She resembles no other secretary of a housing complex’s managing committee. She is wearing a low-cut black gown with sheer sleeves, an ochre sash and ochre jewellery.

If I knew you would be dressed like this, I would not have called you, says the man on whose complaint she has been summoned.

I designed the outfit myself, I call it provocation, she says with a sly grin. It’s indecent, you look like a C-grade heroine, he snarls. And you look like nothing at all, she retorts.

Ms Provocation, or Runa Singh, is a minor character in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili (1975), about the romance between the misanthropic Shekhar, who has a tragic backstory, and the bubbly Mili, who is suffering from an untreatable disease. Mili stars Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri as the leads and Ashok Kumar as Mili’s father. Most of the scenes revolve around their characters. Why then is Aruna Irani’s Runa Singh unforgettable?

Might this be because Runa’s spunk so deftly deflates Shekhar’s sexism? Or that, unlike the rich, unemployed and frequently sozzled Shekhar, Runa spends her time in gainful ways?

Unfulfilled passion simmers between Mili’s brother and Runa, whose husband has abandoned her for another woman. It is Runa who nudges Shekhar towards redemption. Runa is outspoken, glam and wise, but she rules from the margins, like so many other women in the Hindi films of the 1970s.

The 1970s cinema seethed with superhuman heroes, virginal heroines and ghastly villains. There were clearly defined slots for good and evil. Punishment, banishment or worse awaited whoever didn’t fit in. And yet, untamed feelings flourished at a time when post-Independence optimism had evaporated and the certainties of the Nehruvian era had been eroded. Writers and film-makers stuck to a template created several decades ago but tweaked it ever so often too.

Heroes traumatized by absent fathers, smugglers who lived high on the hog, cheeky vamps, broken families, premarital sex and post-marital flings, wild music, orgasmic singing, licentious lyrics, suggestive choreography, flamboyant clothing, screaming sets, cameras that abused the zoom function – the 1970s oozed elements that could not always be controlled. Some of the women were out of control too in ways that have survived the formulaic storytelling, lack of narrative finesse and stifling moralizing.

Film-makers and scriptwriters left enough room for restless women to exist, even if on the side of the frame or in the background. The singleton, the dance-floor diva, the underworld moll, the unhappy housewife and the woman in a one-sided relationship moved in sidewinder fashion among mummy-obsessed heroes. These women equally defined the 1970s, sometimes by design and sometimes by accident.

Sawan Kumar Tak’s pulp classic Hawas (1974) has nearly everything that gives the 1970s its outré flavour, with an additional parodic tone to top off Usha Khanna’s funk-heavy score. The lust of the title is exuded by Bindu, one of several actresses whose very mononym telegraphed notoriety. Bindu’s Kamini pants for young men who are not her husband. Her keen eyes are encased in gigantic close-ups, while her open mouth – a vamp specialty – spouts carnality.

A criminal gang sends its member Anil (Anil Dhawan) to take advantage of Kamini’s weakness for ‘rangraliya’ (a euphemism for sex). Kamini is a nymphomaniac, Anil’s boss warns him, thereby enlightening him and innocent viewers of this very shocking and very tantalizing condition.

From the vagina-shaped entrance of the gangster’s lair to the cigar puffed by Rekha in a guest song, Hawas takes its theme very seriously. Using her standard pick-up line – you resemble my dead lover – Kamini crawls all over Anil, who should be grateful but isn’t. The manic cinematography includes a feverish colour palette and upside-down shots of Kamini cavorting with Anil. We are treated to copious imbibing, abominable behaviour in the bathtub, and at least one moment of sincere regret.

Kamini rips off her clothes in an attempt to frame the policeman Mehmood (played by Mehmood) for rape. Why did you bother? Mehmood asks. Fetch me some nightclothes and let’s get on with it. He scoots as soon as Kamini leaves the room, but his rueful expression sums up Hawas and the decade itself.

Excerpted with permission from The Swinging '70s : Stars, Style and Substance in Hindi Cinema, Edited by Nirupama Kotru and Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, Om Books International.