I was looking through you tube the other day when I stumbled on a lovely number from “ The Sound of Music” which I am sure all of us are familiar with “ You are sixteen going on seventeen”. While the song itself is lovely ,what I like about it is the way it celebrates the pleasure of the young couple poised on the brink of adulthood. It is not without reason I guess why people refer to the age sixteen as “Sweet Sixteen”.
Our Indian movies also have loads of songs about the age sixteen. In fact, it is not just songs but entire movies which are about this so called “young love”. “Padinaru Vayadinile” in Tamil, “ Solva Sawan” its Hindi remake being some examples. You might remember songs about the age sixteen “ Sola baras ki bali umar ko salam” – that haunting melody from the movie “ Ek Duje Ke liye” was on every one’s lips as was another earlier number “ Main solah baras ki”.
While not disputing the happiness of sixteen year olds in discovering life and themselves, I have some discomfort about the way a girl who is supposedly sixteen is portrayed in of our Indian movies.
For starters, most of the heroines who play the role of girls singing songs about being sixteen on screen are probably double that age! Saira Bano, Hema Malini etc were well into their thirties when they played sixteen. There were some who were probably a bit younger than them ( like Tina Munium when she sang “ Main Solah Bara ski” on screen) but nowhere were they sixteen!! Film makers however, trudged along , making a parody of these ladies trying to get them to dress and behave in silly ways.
It was not until the release of “Bobby” that teenage love hit the spot light. And it was in this movie probably for the first time, that both the hero and the heroine were actually teenagers. This movie went on to become some sort of legend in Indian cinema running as it did for months at various cinema theatres. The hero Rishi Kapoor became a star while the heroine Dimple Kapadia married reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna and slipped into oblivion becoming a star wife and staying that way until the 80s when she reappeared on screen as a mature woman.
I was too young at the time Bobby was released to even remember seeing it. I watched it again when I was in college. It seemed rather silly and I wondered how the couple could live “happily ever after” balancing their education and married lives ( remember in that movie the hero is introduced in a song after he is supposed to have completed his school leaving exam !. So the heroine was probably still in school). I also wondered which girl in the 1970s in India dressed in the clothes that Dimple wore- micro shorts with a barred waist and a knotted blouse with a plunging neckline. I realize now that costumes in Indian movies are only an excuse to show off parts of the heroine’s body- in this case a sixteen year old’s! Raj Kapoor was particularly notorious when it came to exploiting his heroine’s sexuality on screen. He did it with Zeenat in “ Satyam Shivam Sundaram” , Padmini and Simi in “ Mera Naam Joker” Mandakini in “ Ram Teri Ganga Maili”. If you remember both these movies, it looked like he had created situations where his camera could rove over a woman’s body. But then it was a career choice for established actors like Zeenat, Simi or Padmini whether to reveal or not. They were adults and probably knew what they were doing. But in the case of Dimple and Mandakini I am not so sure. I think they were exploited by his lens and aided in the process by their parents who did nothing to protest.
This makes me reflect about ourselves as a society. We love watching movies where the heroines are shown to be sixteen. We like to see them scantily dressed and ogle at their bodies. But have we ever thought about the fact that a sixteen year old actually has one foot in her childhood? It is not without reason that the age of marriage for girls is eighteen! Yes, it was just a couple of generations ago that women were getting married at fifteen and sixteen. But the maternal mortality figures were sufficient indication to anyone to understand as to why it was wrong! Every practice is rooted in time. People believed at one time that a woman had to be burnt with her dead husband on his funeral pyre. But as society evolved this custom was challenged and abolished.
Someone once told me “ A sixteen year old is beautiful. So it is not a sin to appreciate her fresh youth” . Yes, a sixteen year old girl is beautiful! Her beauty and sexuality are just beginning to express themselves. She straddles the worlds of both adulthood and childhood. She may appear to be an adult but is mentally and emotionally a child. It is natural for a teenage boy who is also part adult- part child to feel attracted to her. A teenage romance is usually nothing more than the hormones expressing themselves. All these relationships come with an expiry date. Yet, they shape the person in terms of their confidence and ability to relate to the opposite sex.
But coming back to the image of “Sweet sixteen” Bobby style images that is portrayed in our films. Who is the consumer? Is it only targeted at teenagers? I don’t think so. I think a large part of the audience would be grown men with families. The insecure Indian male probably feels more confident fantasizing about this sixteen year old child. A teenage romance is just an excuse to feed this fantasy.
There are very few Indian films which explore teen age as it actually is. I think “ Padinaru Vayadinile” tried to do that! It showed the heroine’s infatuation with an older man and how he takes advantage of it. “Balika Badhu”, a movie about a teenage bride and her growing attachment to her young husband tried to explore it but as a concept it was set in a different period of our history which is not very relevant now. But I appreciate the fact that the director did not resort to the RK tricks ( he could have very well done so. After all the couple in the movie were supposed to be married! )
Portrayal of love and beauty on screen needs to be done is a sensitive manner. Like the dark side of the moon, lust can also masquerade as love and as far as the audience is concerned what they might delude themselves into thinking as “appreciating the aesthetic” might be nothing but an indulgence in voyeurism!
There are few things to commend today’s Indian films about, given the violence, gore and the sex! But there is a small change that I see in terms of portrayal of the heroine. No longer is she supposed to be sixteen. She is older and more in control of her sexuality. Yes it certainly provides scope for more sexually explicit scenes but at least one is relieved that it is not some poor sixteen year old whose body is being exposed in the name of showing some “teenage love”. Actually, that genre of films have probably stopped hitting the screen!
I guess, it is has a lot to do with the changing mores of our society where teenage relationships have become something more matter of fact and “to be accepted” issues. Or may be with the passing away of film makers like Raj Kapoor the fuel to feed the imagination of “dirty old men” is no longer there. Those guys are probably undergoing an internal struggle now trying to fantasize about these confident and sexy women on screen today … of which one is the late RK’s own grand daughter!