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What do dead women tropes signify? Can there be positive representation of dead women of Bollywood? Can women filmmakers do better than men in this regard?
The Hindu spiritual consciousness does not register death as an end. It is often coded as a new beginning—a utopic afterlife free from the pangs of material existence. Lord Krishna in Bhagvad Geeta asks us to not grieve for the dead. This revered Hindu scripture says that the soul is eternal, devoid of any birth or death and the dominant Hindu consciousness has believed and propounded this spiritual liminality.
Bollywood amplifies this ethos further. It captures death as a romantic reverie (Lootera), as a momentary interlude for the lovers before they reunite again in heaven (Anarkali), as glorified patriotism (Border), and most importantly, as an honor-saving device (Padmavat). Death serves as the only viable response to rape, as seen in Jigar or Teri Meherbaaniyan.
Women, if assaulted or fear an assault, must choose death and hence their symbolic purity. Men in war must be happy to die for their nation. Lovers must embrace death as a post-life unification. In these myriad depictions of death, let us pause at the images of dead women for once.
Dead women fill the landscape of Bollywood since its very beginning. They are plot enhancers in a mostly male-driven story.
For a significant screen time we follow our hero on his quest while women die to make it possible for him to win against all odds. The women’s deaths often come too quick to demand an observation or they come at a point where we could only care less.
Bollywood in the early 2000s is full of dead women. Bichhoo, Badal, Aaghaaz, Mohabbatein—we have women dying pretty frequently. Yet, the Indian popular culture has failed to register them as a significant trope like the West. The American true crime genre significantly relies on dead or brutalized or vanished women.
In comparison, India does not have an expansive true crime genre but its Hindi film industry has a massive pool of beautiful dead women. To navigate this trope in Bollywood, I use the 1958 mystery film, Madhumati as a case study.
*Spoilers ahead for the movie
The highest earning domestic film of 1958 and a national award winner, Bimal Roy’s Madhumati is a reincarnation drama.
Deven is on a drive during a stormy night with a friend. Due to a heavy tree fallen on their way, the men take shelter in an abandoned mansion nearby. It once belonged to a timber estate owner, Ugra Narain. Within minutes, Deven starts having visions of his past life in which he was a city-bred man called Anand and in love with a tribal girl, Madhumati. Their love is short-lived because she jumps to her death when the evil Ugra Narain tries to sexually assault her in his mansion.
The film is titled after the dead woman. Although it hardly explores her in her living form, it brings the dead Madhumati to life two more times — once as her doppelganger Madhvi (in the past) and then as Deven’s wife, Radha.
Thrice, the film fails to do any justice to her. Thrice, it creates her only to serve one purpose: provide closure to our hero, Dilip Kumar. Madhumati’s apparition leads to the death of Anand too. He falls to his death following her spirit. Thus, the lovers unite in the afterlife and are reborn again as present-day married couple Deven and Radha.
We enter the film with Deven and soon know that the central plot is about his past life. We know Madhumati is dead. So is Ugra Narain. Deven has set a dead precedent for us. But we see Ugra first, through his portrait. Madhumati’s presence is hinted through her screams and sobs only. Next, Deven’s memory takes us on a short ride to visualize them both in the previous life and we enter the flashback or the pre-dead state of Madhumati only to see her face for a second.
In a story named and marketed around her, we hardly see her as a well-rounded character. Ugra claims more screen space in terms of a fully lived character. He has more power in terms of capital and gender status. His villainy justifies giving him more of an arc than our docile tribal young woman. In fact, we only “see” her as a vocal human when we are thirty minutes into the film. For the rest of the time, she mostly expresses herself through songs and dance numbers.
From the very beginning we either follow the director’s gaze or the protagonist’s — both male.
The terms of how we view and understand the dead woman are already set. The dead woman jogs our hero’s memory and provides us with a gripping story, but she never claims her narrative in that space. She ‘sacrifices’ herself because she had promised that she belonged to only him. Her ‘honour’ is tied to her man. “I have never feared death,” she says to Anand. “But because of you, I now want to live. I don’t want to die. I want to live for you.” She is the hero’s memory, his story, and even though he is telling us about his dead lover, he never really remembers her as a fully developed being. We follow our reliable hero narrating his suffering through his dead lover. At one point he says, “You have no idea what pain I have gone through.” Not once we find him verbally reminiscing over Madhumati’s violent death.
Madhumati’s scream is the first marker of her presence. She exists through invisible exteriority. The gust of wind and rain remind us of her. The blowing white curtains solidify her afterlife existence. She is even introduced with this invisibility through Deven’s memory. He, as Anand is happily roaming around the peaceful countryside of Shyampur when he first hears her sing. In her song, she is longing for a stranger.
She has a foggy aura around her, both literally and figuratively. In one scene, Anand is too busy frolicking around the peaceful countryside. He is happily walking and does not notice that his next step might lead to his fall from a cliff. Instantly, Madhumati (as it is hinted) warns him, standing on top of a hill. She has a bundle of sticks on her head. As a silhouette, she stands almost invisible, covered in fog.
Positioning her in these ways, the director establishes her as an exterior, othered tribal character from the very beginning. Since, we already know that she is dead, these vague visualizations only add to our distanced viewing of her further exoticized. We are moving forward in the story, knowing and expecting her to be dead anytime soon.
When Madhumati becomes Madhvi, she is a city woman. Brought again as alive but erased of her complex tribal identity. It reminds me of Nargis’ character in Barsaat — a tribal woman infantilized for most of the story and then transformed into a city woman to be finally accepted by our male protagonist. Madhvi and Radha, though a revival of dead Madhumati serve as a dead woman trope often seen in Bollywood — the transformation of a village lass into a modern one in order to make her likeable for the viewer. Shilpa Shetty’s character in Main Khiladi Tu Anari is another example. The dead Mona is replaced by her doppelganger, village girl, Basanti after being skillfully trained by Deepak (Saif Ali Khan) in city mannerisms.
So, what do such dead women tropes signify? Can there be a positive representation of dead women? Can women filmmakers do better than men in this regard?
Reema Kagti’s Talaash does significantly subvert this trope by presenting us Rosie/Simran (Kareena Kapoor) as a living character first. Rosie is dead but we don’t know it. By giving such living beginnings instead of dead ones, the presumption and thus the distanced viewing of the dead woman can change for better.
But the question is, if women are only dying, be it in the beginning, middle or the end, what better can their on-screen deaths do in a culture already marred by violence against women on a daily basis? For the dead women to capture the attention of an Indian cinephilic culture, developing gender empathy must be our prerogative. The lack of discourse around the dead women is the lack of empathetic viewing of women in reel and real life. Unless that is achieved, more dead women on screen as just data assembled.
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Ankita is a PhD scholar at Louisiana State University and her research is on Bollywood,
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