(This is a reposted and Updated post from last year)
There are so many many many options for a Women’s Day post, that it kind of blew my mind and I couldn’t decide! Most empowering films for women? Most feminist songs? My favorite female characters?
Anyway, I decided to switch focus to the “International” part of it, and look at the most International women in Indian film!
First, last, always and forever: Helen!!! There are many versions of her life story, but according to this super fun book that I encourage you all to buy if you can track down a copy, Helen was born to a Spanish father and a Burmese mother. After her father died, her mother remarried a French army officer. During WWII, her stepfather was killed, and she and her mother became refugees who walked from Burma to India. Landing in India, they lived in the Bombay slums where they got to know “Cuckoo”, the current biggest Item Dancer in the film industry. Cuckoo mentored Helen, who started dancing in the chorus at 12 in order to support her family. And then, of course, Helen became “HELEN!”, beloved icon of Indian film, despite being un-Indian by both birth and early upbringing. Decades later, she married Salim Khan, adding an additional layer of connection to her relationship with India, and adopted a daughter, Arpita Khan. So in one woman, we have Spain, Burma/Myanmar, France, and India. That’s kind of amazing!
(Here’s Helen and Cuckoo dancing together)
Of course, international connections in the women of the Indian film industry go all the way back to the earliest days. One of my favorite early actresses, Fearless Nadia, was the child of a Greek mother and an Australian father (as I just discussed in a post recently). Nadia was born in Perth (thus the film showing in Australia a few years back), but raised in India. And, eventually, became the wife of Homi Wadia, an Indian Parsi. Making her name “Nadia Wadia”, which is just about the best name ever! So in this one woman, we have Australia by birth, Pakistan by childhood, Greece through her mother, India and Persia (many many generations back) through her husband.
(Here’s Fearless Nadia, being Fearless)
And the international connections continue today! I am sure we all know about Katrina Kaif’s British background. And Priety Zinta married a man from Los Angeles. But did you know that Deepika was born in Copenhagen in Denmark? Her father, a badminton champion, was at an international training camp there at the time of her birth. And that Alia Bhatt is an eighth German? Her mother’s grandfather was a dissident in Germany during the time of the Nazis and ended up fleeing to England. Where his daughter married a Kashmiri refugee, and their daughter is Alia’s mother. Everyone knows about Shashi Kapoor being married to Jennifer Kendal. But did you know that Kareena and Karisma’s mother Babita is also partially British? Her mother was a British Christian, which is why her daughters are so faithful about attending Christmas mass.
Why is this? Why are so many actresses through out the history of Indian film connected to places outside of India? Early on, it was because well-brought up Indian girls wouldn’t be allowed in films. But it’s not just that, because actresses from India, from Merle Oberon to Priyanka, have had an easier time crossing borders the other way as well. And actresses from outside India like Katrina Kaif have had an easier time being accepted in the Indian industry than men raised overseas. Even someone like Tom Alter, who was Indian born and raised, but didn’t look it, had a hard time getting roles.
(Merle Oberon, born in Bombay, worked in Hollywood)
(Tom Alter, born in Mussoorie, inspired by Rajesh Khanna, never able to play anything more than the token white guy)
I think it is more about women being able to break down boundaries in ways that men just can’t. It’s a special female talent, being able to be different without being threatening.
PS: And from my rejected ideas for posts, here my most empowering female songs with some of my favorite actresses in some of the most feminist films:
(Lajja is a very depressing but ultimately inspirational, and super feminist, movie. And I love Madhuri and Manisha in general, and particularly in this song where they are dancing just for each other, not for any man to watch)
(And it’s the same thing in Queen! Two women discovering themselves and dancing for and with each other)
(I love Sridevi. And also English/Vinglish)
2016 was a great year for strong women, starting with Neerja:
And then continuing with Pink:
Even Akira (which I liked, if no one else did):
And ending the year with Dangal:
And a song that isn’t really feminist at all, but it sure is International!
(By the way, speaking of women and women’s issues, go to this page to learn how you can help Planned Parenthood stay funded and providing low cost vital health services to millions of women)