When pathbreakers make their way, seldom do they realise that the seeds of discontent they sow can someday grow and reclaim their ground. Or consume them completely if they don’t keep clearing the growth. That seems to have happened with two of the Hindi film industry’s much-revered figures, Asha Parekh and Jaya Bachchan.
Both have been stars in the public imagination much before Louis Vuitton endorsements, Hollywood contracts or Cannes outings decided their worth. They built their own sense of self-worth first and pretty much said and did their own thing. Yet, now that they have got their happy space, they have perhaps decided it’s their exclusive preserve, not open to ordinary women. Either that or they are tired pathbreakers, willing to be co-opted by the conformist discourse of the times and finding that monolithic politics gives a bigger return than political incorrectness.
What else could explain their revisionist, fat-phobic and stereotypical stance on western wear not suiting Indian women? Parekh, during a session at IFFI, Goa, said that women try to copy the way actors dress up in movies and want to wear Western outfits even if “they are fat or whatever.” And that she is appalled by how women are opting for gowns at weddings and not wearing enough Indian clothes. Jaya Bachchan, on the other hand, is completely cool with her granddaughter becoming a mother out of wedlock but has issues with women wearing pants and not more feminine clothes, like skirts. In a country stifled by patriarchal constructs and morality codes, such comments are not just irresponsible, they demolish everything that defined Parekh and Bachchan’s oeuvre.
Parekh’s statement, “fat or whatever” — dismissive, insensitive and pejorative — puts down women who are trapped by the size barrier in the home and the workplace. It seems to argue that they are better off hiding themselves in “sanskari” drapes if they are not contoured enough for Western outfits. Worse, it takes away the agency of looking and feeling good from a woman and parcels it off to the judgement of others. Yet women actors as far back as the silent film era were perfectly confident in Western wear — remember Fearless Nadia, in shorts or jodhpurs, blazing across posters in 1935? Has Parekh forgotten that her slacks, tight tops and bouffant in the song ‘Aaja Aaja Mein Hoon Pyaar Tera’ (Teesri Manzil, 1966) became a fashion trend among a generation across colleges? That women were emboldened by the panache with which she pulled off a stylish outfit despite being generously endowed and the ease with which she could navigate the dance floor in them? Besides, can we say that her ghagra-choli dance numbers were not sensuous by the neo-cultural standards she is so desperately espousing?
Actor Rajendra Kumar may have been called “Jubilee Kumar” but in her time Parekh was the jubilee star, all her films delivering big hits despite the male-dominated scripts of the time. So much so that she overshadowed then-superstar Rajesh Khanna in Kati Patang. The highest-paid woman actor of her time, a leading lady of commercial cinema through two decades and becoming India’s first woman censor board chief, Parekh has been a trailblazer in her profession. Off-screen, she decided to stay single, and formed an all-girl gang with Helen and Waheeda Rehman, recently vacationing in Andamans. Needless to say, they all looked comfortable in Western wear, and just as spirited and rebellious as they were in their youth. Why lambast others for exercising the same right?
As for Jaya Bachchan, can she honestly say she never wore pants her whole life? Debuting with Satyajit Ray, winning a gold medal at FTII, pushing women-oriented roles in commercial cinema and retiring early out of “personal choice,” Bachchan is now prolific in public life. As a four-term MP, she is vociferous about women’s issues and takes on the establishment regardless of the fact that her husband, Amitabh Bachchan, is brand ambassador for most government campaigns. Yet she has just flushed all that down the drainpipe. Women do not wear pants to show they have acquired “manpower”, as she says. They do so to create a gender-neutral social custom where clothing is not the preserve of a particular sex. It’s the reason why men like art curator Himanshu Verma and even young techies in Bengaluru, have appropriated the sari as their choice of clothing.
Recent research has shown that women in top positions in the boardroom end up behaving exactly like their male compatriots in decision-making to eliminate rivals. In fact, with their recent takes on women’s appearances, our two leading ladies have not only given the worst examples of mansplaining, they’ve proved what men like to throw at them: That women are their own worst enemies.