A few years ago, Vidya Balan stepped into her character in The Dirty Picture (2011) by gaining weight and swaying her body to unapologetically raunchy songs. In the teaser for the November 24 release Tumhari Sulu, she owns her sexuality through her voice instead, turning on a seductively soft purr. Clad in cotton sarees and sporting a mangalsutra and bindi, Balan’s titular character Sulu contradicts Hindi cinema’s cherished assumption that women with sexy voices must have appropriately hot bodies to match.
Portrayals of female bodies in Hindi cinema have long been offering insights into deeply entrenched sexism. But its maneuverings around women’s voices also indicate how gender relations play out in numerous social and cultural spheres.
In Aitraaz (2004), erstwhile model Sonia’s voice is stuck in a perennial purr. Sonia (Priyanka Chopra) runs into her ex-boyfriend Raj (Akshay Kumar) at a party, and sets out to seduce him although she is aware that he is married. An ambitious woman who chases power and money, Sonia is the archetypical Bollywood vamp: she does not want children, is in control of her own sexuality, and exerts control over the men around her.
Sonia’s authoritative and seductive voice indicates the sexually confident woman’s inherent villainy. It also demonstrates that the texture of women’s voices is inextricably linked with the appearance of their bodies.
Adhering to the dictum that women are meant to be seen and not heard, audiences are seldom interested in only hearing a listening to a woman’s voice without looking at her body. Consequently, women do not often play the role of narrator in Hindi movies.
Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) features the female protagonist narrating her own story. Although terminal cardiac patient Aman’s joie de vivre forms the backbone of the film, it is punctuated by Naina’s observations. Naina (Preity Zinta) is granted space and autonomy to introduce herself and her world as the narrator of the film. Although she does not have an authoritative sway over the film the way external male narrators often do, she tells her story with conviction, and is occasionally heard in scenes where she does not feature physically.
Disembodied feminine voices have always been a source of great curiosity for men in Hindi films. In Abhimaan (1973), popular playback singer Subir (Amitabh Bachchan) gets captivated by the distant sound of a woman singing and is driven to inspect the source of the voice. When he learns that it belongs to Uma (Jaya Bhaduri), his attraction for the voice and its owner conflate, and he marries her hastily.
Subir introduces Uma to playback singing, but is helplessly jealous when Uma turns out to be more successful than him. Uma doesn’t care for the fame and success that her voice has acquired for her, but pines for her husband’s company. Her singing voice is Uma’s identity, but it is snugly wound up in her husband and his voice. Even the songs she sings reflect the changing dynamic she shares with Subir.
The lines she croons, Piya aise roothe, ki hothon se mere sangeet rootha (My beloved is so angry that music has fled has fled my lips), turn out to be eerily prophetic when a heartbroken Uma returns to her village and miscarries her baby. She descends into a dreary silence that is broken only when her husband reclaims his lost identity by singing on a public platform.
It is not uncommon for female characters to lose their voices along with losing the affection of the men they love. But in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met (2007), both Aditya and Geet slide into silent depression when they have difficult break-ups, and wind up helping each other find their voices.
When Geet (Kareena Kapoor) first meets the serious and troubled Aditya (Shahid Kapoor), her effervescent personality consistently bubbles over into her speech. Her chatty monologue drives Aditya to insult her, reflecting the attitude that men are taught to have about women’s tendency for conversation. But Geet’s chirpiness eventually inspires Aditya to rediscover his own singing voice. When he encounters her months later, Aditya finds that a recent heartbreak has left her bereft. He helps Geet reclaim her voice and chutzpah and reunites her with her ex-boyfriend. Geet’s voice changes as her personality evolves, and also helps her understand which man she really desires.
The voices of female characters in Hindi films are bound up either in the men in their lives or in their own bodies. When they find their voices, they often do it by reclaiming ownership over their bodies and standing up to the men who oppress them.
In Mirch Masala (1987), a lecherous tax collector loots a local village and regularly picks its women to satiate his sexual appetite. Sonbai (Smita Patil) is the only one to stand up against the Subedar. While other women flee his rampaging henchmen, she uses her voice to belittle him. Her powerful presence appeals to the Subedar, and he propositions her. An insulted Sonbai retaliates by slapping the Subedar, who orders his goons to chase the woman down for him.
With several men in hot pursuit, Sonbai winds up seeking refuge in a masala factory populated by women. Because she raises her voice, both literally and metaphorically, the other women at the factory eventually stand up for themselves as well.
While the climax features the other village women screaming as they retaliate against the Subhedar by flinging chilly powder into his eyes, Sonbai is eerily silent. Her voice resonates in the fervent screams of the other women who have finally found the courage to rebel.