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V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937) and the Meaning of the Strong/Rebellious Woman

10 Jun, 2020 | Short Features by MK Raghavendra
V Shantaram's Duniya Na Mane (1937). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives

The motif of the strong woman in reformist Indian cinema of the 1930s and 1940s is actually that of the emasculated Indian man under colonialism, argues M.K. Raghavendra

The Hindi melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s are often described by the term ‘reformist’, a term not applied to later films. V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937) – which also had a Marathi version, Kunku – is one of the most important films of the category. Indian popular cinema is difficult to categorize along generic lines but if elements pertaining to individual genres are to be acknowledged, we can say that, apart from the mythological, it is the ‘social’ that was the most dominant category. The ‘social’ is a loosely defined term for domestic melodrama within a contemporary setting, where social issues are raised and debated and the attitude towards them is that of reformism.

The reform movement in India is regarded as having been initiated in the colonial era by Christian missions and institutionalized education (supported later by the British government). This was apparently tailored subsequently for the Indian middle class with the arrival of Raja Rammohan Roy (1772–1833) and his establishment of the Brahmo Samaj.
The reform movement in India is regarded as having been initiated in the colonial era by Christian missions and institutionalized education (supported later by the British government). This was apparently tailored subsequently for the Indian middle class with the arrival of Raja Rammohun Roy (1772–1833) and his establishment of the Brahmo Samaj. The reformist social cinema of the 1930s has itself several literary antecedents. These include Bengali literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, embodied in the work of writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. An aspect of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reformism was the accent upon women performing public roles.
It has been argued that the cosmic principle in Hinduism is largely feminine and the deities that preside over critical aspects of existence are usually maternal figures. In contrast, the Judeo-Christian godhead is more patriarchal. Reformers like Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and Aurobindo were apparently preoccupied with the womanly identity and this has been traced to the conflict arising in the colonial period between the two principles.
It has been argued that the cosmic principle in Hinduism is largely feminine and the deities that preside over critical aspects of existence are usually maternal figures. In contrast, the Judeo-Christian godhead is more patriarchal. Reformers like Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and Aurobindo were apparently preoccupied with the womanly identity and this has been traced to the conflict arising in the colonial period between the two principles. In the reformist socials of the 1930s, we see films dealing with the same issues as had engaged the reformers earlier. Amritmanthan (1934) is taken up with the issue of human sacrifice to Goddess Chandi. Films like Chandidas (1932) and Achhut Kanya (1936) take up the issue of caste discrimination and tell stories about the love between Brahmin men and ‘low-caste’ women being opposed by society. V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937) is about a young woman tricked into marriage to an elderly widower and her dogged resistance to him.
The protagonist, Nirmala, is not presented to us as a woman with desires/needs of her own but as the ideal woman demanding justice because she has been tricked into matrimony.
In Duniya Na Mane, a young woman, an orphan, Nirmala (Shanta Apte), is tricked into marrying an elderly widower (a progressive lawyer) by her aunt and uncle. She goes with him to live in his house. Declaring that she is prepared to bear suffering but will not tolerate injustice, she refuses to have conjugal relations with her husband although she is willing to bear her household responsibilities and manage the servants. She has two stepchildren, a facetious young man and a serious young woman, also an activist involved in women’s issues, who delivers the gender-related message of the narrative in the course of its unfolding. While she establishes an immediate bond with her stepdaughter, she teaches her stepson a lesson when he misbehaves, making him show respect to his father. The protagonist, Nirmala, is not presented to us as a woman with desires/needs of her own but as the ideal woman demanding justice because she has been tricked into matrimony. At the conclusion, the husband, recognizing her goodness and the injustice done to her, kills himself so she can remarry happily.  
 
Durga (1939). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


However, Duniya Na Mane is not alone and many films provide instances where a woman’s goodness and strength of purpose see a man being transformed. Three other films are N.R. Acharya’s Azad (1940) and Jhoola (1941) and Franz Osten’s Durga (1939). The first is a story of three friends – the liberal Vijay (Ashok Kumar), the conservative Loknath and the careerist Jagdish. Loknath and Jagdish break off ties with Vijay when he marries a damsel in distress (Leela Chitnis) whose past they consider murky. Several years later, Vijay’s son saves Jagdish’s daughter from a miscreant on a railway journey and this leads to ties being re-established between Vijay and Jagdish. But the crowning moment comes when Vijay’s wife nurses the ailing Jagdish and both Jagdish and Loknath are finally transformed into liberals with the correct attitude towards women. The villain in N.R. Acharya’s Jhoola is the philandering son of a zamindar who is finally made to see the error of his ways by the woman he once deceived. In Franz Osten’s Durga the young heroine, Durga (Devika Rani), is a tomboy and an orphan looked after by a heartless moneylender and widower – who intends to marry her when she attains majority so she can ‘look after his child’. The film does everything in its power to make the spectator fear for the girl in the moneylender’s home. But her goodness finally overcomes him and he not only arranges her wedding to the young local doctor but himself becomes kind and caring towards his clients.
 
Jhoola (1941). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
If we examine the woman’s ‘strength’ in Hindi films of the period there are manifestations other than the kind exhibited by Duniya Na Mane and one is its converse, the weak man.
If we examine the woman’s ‘strength’ in Hindi films of the period there are manifestations other than the kind exhibited by Duniya Na Mane and one is its converse, the weak man. As examples, the women are sometimes betrayed in their expectations of men (P.C. Barua’s Devdas, 1935; Shantaram’s Aadmi, 1939) or they take on responsibilities that should have rightly been men’s (Damle and Fatehlal’s Sant Tukaram, 1936; Mehboob Khan’s Aurat, 1940). If one looks at the films, one sees that they are not really alike. Sant Tukaram is a saint film in which the weak man is ‘otherworldly’, leaving his duties to his wife. Aurat was remade as Mother India by Mehboob Khan in 1956 but where in the earlier film the husband is simply wayward and deserts his wife, in the latter film the husband loses his arms and leaves so as not to be a burden on the family. Hence, we see that the strong woman/weak man motif is present only in the 1940 film. Another manifestation of the ‘strong woman’ motif is the female vigilante figure Hunterwali (1935) with Fearless Nadia, the actress’s name announcing her strength! 
 
Aurat (1940). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
What is particularly interesting is that after 1943 the rebellious feminine ideal, the strong women and the weak men all disappear from cinema.
What is particularly interesting is that after 1943 the rebellious feminine ideal, the strong women and the weak men all disappear from cinema. As late as 1994, we have Hum Aapke Hai Koun…! (HAHK) portraying a situation in which young people are willing to follow family dictate about whom they marry (though circumstances are arranged for the final ‘triumph of love’). One might have expected that when certain freedoms are earned for portrayals, they will become a given thereafter; but this did not happen and the strong women therefore leave Indian cinema. As a case where ethical mores are stable, Hollywood holds on steadfastly to its ethics; the valorization of the nuclear family with fidelity in marriage is a moral convention that never weakens. This means that the strong woman has another meaning than simply ‘reform of society’ and we are drawn into looking at why the cluster of motifs around her and the weak man leaves cinema in 1943.
 
Taqdeer (1943). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
If by 1943, Indian cinema had rid itself of its crisis of masculinity, this can be attributed to the general perception that freedom could be actually snatched from the British. The colonizers were not so formidable (or more ‘masculine’) after all and there was now scarcely any reason to feel ‘inferior’ to them. The hypothesis that 1942–43 was a ‘turning point’ is supported by another film, Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943), that actually registers the transformation. 
The colonial period concluded officially in 1947 but the transformations noticed around 1942–43 are abrupt and I find it useful to connect them to the reverses faced by the colonizers in the war – the Japanese conquest of Burma in 1942, when an invasion of India was also imminent. The ‘Quit India’ movement that followed thereafter was expected to coincide with the Japanese advance in autumn the same year. If by 1943, Indian cinema had rid itself of its crisis of masculinity, this can be attributed to the general perception that freedom could be actually snatched from the British. The colonizers were not so formidable (or more ‘masculine’) after all and there was now scarcely any reason to feel ‘inferior’ to them. The hypothesis that 1942–43 was a ‘turning point’ is supported by another film, Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943), that actually registers the transformation. 

In Taqdeer, the judge, Jumnaprasad, and theatre owner, Badriprasad, accidentally exchange children in the confusion of the Kumbh Mela. The judge brings up the theatre owner’s son and the theatre owner brings up the judge’s daughter. The judge’s son is good-humoured and prankish but also in fear of his father. Taqdeer concludes with the children being restored to their respective fathers and a marriage being solemnized between them. The son Babu (Motilal) seems not only glad to lose his adoptive father but is also indifferent to acquiring an ‘actual’ one and, if anything, the narrative celebrates his newly found independence. Another significant feature of the film is that the judge’s wife has been insane ever since the loss of her daughter and she believes that Babu is actually her daughter Shama. At the climax, the mother regains her sanity and also comes to recognize that Babu is a man. Babu’s ‘masculinity’ and his independence are acknowledged concurrently and the crisis of masculinity to which I alluded gives the twist new meaning. Taqdeer apparently registers the regaining of masculinity by the Indian male! The ‘strong woman’ also no longer has the same force thereafter in Hindi popular cinema. 
 

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About the Author

 

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and critic. He received the National Award (the Swarna Kamal) for Best Film Critic in 1997. He has authored four volumes of academic film criticism – Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (Oxford, 2008), Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film (Oxford, 2011), The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium: Bollywood and the Anglophone Indian Nation (Oxford, 2014) and Locating World Cinema: Interpretations of Film as Culture (Bloomsbury, 2020). He has written two books on cinema for the general reader 50 Indian Film Classics (Collins, 2009) and Director's Cut: 50 Film-makers of the Modern Era (Collins, 2013) as well as edited an anthology Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India (HarperCollins, 2017) His essays on Indian cinema find a place in Indian and international anthologies. He has also published extensively in Indian periodicals and journals like CaravanEconomic and Political Weekly, Frontline, The Book Review and Biblio: A Review of Books.  His book The Oxford Short Introduction to Bollywood was published in 2016. His academic writings have been anthologized in books published by Oxford University Press, Sage, Routledge, BFI (British Film Institute). He is a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics.  He is the Founder-Editor of online journal Phalanx, which dedicated to debate: http://phalanx.in/pages/content.html