Why Indian Women Can Still See Themselves In Jubilee’s Women From The 1950s!

One has to compromise to make a film, either with the body or with the conscience, Niloufer memorably says at one point. It is a statement of fact, not a moral judgement.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I recently watched the Amazon Prime series, Jubilee. I found the series beautifully made and very aesthetic. Clearly a lot of painstaking research went into creating not only the visuals but also the characters of the time. The music also is gorgeously reminiscent of the time. While I was riveted by how faithfully the era is recreated, I also was left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the story and the characters.

It is quite likely that the women characters – Niloufer, Sumitra Devi, Kiran and Ratna represent the different shades of womanhood very accurately for the time. However, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of indignation for each of them – and in case you have not watched the Amazon Prime series yet, be warned – spoilers ahead.

Niloufer – unapologetic

Niloufer (played by Wamiqa Gabbi) is not manifestly powerful or successful but she is the woman with the most agency. She is unapologetic about being born in a brothel and about being a courtesan herself. She is makes use of whatever resources she has at her disposal, whether it is an offer from a pimp at the railway station or from a producer to be his mistress.

She is fun loving and feisty, and refuses to be a victim. She has mobility and makes things happen for herself. She needs money and is perfectly straightforward about it. She loves unabashedly, and lives life with that irrepressible sparkle in her eye.

Sumitra – tragic

Sumitra Devi (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) is the reigning star of the silver screen. She is married to one man, but loves another and must star in a film with a third whom she dislikes.

She is beautiful, talented and has a head for business too. She must negotiate with various agencies for better terms for her business as well as to steer things her own way at least partly. Things never really seem to look up for her – even as she enjoys great commercial success from the movies she stars in, she is a lonely, tragic person.

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Kiran– placid

Kiran (played by Sukhmanee Lamba) ministers to the wounded in a camp for refugees streaming in from the newly created Pakistan soon after Partition. She is the daughter of the man with political ambition who isn’t afraid to use his power for personal gain. She also wants Jay and is content to let circumstances – and her father’s strong arm tactics – to deliver Jay to her.

Ratna – subsumed

Ratna (played by Shweta Basu Prasad) is the wife of Binod who is first a lowly employee and then Madan Kumar, the breakout star of the silver screen. She goes along with whatever life throws her way: at first an ordinary existence and then the wife of a superstar with money and massive fame, and finally losing everything to endure the shame of scandal.

She is seen to have zero agency and is seen to live entirely via the men in her life. Her personhood is subsumed by the lives of the men around her. She displays neither resentment nor anger when she finds out about her husband’s affair. Even as she takes the bold step of secretly giving away her jewellery to the young brother in law with ambitions of being a singer, her actions are still very much in service of the men in her life.

Very different women – but also somehow similar

One has to compromise to make a film, either with the body or with the conscience, Niloufer memorably says at one point. It is a statement of fact, not a moral judgement. This is not a confession, merely a pragmatic woman speaking about extracting the best from the hand life dealt to her. In this sense Niloufer is a feminist for her times; making her own choices in ways she deems best for herself.

Sumitra is seen to be at the mercy of her emotions for the most part – though economic considerations will guide her actions now and again. Both Ratna and Kiran are seen to operate within the decisions that the men in their life make for them. We see them take no action that is of much consequence.

While the women characters in Jubilee are well written and fleshed out there is something common among them in the end. More often than not, they are reacting to what happens around them and what the men do, rather than acting on their own. The men are the driving force, the decision makers. In the end, even the effervescent Niloufer, sits helplessly dialling a phone in her bridal finery – again waiting for a man to act (or not).

By and large women today have more agency than they did in the 40s and 50s, but so much remains unchanged for us. Men still retain much of the decision making power in a lot of women’s lives. Our value in society is still tied to marriage and motherhood. Married women are perceived as more ‘respectable’ and single women are still hounded to get married in order that they may be ‘fulfilled’.

Jubilee’s Niloufer, Sumitra, Kiran, Ratna show us that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

All images source: YouTube/ Jubilee trailer

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About the Author

Reena Daruwalla

A former lawyer, now freelance writer, fauji wife, mother, singer, knitter and lover of my own cooking, I have altogether too many opinions and too few convictions. The more I learn the more I am read more...

38 Posts | 26,885 Views

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