Shilpa Shetty and Animal Farm set off a lot of jokes, many of which I found myself laughing at reluctantly, last week. In this age of multimedia, I think it’s absurd to assume everyone reads. But, Bollywood’s female movie star and the book have a bit of a history.
At a recent event, I heard Sharmila Tagore talk about how when she first joined Hindi films, she was looked on with some reserve, even suspicion. “I never had a chaperone. I was just staying on my own. I spoke to men as equals, until I realised it was unwelcome. And, I was always reading, which is why they began to call me La Tagore.”
Sharmila Tagore, as someone reminded me on Twitter the other day, was also filmed reading an Alistair MacLean novel in the iconic Mere Sapnon Ki Rani song.
She was certainly unusual at the time in having an education that most women in film did not have, as it was still a profession not considered respectable by middle class people and many women who entered it rarely had been able to have much education for various reasons, economic or cultural.
The figure of a middle class woman reading was not an uncommon one until the 1980s. In advertisements, and in Hindi films, too, we often saw women reading magazines, or lying in bed reading books. This was not unlike how many of us grew up seeing our moms. If there is a middle-class image of pre-liberalisation India I cherish it is the sight of a woman in a sari, lying in bed after her household chores are done and before her family returns from school and office and what not, reading a novel, cherishing a while not only of leisure but pleasure. One can imagine that a reading leading lady appealed to such women as an image, too.
For a generation of middle class Indian women, education and reading – made both possible and permissible – were a natural part of life and self-improvement – something lending libraries catered to. It was a redefining of femaleness as well, gently brushing away a part of the mind-body divide women constantly struggle with.
Years later, it was Kajol who was a self-confessed reader. She, too, did not care too much for conventional femininity, her persona outspoken and unaffected. This was presented to us in visual shorthand through frequent images of Kajol wearing glasses or, if I recall rightly, a couple of times even with a book in her hand. This love of books was used to signal that she was somehow more intellectual – “different” – in many ways.
We live in a multi-media age. Books, though wonderful, are no longer our only cultural or leisure time choices. Everyone does not read and it is almost retro to assume they do.
Now, as the movie industry has changed, so that women from diverse backgrounds enter it, and many of these women are in a certain sense unconventional – having more mobility, more agency, more power too – is there a vestigial assumption that they would automatically be readers, keen to share their favourites, carried over from those old girls and books ideas? Is that why the PR person responsible for the piece did not ask Arjun Kapoor? Or is it just that they thought he is too ditzy?
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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