closeup - portrait of Sridevi, c. 1990, courtesy Dinodia Photos - Alamy Stock Photo
Portrait of Sridevi, c. 1990, courtesy Dinodia Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Behind the lens, the human forms of Indian cinema’s feminine archetypes were far from their puritanical, unscathed projections. They were war-ravaged battle beasts.

The 1990s in Australia. Sherrin footies, slender calisthenics kids, I didn’t know which way to look. The rhetoric of multicultural living circulated in the ether but hadn’t quite taken root on the ground. As an Indian-origin child living in suburban Melbourne, the on-screen icons that gave meaning to my young school-going peers felt somehow devoid of the raucous imagination sitting within my brown-skinned cloak.

I turned to the most obviously available feminine archetypes of my north Indian culture. Tucked away in the mustard-scented Indian stores of Melbourne’s suburban sprawl, thousands of bootleg black VHS tapes stood proud on the shelves that lined their musky walls. This was Indian cinema. Stories designed to speak to me. Stories abounding with the music, mythology and movement that came alive in the confines of our Indian family home. In the viewing of their narratives, in the feeling of being enveloped by their musicality, in the eyes of their heroines – I felt oneness, aspiration and belonging.

Vyjayanthimala, Madhubala, Nutan, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit – I was introduced to the rhythmic movements and bewitching eyes of goddess-like avatars inhabited by these Hindi film actors across the decades. The archetypes encased in their femininity: coy chastity, childlike curiosity, sacred matrimony, vampish witchery and Artemian wildness, possessed an other-worldly universality that I witnessed most vividly expressed through the medium of on-screen dance. Their rhythmic movements crystallised folkloric tradition into an accessible, contemporary (yet often ironically archaic) piece of dialogue. It transported my inner child to a place of escapist, magical make-believe where she saw herself reflected. It planted the seed for a yearning. By the age of three, my mesmerisation with Bollywood films had morphed into something more permanent – a dream that would carry my childhood imagination through the endless suburban roundabouts of being a minority kid.

Madhuri Dixit, courtesy Dinodia Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Madhuri Dixit, courtesy Dinodia Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

My dreaming quickly converted to action and, emulating the poised symmetry of Vyjayanthimala, I trained as a Bharatanatyam classical dancer, bending my legs into the iconic aramandi diamond position, and slapping my feet into the concrete of my Sri Lankan Tamil guru’s garage slab floor. Then, like Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit, I would swoon before dinnertime to the Hindi and Urdu lyrical poetry that sang out of our family’s audio cassette and CD players, feeling freedom in fantasy. I had imagined, yet perhaps never quite believed, that my own journey with movement, and the escapism I felt when watching Hindi films, would culminate in a gumption-fuelled decision to book a ticket to India – a quest to find my own place in the celluloid dreamscape of my childhood musings.

Cue my arrival in India’s 25 million strong bustling metropolis – the home of Bollywood – Mumbai. From the moment I stepped into the city’s ether, something quickly became clear. This was a bazaar. Not just in the way of selling dreams and of buffing the rough edges of India’s brimming humanity with a glossy, synthetic sheen, but in the way I would have to trade in self and sanctity. That everything I now did in pursuit of my cinematic dream was a transactional compromise.

‘How much do you want it’, the middlemen and women – the pimps of the industry – asked. My answer, their intel, would be relayed to the overlords that preyed on the newer, naive recruits on the circuit. Visions of twirling bodies and contorting mudras circled through my mind’s eye. The combination of dance and celluloid had been inexplicably intoxicating. But ‘how much did I want it?’ I had travelled across the seas, carrying rhythm in my body and aspiration in my veins, the shadow of my goddess-archetypes always guiding me. The fact that I was standing there at all – aged twenty, 10,000 kilometres from my familial comfort zone – was enough to indicate how badly I wanted it, how deeply

I had dreamt it. But their question was loaded. The only reliable measure of my ambition was my willingness to submit to the power structures that wanted me to be compliant, malleable, unheard – fair game. They were asking me to submit, to not be ‘difficult’, to be a passive, grateful recipient of their patronage. An object with no subjectivity of my own. The performance of my femininity was to be inhabited from the moment I set foot into a room – it involved a willingness to use it as a barter. Was this the unwitting paradox of movement?

That the demure chastity that came with being a minority child in Australia and the archetypes of the good and the godly that had played out on my screens meant something different based on which side of the lens I sat? I came to this world through the love of dance, through the visceral vibration that shifted within me at the sound of an Indian drum beat. But, here, my body was not expected to have agency or to move of its own accord. It was expected to be a supplicant, to wait for permission to perform. Freedom of movement was not innate; it was endowed, it was conditional. The promise of being subsumed into the universal had very particular consequences which, in the absence of benevolent ‘godfathers’ – the overseers of feminine inviolability – I too would have to battle.

Behind the lens, the human forms of Indian cinema’s feminine archetypes were far from their puritanical, unscathed projections. They were war-ravaged battle beasts who had had to make primal bodily choices – to shield or to surrender – in order to personify womanhood for the masses. They were survivors of the various skirmishes that the patriarchal overlords had presented them. For every feminine icon, there was a slew of stricken and slain maidens. The cost of dreaming was dire. The fiery task of rising above the collateral was what augmented survivors to their godliness. It was not the sheen, the camera, the lens, but the enduring embers of their raw warrior-fire that lit up their eyes. The rhythmic burning of their fight, the weaponising of their trauma, is what enabled them to twirl.

– Pallavi Sharda

A stack of books titled 'Goddess'. The image is dark and the books are stacked on a red, velvety cloth

Photo: Phoebe Powell

This article appears in Goddess: Fierce Women on Film. Grab your copy today.

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