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How has the portrayal of white women in Bollywood changed over the years? Here’s taking a look at this most ‘immoral’ of all characters in our cinema.
She smokes…she drinks…she seduces ‘our men’…she is the white ‘characterless immoral slut’ of Bollywood.
It’s surprising and blood-boiling when you read this, right? But sadly, this is the reality. This is how we project ‘white’ women or foreign actresses in every-Bollywood-movie-ever. Maybe it’s time for us to look at how we are also not that ‘pure and pious’.
India is a country of people who get offended very easily, but we don’t even think twice before degrading other cultures and people. We are a country of brown people obsessed with white skin – absurd isn’t it? Surprisingly this is not the most absurd thing because, despite our obsession with white skin as a symbol of beauty, purity, and cleanliness, we insult white women in Bollywood by portraying them as sexually available, vamps, or at best, dancers fawning over the lead man.
The Caucasian woman is shown as ‘the immoral woman’ because of her ‘Western way of thinking’, ‘immodest’ dressing and ‘uncultured’ behaviour (smoking, drinking and dancing).
In other words, they function as sex objects for the male gaze.
From the early era of Bollywood, white women have been portrayed as less ‘moral’ characters compared to their Indian counterparts. The onus of upholding Indian values generally lies on the heroine of the Indian movie. This character shows how Indian women should behave, whereas a Western female character has always been presented as a warning – a note on how Indian women shouldn’t act.
She is portrayed as the woman that society despises, the one who fawns over men, who dresses ‘inappropriately’, smokes, drinks, is a drug addict; ultimately, she is the ‘characterless immoral slut’ whom no Indian women should desire to be like.
The best examples of this ‘characterless immoral slut’ in the early Bollywood were the two Anglo-Indian actresses, Helen and Cuckoo who stood in for ‘white’ women in the pre-liberalisation era.
We all loved Helen when she danced; we adored her in Mehbooba…mehbooba, but the sad fact here is that both Helen and Cuckoo and even other white actresses in the early Bollywood era were meant only for dancing to sleazy item numbers. Even if they had roles in movies, they were restricted to being bar dancers whose only purpose in life was to drink and lure men.
The best example of this portrayal is Cuckoo’s character in the 1951 movie Awara, as this article highlights. In the movie, Cuckoo is a cabaret-girl in a bar, filled to the brim with men. Cuckoo’s role in the movie gives a picture of how white women were portrayed in early Bollywood. They were made to dance in a way that was considered quite wild and tempting, by shaking their hips slowly and turning around a lot. They were portrayed as women who purposely seduced ‘good’ men.
Now if we move from early Bollywood to the 80’s,90’s, and even the 21st Century, there is not much change in the portrayal of white women in Bollywood.
They are still predominantly used as background dancers. Unavoidably, you notice that these women are so sexually motivated, and not in an empowering way. It is as if, they are giving away their sexuality on a platter to the lead man, rather than being sexual beings themselves. The best example of this is Kylie Minogue in the movie Blue performing the item number ‘I wanna Chiggy-Wiggy with you’, looking visibly uncomfortable next to Akshay Kumar.
Apart from this, they are shown as women who don’t have a personality and usually, no story beyond that of fawning over the man. Scanty clothing today is no longer a marker of the white woman alone, but it is true that she is shown as more ‘bold’ than her Indian counterparts. Why this distinction?
The answer is very simple; it’s a way to show that Indian women never indulge (or never should!) in such behaviour presumed to be immoral. The sanskritic Bharatiya Nari dresses properly, doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs, doesn’t seduce men and in the end, is the true embodiment of society’s ‘sanskaar’. Hence, the white woman in Bollywood can be a seductress, a plot device, or just eye candy, but not really a character in her own right, although there are a few notable exceptions.
The independent, bold, brave, sensitive and not stereotypically ‘immoral’ Alice Patten’s character ‘Sue’ in Rang De Basanti is one of the examples. In some Bollywood movies, therefore, the Western female character now functions rather as a role model for Indian women. Sue for instance, tells her female Indian friend Sonia (played by Soha Ali Khan) that traditions are important to retain and even visits an Indian temple with her. She tries to create unity and wants to resolve conflicts between her friends. Here the white woman is a guide to Indian women on how they could behave in contemporary Westernised Indian society while staying true to traditional Indian values. However, this is a rarity and most new movies too continue to feature Caucasian women primarily as background dancers. ‘Westernised’ women of Indian origin too play this role, an example being Vijayalakshmi a.k.a Vijay in Queen who helps Rani emerge from her shell and navigate the world with confidence.
In the end, I can say that the portrayal of white women hasn’t gone through a big enough change in the 21st century, though there are a few shining examples that buck the trend.
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