of ‘impersonation’ in Hindi films, and in Vertigo.
In Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949), the suspense is hitched on to a female ‘ghost’ who later turns out to have been a woman impersonating a dead woman who looks exactly like her. It was also a beautiful love story that ends in tragedy, and succeeds in sustaining an eerie air of suspense till the end.
In Bimal Roy’s record-breaking hit Madhumati (1958), a film of love and revenge through reincarnation, a sophisticated city girl is requested by the hero Anand to pretend to be his lover Madhumati who was forced to kill herself in his last birth. But this new girl, Madhu, does not need to pretend at all because the ghost of the dead Madhumati appears and takes her revenge on the powerful man responsible for her death. This look-alike is different – she is city-bred, sophisticated, and appears to be educated. She agrees to step in for a brief ‘role playing.’ The question is – is this ‘role-playing’ by this second woman a willing act to help the hero? Or is she paid for her ‘services’? The script does not explain what it feels does not need explanation.
Both Madhumati and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo are celebrating their 60th birth anniversary in world cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) has become a serious subject for film studies scholars, feminist scholars and intellectuals whose focus seems to be on the misogynist beliefs inherent in Hitchcock’s films in general and Vertigo in particular. The audience tends to get so captivated by the thriller element that unfolds layer by layer that it takes away its willingness to flesh out characters that establish a firm hierarchy between men and women.
Many years later, we have Om Shanti Om (2015) clearly ‘inspired’ or ‘adapted’ from Madhumati but placed in a different and more contemporary context. Deepika Padukone performs the two roles – of the one that died and the one that is requested to ‘pretend’ to be the dead woman so that the killer, who left no proof of his crime, can be killed through sheer terror on seeing the ghost of the very girl he burnt to death. Like in Madhumati, the ghost turns up unexpectedly and avenges her death. So, the woman asked to ‘portray’ the role is rendered redundant because the actual ‘ghost’ comes there, and there is no ‘performance’.
There are two kinds of ‘performance’ in these films. One is the actor performing the character she has been given to play. The other is the character she has been asked to ‘perform’ which is not herself but some other character in the same film! This is called ‘impersonation.’
The one point common in all these three films and in Vertigo is that they are all exotically beautiful women. The question is – is this performance through coercion, commerce, or manipulation?
As far as Mahal goes, it is self-created. No one asked the gardener’s daughter to pretend to act as the ghost. In Madhumati, the impersonating woman is performing someone else because the man who loved Madhumati has persuaded her. There is no mention of any monetary exchange in this performance because that is not important for the film. The same goes for Om Shanti Om.
It is different in Vertigo. If the other two films show that identical appearance was the criteria to choose another woman and not her beauty, in Vertigo, the woman who is asked to ‘perform’ another woman who may or may not be similar to her in looks, is an exotic beauty chosen to steer the retired detective away from his investigation. So, she enters into the scheme of impersonation for money, but later falls in love with the man she is asked to lead on, and becomes a doll in his hands.
Vertigo is a classic example of portraying the woman as one who can easily be manipulated by men, as one who bears it all even at the cost of her identity. The female protagonist in the film is split into two distinct personas. One is Madeliene, a sophisticated, beautiful woman of the class this second woman Judy performs to order. The second is Judy as her real self, of mainstream class sans aristocracy or the delicacy of speech or costume like the Madeliene she portrays. The real Madeliene remains off-screen and the hero Scottie, the retired detective asked by his friend Gavin to follow his wife Madeliene, is cleverly tricked into believing that Judy-as-Madeliene is the woman who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of an ancestral place. Judy returns to Los Angeles in her original persona but Scottie, grieving over Madeliene who he had fallen in love with, almost orders her to dress up, talk, walk like ‘Madeleine’ did. Kim Novak, known more for her beauty than for her acting prowess, melts into the ‘two’ women she plays almost to perfection.
Judy is always ‘performing’, either as the fake Madeliene because she needed the money that came with the ‘job’ or, as Judy, surrenders to the dictates of Scottie, who rejects her for what she is and forces upon her the identity of a woman who does not exist! Did Judy then, have an identity to begin with? Or, was she, like Midge, Scottie’s plain-looking, plain-dressing artist friend who is presented by Hitchcock as a counterpoint to Judy/Madeleine’s beauty not even aware that she had an identity of her own?
Some select Hindi films released in 1958 will present an interesting contrast in the way these films portrayed the female protagonists who may have been beautiful, but were not ready to turn into putty in the hands of men. I have also chosen ‘performing’ women films to bring forth the contradictions and the similarities.
B.R. Chopra’s Sadhna was a big box office hit in spite of its off-beat subject. It is about an English professor (Sunil Dutt) whose ailing mother (Leela Chitnis) wants him to bring home a daughter-in-law. He desists but the doctor advises him to do that so that his mother recovers. He sets out to ‘hire’ a bride who will play his newly married bride in front of his mother till, well….
He is tricked by a two-faced man who gets a fake daughter-in-law from a brothel and shares the booty with the brothel madam and Champa, the sex worker (Vyjayantimala) who steps into a home like no other she has ever seen. The man she pretends to be married to has no inkling that she is a sex worker. Though this is an exaggerated melodramatic twist, it is necessary to make the slow but sure mutation of this sex worker convincing to the audience. After her initial disdain, Champa now christened ‘Rajani’ is so greedy to possess the jewellery the old woman shows her and gives her to keep, that she steals the jewellery and runs away. But with time, she suffers from feelings of deep guilt which make her consider giving back the money and also withdraw from the profession she is in.
This ‘performance’ by a prostitute pretending to be a newly married bride and the transformation is enriched by memorable song numbers like “aurat ne janam diya mardon kaa, mardon ne use bazaar diya” shows the feminist angle to the otherwise mainstream story. The surprise is that an audience nourished on very conventional images of a screen wife through films starring Meena Kumari and Nargis, accepted this ‘performance’, and the film turned out to become a box office hit.
The character Vyjayantimale plays wears two ‘faces’. One is the original Champa, the no-nonsense sex worker willing to ‘become Rajani’ for a price. The other is the demure, sari-wearing, shy Rajani pretending to be the would-be daughter-in-law in a respectable family. But unlike Judy in Vertigo, her pouring herself into the mould of Rajani is by personal choice rooted more in greed than in the respectability that this role bestows on her – albeit temporarily. But later, she feels guilty. In other words, a Hindi film dotted generously with melodramatic twists and turns, lovely songs and wonderful music courageously shows the transformation of a sex worker by working into her psyche till she begins to wonder which ‘role’ is the better one – Champa or Rajani. Vyjayantimala won the Best Actress Award from Filmfare for her work in the film.
Laajwanti (1958), directed by Narendra Suri, with Nargis and Balraj Sahni in the lead was entered into the 1959 Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or for Best Film. Laajwanti tells the rather unusual story of Kavita (Nargis) married to Nirmal Kumar (Balraj Sahni) with a growing daughter (Baby Naaz). But the world around Kavita collapses when Nirmal Kumar throws his wife out of the house, suspecting her of infidelity and forces her to leave the little girl behind. Without playing the simpering, sobbing and self-pitying martyr, the wife leaves, hoping to reunite with the daughter one day. Some time later, the husband, realising his mistake, takes the wife back. But the daughter refuses to acknowledge her as her mother. She insults, humiliates and mentally tortures her mother so that the woman goes away. But Kavita keeps trying to get into her orbit. It is a strange case of the real mother seen as an impostor of herself by her own daughter!
The daughter, now in her teens, is convinced that this new woman in her father’s life is ‘performing’ the role of her real mother as she does not have any recollection of her mother. This also emphasises the importance a mother in 1958 gave to her ‘motherhood’ even if she had to come back to the same home that threw her out. She is not manipulated but rejected. She accepts the rejection by the husband but cannot accept rejection by the daughter.
Will this happen today? Not if one gives the example of Dum Lagake Haisha (2015) produced by B R Films. The film was small in terms of its star cast, mounting and budget. Yet, it is a radical film that turns the mandatory concept of beauty in the leading lady of any film neatly on its head.
Shot entirely in Hardwar and Rishikesh, this film tells the story of school drop-out Prem (Ayushman Khurana) who runs a video shop in the neighbourhood. He gets married through negotiating parents to Sandhya (Bhoomi Pedknekar) who is educated, holds a good job and is quite fat. His friends pull his leg for having such a fat wife. But the wife is adamant. She is not going to slim down as she is happy the way she is. The marriage almost leads to divorce because the girl remains stubborn but it ends happily with the slim husband now in love with his fat wife! Sandhya sticks out a thumb at the ‘beautiful bride’ concept and the film became a sleeper hit with Bhoomi bagging the Best Debutant Actress Award from Filmfare the following year!
Times have indeed changed for the better so far as the screen image of the leading lady in Hindi cinema goes. Sujoy Ghosh’s hard-hitting film Kahaani features a young woman who pretends to be in an advanced stage of pregnancy as a diabolic strategy to avoid suspicion. Even the posters of the film proudly displayed the figure of Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) in an advanced stage of pregnancy which was entirely faked.
60 years after Vertigo, we discover Rani Mukherjee as an ambitious school teacher in Hichki despite her Tourette’s Syndrome that is extremely embarrassing for everyone who comes in contact with her. But she wears this as an integral part of her identity.
Could we have imagined a Madhubala or a Meena Kumari or even Nargis play a similar role that throws every concept of the celluloid beauty and patriarchal dictates out of the window? Think about it.
Image source: movie stills
I am a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. I contribute regularly
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