THE SPOILS OF LARGESSE
In the run-up to the centenary of Indian cinema, in this Film Impressions special feature we take a look (through an extensive photo-feature and an accompanying essay) at all the women from the Indian film industry who have been decorated with state honors, and what this cross-section of diverse talent tells us about our cinema.
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The national honors unveiled by the Government of India in January has predictably attracted its share of controversy, as it does every odd year. The playback singer S Janaki, cited for a Padma Bhushan (very belatedly for a veteran of more than five decades), has thrown open a pandora’s box of wounded pride, state apathy and partisan politics, and refused the award, albeit gracefully. Talking to media outlets, she said that this kind of tokenism was too little too late, and that South Indian artists have long been underrepresented at the awards. In 2002, kathak danseuse Sitara Devi turned down her Padma Bhushan (having accepted the Padma Shri in 1973), while carping about less accomplished folk winning the more exalted Padma Vibhushan. While state honors have arguably lost their sheen over the years because of such unseemly fracas, taking a kaleidoscopic glance at all the women associated with the Indian film industry who have been on the honor roll, from the very first awardee, Carnatic legend (and sublime star of such films as 1947’s Meera) M S Subbulakshmi (Padma Bhushan in 1954), to overdue divas Sridevi and Sharmila Tagore (who made the list this year), certain intriguing patterns do emerge.
The first thing that reveals itself as unalloyed truth is that the women trail men by miles. This is self-evident in a film culture where men continue to rule the roost, as evinced by the fact that, out of 43 Dadasaheb Phalke Awards (India's highest award in cinema) doled out since 1969, only six have been bequeathed to women. This disparity is borne out quite plainly in the proportion of women in the Padma awards roster, and it reflects the stunted longevity of a female performer’s career, something that is especially true for actresses who are pushed over the hill when they have barely arrived at their prime. As we get down to number-crunching, some revealing statistics come our way. Since the awards were first instituted, for the first fifty odd years, on an average only seven women per decade have made the list (less than a third of their male peers). Since 2000, this figure has almost trebled, and around forty women have walked up to the Presidential dais to receive their citations—this is now half the number of corresponding men—an unimpeachable sign of progress, if only in the maths.
Lensman Brian Lake's best known photograph was Monsoon Girl from 1960, which featured a young Aparna Sen
If we were to take only actors into consideration, then the numbers are roughly comparable, but there is still great disparity in terms of what men receive vis-à-vis women. As can be seen in the accompanying photo-feature (see magazine) most of the ‘higher’ female awardees are playback singers or exponents of classical music or dance who, while associated with the film industry, have been honored for their bodies of work elsewhere. So while only five actresses have received a Padma Bhushan or higher—including thespians like B Saroja Devi, Waheeda Rehman and Shabana Azmi—more than three times as many men have won the equivalent. This imbalance was perhaps awkwardly underlined in 2010, when Rekha controversially received her Padma Shri in the same year as Saif Ali Khan, although she had been grossly overdue for a while, even as younger stars like Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan stole a march on her, perhaps legitimately. After all, at her peak, Dixit had whipped up an unprecedented nationwide frenzy, and Rai Bachchan, while no great shakes as an actor, was nevertheless one of the first global icons, riding the coattails of being dubbed ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’—a tag line she wears with the practiced ease of a well-entrenched brand.
When we look at the different women who populate our study, Janaki’s quibble about the North-South divide is not immediately apparent (at least within this subset). The wealth seems to be rather uniformly spread if we were to assign each lady to the region of her birth. The nebulous north has representation from Maharashtra to Punjab to Bihar. There are several from West Bengal, a couple from Assam. Women from the south of the Vindhyas comprise a healthy one-third of all performers decorated with a Padma award. The divide, however, comes into focus when we take into account the film industry with which a performer is primarily associated, and the most stolid presence reveals itself to be the Hindi film industry—a melting pot of talent from all over the country—which cuts a giant swathe across the cinematic landscape, and garners more than seventy percent of women on this list. Here is where Janaki’s assertion rings true. This is not to say that the balance would not be restored if we were to consider the Padma awards across all categories, not just this microcosm of the wonderful women of the silver screen, but that is beyond the scope of this survey. It does make sense that, even as the powers-that-be in Delhi consider the recommendations that various state-level panels may send in, they are perhaps less able to appreciate the achievements of women who are not as exposed countrywide as those who belong to a national (if only notionally) film culture. Cultural insularity runs deep. Which is why when playback singer P Leela was felicitated only posthumously in 2006, and three-time National Award-winning actress Sharada continues to be ignored, it rankles those who feel that the north enjoys a disproportionate claim to state honors.
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Of course, other luminaries of the stature of Asha Bhosle have been kept out in the past. Bhosle was given her first honor—the Padma Vibhusan—as late as 2008. Her sister, Lata Mangeshkar, by contrast, has always made it the record books in timely fashion, scoring each notch before ending up with the Bharat Ratna in 2001. She and M S Subbulakshmi are the only two honorees of India’s highest civilian award on this list (and two of only four women, overall).
The skew in gender representation does, however, point towards a lack of affirmative action, when it comes to rewarding women, which is refreshing. For instance, if the music director Usha Khanna were to be honored, it should have less to do with the fact that she was a solitary woman in a male-dominated field, and more to do with her musical output as a composer which, while certainly satisfactory, hasn’t quite been in the same order of magnitude achieved by male composers who, not having to contend with the glass ceiling, have a zillion more opportunities. What this cross-section also makes clear is the narrow realm in which women in cinema continue to be constrained. Men who have been awarded include actors, directors, musicians, lyricists, writers, cinematographers, editors, producers—the entire spectrum of movie-making. By comparison, about sixty percent of women honorees have been actors primarily, most in cinema, although there is that select few who have excelled in theatre like Trupti Mitra, Arundhati Nag and Chindodi Leela, whose plays run into thousands of shows. The rest are playback singers, and women who have have specialized in the classical arts. Only five directors make this list—Dr Bhanumathi Ramakrishna, Aparna Sen, Vijaya Mehta (also a doyenne of theatre), Sai Paranjpe and Mira Nair.
This is an accurate reflection of the reality on the ground, and visible in movie industries everywhere, as was underscored when Kathryn Bigelow became only the first female winner of a directing Oscar in 2009 for The Hurt Locker, a hard-hitting war film that is seemingly untouched by any ‘suspect’ feminine gaze, even as it stays resolutely entrenched in what was hitherto male territory. In India, we have certainly come a long way since the early days when women in the performing arts were looked at derisively but the inequity still looms large in a climate where even top actresses like the otherwise accomplished Kareena Kapoor have to shimmy in for a regressive item number just to pledge allegiance to the Khan-of-the-season and his 100-crore vehicle. The Bollywood song-and-dance rigmarole is still looked upon with some suspicion, which possibly explains why no film choreographer has ever won a Padma award. In other fields, we have seen a fresh crop of talent in the last couple of years. For instance, there are several woman editors now in the fore. Women script-writers are more in demand. Perhaps, the power that women once leveraged as playback singers has been relinquished in recent times, and the female solo as a cinematic set-piece is less of a feature in contemporary cinema than it may have been in the days of Subbulakshmi, P Susheela and Mangeshkar, when sometimes the entire soundtrack of a film consisted wholly of songs sung by women. Today’s music is oriented towards diverse ensembles of singers and styles, and in many ways it also represents a level playing ground for both men and women.
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Because the Padma award is usually the final tier of approbation that most actors in this list can hope for, it is rather like a lifetime achievement award. To enter the club, actresses have paid their dues in several ways, not entirely by dint of prowess in acting alone, although there are those like Nargis, on the back of the Oscar-nominated Mother India that made a goddess of her, Vyjayanthimala (also a danseuse of repute) and Smita Patil who have been decorated when their star shone brightest. Nutan and Waheeda Rehman, who were named in their thirties, had to prove their credentials as performers of artistic cinema.
Others have had to tarry awhile. Rakhee was felicitated late, after her first National Award for Shubho Mahurat in 2003. Zohra Sehgal and Sulochana Latkar have made it because of the sheer longevity of their theatre and film careers, rather than a slew of great performances. Shashikala Jawalkar got in possibly because of the hours of humanitarian work she put in with the Missionaries of Charity, than just for playing a ‘bad woman’ on screen. Helen, the queen of clean-cut cabaret, had to be anointed a living legend everywhere else, before being honored in 2009. A few actors whose early careers as leading ladies had been relatively short-lived, like Jaya Bachchan, Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore, all served time as chairpersons of government agencies like the Children’s Film Society or the Central Board of Film Certification. The more feathers in your felt-hat, the greater the chance of being elevated for posterity. Over the past decade, the expectations upon actors to acquit themselves well in public life seems to have dimmed somewhat. Which is why the reclusive Rekha and Tabu have got mentions, as well as India’s sweethearts like Kajol or Sridevi, who had catapulted herself back into the public eye with a winning performance in 2012’s English Vinglish, after a 15-year hiatus from an acting career that began when she was only three.
For some, the fact that so many worthy women are still missing from the list marks the selection procedure as especially flawed. In the last few years, the government has tried to correct some of the oversights of the past. Apart from Asha Bhosle, Shamshad Begum was given the Padma Bhushan in 2009. Usha Uthup, who wept publicly while receiving her first popular award for singing in 2011, was accorded the Padma Shri that same year. There are others still who have passed away without ever being recognized. These include the great silent movie star, Ruby Myers (Sulochana), and the singing star Kanan Devi, who are both Dadasaheb Phalke awardees, so it isn’t as if they have been completely unsung. Writer Ismat Chughtai, who has contributed scripts and ideas to filmdom; and the great tragedienne par excellence, Meena Kumari, are also amongst those whose exclusion now seems like a travesty (the most glaring example on the men’s side is playback legend Kishore Kumar). Shanta Apte, firebrand mascot of progressive cinema in the 30s, singer Geeta Dutt, of the smoky vocals, and IPTA front-woman and character actor Dina Pathak, are other prominent no-shows.
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The list can go on, to include many more who are still with us—script-writer of Shyam Benegal films, Shama Zaidi; actress Madhabi Mukherjee, whose limited oeuvre with the Bengali stalwarts, Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, can rival the best work of others; stars Dimple Kapadia and Kirron Kher, who have both notched up exemplary work in parallel cinema; and of course, the aforementioned ‘Urvashi’ Sharada, veteran of more than 400 films, whose honorific alludes to her propensity to win National awards.
Omissions aside, the criticism of the Padma awards has also centered on the notion that they are relics of an imperialistic mindset, modeled as they have been on a similar system in Great Britain. That be as it may, over the past sixty years since they first came into vogue (in 1954), the government of India hasn’t been entirely able to subvert this belief. For artists, specially, being on the list of decorations can come with the faint whiff of being affiliated with the establishment, something that some would find untenable with the politics of their art. For the most part, the women on this list, hungry for that much-deserved definitive accolade, haven’t quite borne the brunt of such posturing. Not that much ado has been forthcoming from the men’s side either—the only controversies there includes a parliamentary debate on purported anti-Gandhi remarks by the great auteur, Ritwik Ghatak, that sought to strip him of his Padma Shri in 1970; and a recent frivolous law-suit against Tamil actors Mohan Babu and Brahmanandam, for attaching the Padma Shri to their names in movie credits. All in all, the performers are very much a part of the establishment. The system is not perfect, but if we look at the faces that have been brought to the surface by this exercise, then there is the satisfaction that these names do represent many of the most exemplary female performing artistes associated with cinema over the past century. It isn’t a full deck of cards, but at the end of the day, if this is the way the cookie crumbles, then there is no denying that even this creaking system of felicitation has come up with something that holds up a unifying mirror to the Indian film industry, however fragmented that entity most likely is, and quite appropriately women end up with the spoils of largesse.✑