Intersections: Is vengeance mine? A Semiotic and Cultural Analysis of the Urban Woman Avenger in Popular Hindi Cinema
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Is vengeance mine?
A Semiotic and Cultural Analysis of the Urban Woman Avenger in Popular Hindi Cinema

Chaity Das
  1. Most studies of revenge in recent times, whether it is recorded in history, literary texts of yore or cinematic ones, have focused (and instructively) on such questions as masculinity and the patriarchal structures of legitimating vendetta, inter alia.[1] 'Honour' or loss of it, becomes a central category through which the act of aggression is experienced as a threat to identity, be it the self or the group/clan one belongs to. When it comes to cinematic texts, studies of the vigilante woman be it of the biographical Bandit Queen by Priyamvada Gopal[2] or Jeffrey A. Brown's reading of action heroines in Hollywood flicks,[3] the body of the woman and its representation is seen to articulate a host of often conflicting notions of/about gender and desire. What is particularly relevant in the context of this paper is how such narratives complicate the notion of agency and willy-nilly shed light on the discursive universe that buttresses it. What I propose to highlight, is a certain kind of economy of representation that has gathered around Hindi popular films depicting women avengers in the last few decades. Before I proceed any further, let me add a disclaimer. When I say 'kind of economy' I do not mean to reduce these films to any absolutist framework. What is more at stake here is a definite tenor of discourse that appears to run through them, signaling towards some interesting continuities and ruptures.
  2. One more aspect of the title needs to be touched on here. Why urban, one might ask? The city as a mask/face of modern living is seen as a place/space where women become visible calling into question available cognitive tools to read the transformation of our experience(s) of space. As Ranjini Majumdar aptly points out in her Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City,[4] the city is perceived as dangerous both for and because of women. She also remarks on the distinct discomfort of (predominantly male) filmmakers with changing faces of woman—her sexuality needed to be accommodated into spaces like the cabarets, notions of promiscuity or manly women thus giving her a habitation and a label. Satyajit Ray had famously compared the city to an 'overpainted courtesan'—an act of gendering that offers an insight into the gaze of the filmmaker who is both seduced by and suspicious of, even repulsed by, the city's overtures. In the city's promise of opportunity and anonymity at the same time there lies a register of empowerment (problematic, no doubt) for women. (One may argue that men may also experience the same but not only is that not the concern of this paper but surely different gender groups live in and experience the city in different ways.)
  3. This diversity of experience has been sought to be studied in the figure of the flâneur and a positing of the equivalent of the flâneuse. Benjamin's image of the stroller in the city has been seen as decidedly male by critics such as Griselda Pollock[5] or Janet Wolff.[6] However the feminist preoccupation with whether it is possible to write/read the woman into the figure of the flâneur[7] points towards the historical exclusion of women as experiential agents in the city, not merely living in it or suffering it but being aware of it as presence, a process that determines and is determined by her. Whether it is film or literature, the privileged eye that desires to record/interpret/control the chaotic signifiers or significances in the urban space, has been, more often than not, male.
  4. Though stories of vengeance have been narrated around non-urban spaces as well, they are beyond the reference points of this paper since it brings into focus a different sociological context and a different way of seeing of the spectator. While in the context of western films the separation of the urban and the rural in the last few decades might not be theoretically productive, in India an examination of the location of the heroine yields interesting insights that I hope to demonstrate in the course of the article. Certain films in this genre that have explored the non-urban space may also be referred to in passing but only for the purpose of extending the debate.
  5. The notion(s) of 'agency' is also not a lightly contested terrain. In order to read the semiotics through which the act of vendetta is represented there is a possibility that one may end up conflating a larger notion of agency which is manifested in the everyday lived experience of women (an immensely nuanced one) with a 'simpler,' and some would argue sensational, notion that these films map. (And, indeed, prima facie such an observation would not be quite wide off the mark, to say that some of these films slide into melodrama). However, at one level, it may be said that in this paper I wish to explore a certain narration of female subjectivity glimpsed within a certain collocation of circumstances. Also drawing from Judith Butler's understanding of all acts that emanate from the gendered body as 'performative'[8] and its representation on screen as cinema being certainly a 'mode of cultural production' (Michele Barrett)[9] a case may be made for its relevance, without necessarily valorising it and thus rendering oneself open to the charge of reductionism.

  6. Having said that, I will proceed to a provisional delineation of the structure of the paper. Foremost, will be an examination of the nature of causes which inflict the sense of injury or hurt and for which revenge is sought. This discussion shall be mediated through a negotiation with the images that let us read the content visually—the justification with which the filmmaker provides his/her heroine. Secondly, the examination of the space/place in which the revenge is executed and its implications shall be taken up. Thirdly, an analysis of the verbalised language in the form of dialogues by different actors in the film will provide an entry point into the gendered presumptions about the universe to which the act and its execution belongs. What would be noticeable here is that it is from the marginal characters that we gain insights into biases and beliefs that shore up the narrative. What remains to be done is to analyse the mode in which revenge is executed, techniques the woman employs or thinks are available to her, which will be dealt with in the final section. The representation of sites of agency—the body of the woman and the space that allows her to design and plan her vengeance and the filmmaker's imagination of the 'violent' woman shall also be discussed and the conclusion(s) it is hoped will raise its own questions.
  7. What is as significant is the personalised nature of the injury experienced by the woman. In Rakesh Roshan's Khoon Bhari Maang (KBM) (1988),[10] the offender desires to usurp the property of a widowed heiress to a business empire whose father his uncle has killed. Shortly after the narrative opens the woman's husband and father are both dead and what sets up the act of vengeance later is the villain's attempt to win the trust of the 'mother' (the protagonist Rekha) by making her children pawns in trying to fill the vacancy left by their father's death. Being a simpleton (and this is also necessary for the script), she is gulled. There are repeated scenes where she tries to establish that she lives for only her children—such as wearing colours 'fit for a widow' to confirm her status of asexuality / sexual unavailability. The lyrics of a song that are sung at a party and addressed to her (part of the machination of the villain and his lover, a woman who also is a friend of the heroine) plead that life is not as barren as it appears, if only she would open her eyes to the light around. The contrast and the point of departure of this song is the fact that Rekha is dressed in a pale sari and does not have the desire to 'embellish her femininity.' Anybody could be hers, if she only tries, croons the singer.[11] There is no hint of any desire for this man on her part, but in due course she is almost led into making a compromise solely for the sake of her children. At this point, the plot takes a different direction as the villain pushes her into the river to be devoured by crocodiles and believes that she is dead. The story of vendetta is the story of her return to save her children from the clutches of the rogue. It is the mother who will avenge.
  8. Rekha's return is also her rebirth. Defaced by a crocodile, she undergoes surgery and is transformed from a plain Jane into a ravishing aspiring model, a profession she adopts to mark her return to society. And this time the colors she wears are symbolic of the re-installation of desire—the bright red colour that fills the screen functions for the spectator as a double metaphor. She now has packaged herself as an object of desire ready to play the game by its rules, which is again enhanced by the fact that it masks her actual motive to bring her tormentors to a 'bloody' end. The body of the actor is, so to speak, sartorially colonised by the filmmaker to signify what can be articulated only at the climax in order to function within generic conventions of unfurling violence and suspense. This sexualisation (voluntary, since the woman is the putative agent) is at odds with her former image of a self-denying woman whose desires (un)problematically vanish with the death of her husband to whom she was legally wedded.
  9. A similar range of strategies are explored in the film Anjaam (1993)[12] directed by Rahul Rawail, where the heroine Madhuri Dixit, a flight stewardess, finds herself in a situation where her husband, sister and daughter have been killed by a man who is obsessed with her. He traps her in an attempted murder, part of a scene where he almost rapes her. He then humiliates her in court claiming that she has long had an extra-marital sexual liaison with him. In this scene she accuses him of feeling nothing but 'lust' for her, following which he physically abuses her, unable to accept his failure to make her 'love' him—a fact that is experienced by him as a rejection of his masculine sexual identity which (and this is the logic offered by the script) turns him into a sadist. But it is significant that he does not rape her. This retention of ambiguity about the 'true' nature of his desire (preserved in narration) signifies two things which provide the tension in the cinematic text: (a) though he destroys her, his obsession could be read as a particular fetish that can only be satiated with a willing sexual submission since his desire for her was in the first place born out of his advances being slighted by her in a nightclub; and (b) since rape is looked upon culturally as the final frontier of violence that can be done to a woman's body, its inclusion would have probably 'simplified' the complex nature of his obsession by reducing it to something as un(anti)heroic as lust. Again, while testifying in court against a crime she did not commit, the whiteness of Madhuri's sari is intended as a suggestion of her 'purity' which is meant to be seen as transcending the patriarchal violence of which she is a victim. An audience with similar cultural associations will certainly decode this sublimation presented in the form of a visual image. So there is this stereotype of a casualty of patriarchy—a 'modern' professional woman who frequents nightclubs and gets married to a man of her choice, with a 'traditional' core (one who mouths platitudes such as 'the colour white is a widow's ornament' or when in prison and pregnant, she says, 'I hope a son is born to me who will avenge his father's killer'). Small wonder then, if it seems as if she has become the agent of her act of vengeance only because a son is not born to her, but this insinuation which I make here will be tracked at a later stage of the paper.
  10. A narrative akin to this can be glimpsed in Hamid Ali Khan's Mehendi (1998),[13] where the heroine, who is a lawyer, cringes and wails as her in-laws make unreasonable demands for dowry, but who later agrees to spend a night with a man who has implicated her husband in a case of murder in a bizarre turn of events. Once he is freed, the in-laws turn her out accusing her of having only too eagerly compromised her 'purity' and she remonstrates that she is sexually and hence morally, clean. In all three films there is an interesting commonality. The justification for the act of vengeance lies in a woman pushed to her limit, a limit where she is threatened with being deprived of the very roles that patriarchy confers on her, as mother and/or wife that defines her 'usefulness' in society, and shores up her self-image as an agent. Thus the notion of agency that materialises is an ambiguous or serrated one where the woman reads the injury done to her within conventional explanatory narrative structures that later legitimise her own use of violence. In the process, the audience's tools of sense-making also remains unbroken. The confidence with which the filmmakers exploit tired and tiring stereotypes appears to point towards a certain understanding of an audience's expectation which can only be sustained by patriarchal myths. In fact they reproduce the same with swashbuckling ease.
  11. To this range of films is posed Sriram Raghavan's Ek Hasina Thi (EHT) (2004)[14]—a film that makes a substantial departure when it comes to the revenge genre with woman avengers. The shift in its semiotic universe is achieved through a variety of strategies and images that diffuse the audience's response—by foregrounding the lived experience of a city (Mumbai) for an outsider. The heroine is a middle-class migrant who had come to the city looking for work, one among the faceless workforce of the metropolis. A combination of long and close shots frequently focuses on the protagonist living in anonymity, walking the roads purposefully. The camera establishes the feeling that the woman avenger is being watched, singling her out for the tragic turn that her life is about to take. The film's cinematic technique is interesting; through the eye of the camera, the men in the city become voyeurs. Initially, it is the man next door who passes lewd hints to the heroine who firmly and successfully deflects them. When nabbed as an offender of the law as a suitcase of currency notes and a firearm is found on her, left by a goon posing to be a friend of her lover, she becomes the stereotypical single woman, an outsider in a city who functions as a sign of 'what such women are really after.' Her interrogation and the violent language (both verbal and gestural) used by the policewomen who hastily presume her sexual involvement with the gangster,[15] prefigures what is later insinuated when the probe-in-charge meets her father:

      Policewoman – What do you do?

      Father – I am a retired mining engineer.

      Policewoman – What was your monthly salary?

      Father – 9,000.

      Policewoman – Your daughter earns 12,000. Enough, but not in Bombay. And there's McDonald's, make-up, lipstick, perfume bottles and clothes. It's never enough.

    And the hapless father cringes in shame.[16]
  12. In the same way that the camera singles out the heroine, so does the villain. His initial desire is merely to sleep with her, but after his sexual conquest, he decides to use her as a pawn in his dark dealings with the underworld. Her urban anonymity which offered her conditional freedom in the beginning subsequently becomes the cause of her vulnerability.

  13. The transition from injury as the 'general' fate of womankind (as a female inmate in Anjaam succinctly states, 'Our destiny is to be burnt and sacrificed') to the 'exceptional' moment of decision to avenge the wrong, to retaliate, is accompanied by a shift in 'space' in the narrative. In Khoon Bhari Maang, the avenger schemes about the manner of her revenge in the isolated hut of an old man who rescues her from the river into which she had been thrown. In both Anjaam and in Ek Haseena Thi the heroines are sentenced to imprisonment as evidence is manipulated against them. In this period of incarceration (real and symbolic) they experience violence as a condition of existence rather than as a forgettable chapter. In the process they lose all hope in the possibility of any return to an originary condition. In Anjaam, the avenger follows her tormentor in death, which may be read as the tragic inability of the narrative to imagine a role for her beyond revenge. While her end is supposed to be seen as pitiful, its slide into melodrama suggests an all too facile reconciliation / equation of the avenger and the avenged in an explosion of feverish violence. The narrative is uneasily resolved.
  14. EHT, on the other hand, succeeds in throwing up a different symbolic range in this genre due to the fact that the avenger offers no justification for her act. This does not mean that there is not any, but the fact that the revenge is a clinical and ruthless act means there is no motherhood or martyrdom offered in exchange for her 'radicalism.' In Mehendi, Khoon Bhari Maang and Anjaam, there are stereotypical images of the woman as goddess Durga (a symbol of a gendered national imagination), the wrathful deity who punishes wrongdoers. The emphasis on punishment is because since a subtle displacement of agency is effected from a particular hurt woman to the cultural symbol of a 'Devi,' the personal nature of the injury is diluted, if not cancelled and the act enters an ambiguous territory between revenge and divine punishment (concepts in most cases opposed to each other unless it be said that it is the divine will working through the avenger). In the process, the desire of the filmmaker to sublimate the violence done by the woman in terms of visual representation, often results in the portrayal of a woman possessed by the spirit of shakti (power that emanates from the deity and resides dormant in women, it is often argued) and thus not the unchallenged author of her action nor (and this is ethically suspect) quite responsible for it.
  15. In EHT the transformation of the innocuous girl-next-door charts a different trajectory. It is not in terms of a background score of bells pealing, drums beating and ritual chants but an understated hardening of her facial muscles as she hugs the villain, pretending that she still believes that he will rescue her though he has conned her into committing perjury. There is a rejection of speech, of hyperboles (unlike the films discussed above which rely heavily on clichés and myths about the feminine). The shift is even more remarkable when in prison a female gunrunner (running a gang from inside the prison walls and finally aiding the protagonist's escape observes without ceremony—'There's a lion in each one of us…what it requires is provocation').
  16. In many ways EHT appears to have its feminist heart in the right place since the metamorphosis of the protagonist is seen as a process—it is almost as if in experiencing brutalisation in prison she encounters a new mode of survival—a far cry from the middle-class woman who had made for the great metropolis of opportunity. It is not dramatised as a fit, an angry woman raging who induces more pity than anything else. This pity (I will argue later) is mixed with the erotic gaze of the spectator and in rubbing home the sensational nature of the violence done to the woman (in KBM her face is mutilated by a crocodile and in Anjaam the pregnant heroine is kicked in the stomach till she bleeds and her womb is damaged) in the other films apart from EHT, legitimation is sought for a woman who otherwise is a good subject of patriarchy.
  17. Sriram Raghavan's film portrays the act for what it is, a cold, calculated, cruel act of revenge that belongs to the same universe as its cause, which was a cynical betrayal of trust. However, there is no canvassing for sympathy and one is not left with the feeling that the act is trapped in an airless gendered universe which is distinctly uncomfortable with its own genre. If there is any sympathy that the spectator feels for the avenger (as a witness to how she is drafted into a string of intrigues beyond her comprehension and control, her parents' helpless silence and her father's eventual death stick as images that are powerful but never overemphasised) it is an uneasy one (culminating in the penultimate sequence of the film where her revenge climaxes). It is one which raises the ethical question of endorsing violence because one remembers her tragic struggle with the law, her naïveté and perhaps her victimhood. Thus EHT pushes the borders of the genre and involves the spectator in more complex questions of agency than other films of its kind.
  18. In all this, the city either by its absence or presence performs an important function. This article is intended as a study of revenge by urban women in Hindi popular cinema. The reason why this division was made vis-à-vis urban and rural location was not only to examine how space determines how the act of vendetta is imagined but also to set the 'performance' of these women against the backdrop of the myth of empowerment that informs both self-images and popular imagination about city-women in the Indian metropolises. Also, contrasted with the depiction of female agency in Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala[17] and Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen[18] which are set in rural spaces (and they shall be referred to shortly), 'visibility' and 'freedom' and their equation with 'space' acquire a new complexity.
  19. In the film Anjaam, there is a scene which demonstrates the way in which the city is perceived by the woman who is cast as a protagonist. The heroine is standing with the other inmates on the terrace of the prison and the city, a body of concrete structures lurks in the semi darkness below—opaque and hostile.[19] It is then that she remarks that the city is a battlefield, where the threat of annihilation looms large, where violence can only be met with greater violence. The 'lawlessness' inside the prison— the audience is witness not only to the debilitating torture of the inmates but also to a forced prostitution ring that is run by the jailor for the powerful—metonymically points towards its 'double,' which is the outside. The city, opaque, as I have pointed out already nevertheless confers this new self-conception upon the woman—that of the warrior who shall retaliate from the edge of despair.
  20. What comes across as curious is that in both KBM and Anjaam, the actual act of revenge unfolds only partially in the city. First the woman murders / punishes the abettors of the crime in a manner that is exhibitionist, even titillating. However, in all three films (barring EHT) the narrative climaxes in a space that is outside the congestion of the city—it is variously a farmhouse, a suburban estate or a heath. Anjaam takes us to a temple in a suburb where the avenger sits draped in black beside the deity. This transfer of locale (more visible in KBM and Anjaam) to a more 'idyllic' setting is perhaps made to isolate the act(or) and build it into a show, and a theatrical one at that.
  21. In EHT, the injury and the act of vengeance belong to the same space. The pursued becomes the pursuer. In her revenge she is aided by the dark underbelly of the city and its thriving network of lawbreakers. Alone in the metropolis, sliding into crowds and out of them, sneaking into alleys and elevators, she protects herself with a purpose. Even when she moves to Delhi to/b> hunt for her final quarry, this alien city provides her with places to hide becoming an ally in her desire. She makes strategic use of its sites and the same labyrinth, which had sought to consume her like it does many others, opens its benevolent aspect to her, consequent on a change of self-image. Her act appears inseparable from the space which she inhabits. In the filmmaker's refusal to buy into available legitimating structures, in the actor's silence, the unchanging coldness of her eyes, her efficiency, she provides a sharp contrast to the other women who also dissemble and scheme but the narratives end up subsuming such ambiguous moments. It is clear that 'space' plays a crucial role in how the agency of the woman is viewed.
  22. While in films belonging to this genre which have a more 'rural' setting (Mirch Masala and Bandit Queen) the 'space' gains in significance because of the network of communal relationships (be it of gender, class or caste) which become co-actors in the tale of vengeance. The isolation of the woman/victim in the city is also why she presents herself as a phenomenon that requires separate consideration. In the first, an entire community of women avenge their humiliation at the hands of the officer who would romp like a predator in the village, preying upon any woman who caught his eye—a power network sustained by the men in the village. In the second—a film made on the life of Phoolan Devi—a woman, who is conscripted into caste violence, is gang raped and later leads a community of men to not only avenge but she also becomes a dreaded dacoit of the Chambal valley.
  23. Also the buffer zone of the prison is what becomes structurally necessary in these films to denote the passage from innocence. The heroine in KBM, though not physically imprisoned, symbolically experiences captivity, unable to meet her children as their mother, she looks into the school playground on her return, through its bars. However the absence of the city as anything but a vague backdrop in the films (excepting EHT) grants a tone of 'hyperreality' to the act (in the Baudrillardean sense)[20] effectively separating the seemingly empowered woman (flight stewardess-model, lawyer, heiress-model) from her modes of being in the city, where she lives merely, works alright but except in her 'usefulness,' stays effaced.

  24. Purportedly films which explore the agency of women by not making men avenge their victimisation, it would perhaps be instructive to tarry a bit and reflect briefly on how these films negotiate with the larger discourse of gender. When it comes to the actor the preceding discussion may already be pointing towards something nebulous that I hope will crystallise later. Interestingly, the view offered from the sidelines in the portrayal of the other women or genders may provide crucial insights into what I am attempting to scrutinise.
  25. In the film Anjaam a female warden who terrorises the prisoners and runs the place like a harem for the ones in power. She singles out the heroine for particularly inhuman treatment abetted by the desperado. In the course of the sequences shot inside the prison a group of eunuchs is cast as a> shrill stereotype. Their critical function (apart from raising a few belly laughs) is to question the 'actual' gender of the warden. They ridicule her, calling her a man in a woman's body and thus eligible for entry into their group, perhaps implying (unconsciously to their own detriment) that such acts of unprovoked cruelty could never have been committed by a 'pure' woman. Further still, the filmmaker debases the woman even further in a scene where she is seen copulating with the police officer who had originally trapped the protagonist, and she remarks that she had not found the right man and had so far been sexually incomplete. The utility of this scene belies rationalisation apart from a visual representation of the prostitution of power itself, but that is a point that has already been made only too well. In the context of images which form the language of the film, this is only casual banter but nevertheless such slips point towards beliefs and biases which at times are articulated better through what may be read as 'digressions' from the main action of the film.
  26. In Mehendi another figure of the eunuch remains, for the most part, isolated from the narrative, as a household help with the same family that the protagonist is married into. However as the plot unfolds, he joins issue with the heroine being falsely accused of theft by his employer and repeatedly ridiculed for being a hijra, a derogatory Hindi term for a eunuch. Angered by the unjust indictment, he rapes his employer's daughter (an act that the protagonist is not shown to condemn nor even react to) in a fit of rage. Also, later he brings his tormentor in prison (the rapacious police officer) to a brutal end, even as he himself perishes in the act. There is a strange parallel in the revenge of the eunuch with the revenge of the women who appear to be possessed by the deity and it primarily lies in the image. The eunuch is shown to be overcome by a savage energy which confirms popular stereotypes about their inherent demonic strength.
  27. In KBM, the lover of the villain is typecast as a femme fatale and supports him in all his devious schemes. It is only when he spurns her for another woman, who is incidentally the remodeled heroine thirsting for vendetta, that she realises her folly. And in the end when all masks are removed, she saves her erstwhile friend's life in a melodramatic display of kinship by expending her own. Indeed throughout the narrative she was no more than an attractive appendage to the villain and it is hardly surprising that in the end she is killed, again left without a space to fill. In the depiction of the marginal characters there appears certain clues which prompt a reading of the films not merely in terms stated (women as avenging agents). I would not hesitate to suggest that they add to the understanding of the assumptions made within the universe of the film regarding gender and agency and cast their long shadows on the interpretation of the 'main' act as well.

  28. This brings me to the act itself, the mode of vendetta, its representation and the implications. Among the claims I make in my introduction is that the gender of the actor determines the technique of her revenge. The actor employs to her service not only brute force and intelligence but also her body and femininity. So far I have argued that in most films (here I exclude EHT) with urban women avengers, there run a few common threads:

      a) In terms of images it is 'demonstrated' by the filmmaker that the women suffered spectacular violence and shall retaliate (as we shall soon see) with sensational means.

      b) She is a wife, a widow or a mother when she suffers or experiences victimhood.

      c) The argument runs that it is because these women were largely malleable subjects of patriarchy, it bears justification that they should seek extra-legal recourse.

      d) This act then is supported by a woman 'possessed' with a power that is partially her own since it emanates from somewhere else. In her moment of aggression she merges with the cultural symbol and thus protracts notions of conventional gendered behaviour.

      e) Needless to say, then, this exceptionable act is semiotically sustained by transporting the final act to a more conducive setting where its unusual-ness can be dramatised and strike the spectator as a freak case.

  29. I will now take a close look at the mode of vengeance in the films under study. In Anjaam, the heroine is being egged on by holy chants and singing within the prison by other inmates as she repeatedly assaults the warden and as the din stifles the latter's cries, she dies, delivered to the hangman's noose which fortuitously hung in the vicinity. Once out of prison, she pursues the police officer, is hounded by bullets but finally manages to burn him alive. Her third victim is her brother-in-law whose greed and gambling habits led him to torture his wife (the protagonist's sister) and his sister-in-law's daughter who are then killed by the speeding car of the villain. In a grotesque act of rage, she sinks her teeth around his pulse and, as he is bleeding to death, bites off a portion of his flesh.
  30. In KBM, the heroine's first target is the villain's uncle who had murdered not only her father but also the long-serving caretaker who had looked after the children in her absence. As she assaults him in the dead of the night, simmering with anger he attempts to escape through the door. However, and this will perhaps go some way to show the how the mode of revenge itself is gendered—as the door opens a dog lunges at him (out of nowhere) and as he rushes back he hits against the wall from which protrudes a sharp-edged object beneath the framed photograph of the same deity in whose temple the anti-hero of the Anjaam meets his end. His body is impaled on it and the gaze of the heroine suggestively moves to the picture of the goddess and there is a light of recognition. Thus she (and the audience, for that matter) are sought to be interpellated ideologically into a discourse that hides under its sheen of 'justice,' issues which are deeply problematic. Also the final showdown moves to the farmhouse where she is re-united with her family but not before eliminating the rogue with the 'timely' intervention of her new male friend, also a fashion photographer.
  31. In both films (in terms of real time the act of vengeance is accomplished in a very short duration) as well as in Mehendi, the law (represented by the police) is seen as a toy in the hands of those who can manipulate it and that is also one of the reasons why the vengeance of the 'victim' can achieve its climax in spaces that are detached from their immediate context. Law, an oppressive presence otherwise, disappears from the narrative as the heroine's vendetta partakes of the universe of natural justice as will have become amply clear by now.
  32. EHT, to my opinion, alters the stakes. Clinical in her revenge, Sarika's (Urmila Matondkar) first target is the lawyer who had carried out the instructions of her offender and had asked her to admit her culpability. However, the technique of the vengeance and the way it is filmed bears discussion. (I have pointed out the minimisation of speech when it comes to the avenger. The film which had frequent shots at the outset of a woman moving around the city now zooms often to the steely look in her eyes (she is the one who watches the pursuer) as impenetrable as the city in Anjaam. She walks into the high-rise apartment of the lawyer (who is in a drunken state) and bludgeons his legs demanding to know the whereabouts of the villain. In the next scene the police arrive and the lawyer is sprawled on a car below. Already the heroine has moved to Delhi and, as the camera follows the heroine across the city, there appear familiar landmarks and historical monuments which give a sense of 'actual' space to the act of vengeance, a specificity that is different from the almost metaphorical space that the other films seem to occupy. The entire second half of the film is fast paced and is built around the execution of the work of revenge. The avenger kills an important member of the gang to which her quarry belongs and steals the huge sum of money he had been counting when he is shot by her. In an ingenious move she not only frames him but pretends to bump into him and feigns being helplessly in love with him. But as events transpire he discovers her perfidy and assaults her, threatening to kill her. In a move of neat double crossing, she beats him at his own game by first falling in line with his demand that she confess her guilt in front of the lynchpin but leaves him without an escape hatch by retracting her statement once she is led to him. In the scene where she is brought to the mobster holding court, she deploys the body language of female victimhood and helplessness that the men appear only too inclined to buy. And this brings me to another important aspect of what I have been attempting to pry open. In KBM there is a titillating song-dance performance that dramatises the clash of two women after the protagonist has returned in her new incarnation as a model and replaces the villain's lover (also a professional model) in most major contracts in the city. The song has one woman pitted against the other and the lyrics have the former holding forth on the virtues of love that transcends the body and the latter (predictably, considering her function in the script) extols the moment, sensuality, carpe diem. While the first song was to ensnare the protagonist, this one appears to be a display of the wares of femininity (while the words of the song provide the necessary contradiction that shall clinch the 'real' virtue of the avenger) to trap the villain.
  33. In Anjaam, again, towards the end a disabled hero is nursed back to health so that the avenger can punish him later. As part of the technique of healing she fans his unfulfilled desire by breaking into an erotic dance (the black and white garments are replaced in both films with red, yellow, gold and blue) and he is miraculously cured (regaining a sense of his masculinity) believing that she has finally reconciled to loving him. I will bypass here the temptation to enter into the familiar contestation of the ethics of such a move from a feminist perspective. The reason why these scenes have been described in some detail is to examine the politics behind the images that foreground this content. In Anjaam and KBM, these ambiguous scenes project the bodies of the avenger as objects of desire, incorporating the gaze of the audience, leading to an inconsistency that cannot be missed. The same woman who is infused with the potency of the goddess is sexualised and perhaps the circle of the spectator's expectation is thus tantalisingly closed.
  34. In EHT, the spectator is challenged. While the avenger does exploit her 'vulnerability,' it is clearly part of a 'conscious' semiotic manipulation. From scenes within the prison and without, the audience is sufficiently persuaded that she can be pitiless and so when she begs for sympathy what the audience 'sees' or is 'made to see' is another strategy that shall accomplish her end. However, though in the other two films also it is the protagonist's choice to make an instrument out of her sexuality, what the audience 'sees' (within our cultural situation) is not merely a technique but an eroticisation of the body and its gestures (however performative) that slips out of her control and becomes part of the objectification imposed by the narratives and the images that define the films' particular symbolic universe.
  35. Finally, a word or two about the denouement in Raghavan's EHT. The avenger here does not kill her tormentor. She hides in the car in which he seeks to give the police a slip and makes him drive to the outskirts of the city at gunpoint. When he regains his consciousness he finds himself in chains in a cave in the city's outskirts (again, a strategic site) the darkness kept at bay with only the rays of a solitary torchlight. As the camera closes in into her eyes she says in a voice that has a fatal undertone that she had chosen this place for him after a lot of thought. He screams, protests, begs but she calmly walks away. In the next sequence we see the fear and panic this time in his eyes as rats make their way out of the mounds of earth and advance towards him. The audience is reminded of the scene when just before their lovemaking in her apartment he ridicules her for being terrified of rats and how in the prison she had to live with them and learn to overcome her fear. 'Jail mein sab dar chala gaya' [In prison, all my fears vanished], she tells him before she leaves him to die. The last scene has her returning the stolen money to the police officer and walking back into prison, her expression sadly tranquil now that she has put her ghosts to an ambiguous rest, as the light ever so slightly, pales. I have referred to the sensational nature of the revenge scripted by the other female avengers, made even more hyperreal with the detachment from their spatial context. It is this insertion of the actor (urban woman) and her act into the space she inhabits, knows, reads and uses (or, significantly, learns to use since her motive takes her to spaces she would have never known existed and it is in a faraway place Delhi that the plot reaches its climax) that marks the real departure that I have been signaling towards. The questions it raises, (Is revenge being seen as 'poetic justice'? Or, what is the function of received notions of gendered behavior in our response to the violent act? Or what conception of urban violence can accommodate her act? etc.) expand the generic conventions within the bounds of Hindi popular cinema.
  36. It might appear that EHT has served as some kind of a benchmark in this paper against which the other films have been evaluated. While certain comparisons have been made in order to examine the ways in which female agency is imagined and represented, the glorification of Raghavan's film has never been the agenda of this paper. However it was found productive to dwell not only on what each film had to say, but to set them up as templates and explore how they respond to stereotypes, imagine and re-present female agency and how the language (both verbal and visual) determines and is determined by the discourses around gender and gendered ideas of space and action that continuously undergo transformation.


    [1] Trevor Dean, 'Marriage and mutilation: vendetta in late medieval Italy,' in Past and Present, vol. 157 (Nov 1997):3–36. Dean's article takes a look at the internecine feuds among clans in feudal societies and tries to map the causes which led to some societies in Italy being 'more vengeful' than others. The gendered nature of vendetta narratives is clear from the observation he makes which I shall quote verbatim:

      In Villani, too, women play an important role in his vendetta narratives. First comes male aggression in defence of their womenfolk…To place outrages against women in the explanatory backgrounds to revolts, invasions and conquests was to appeal to the legitimating power of chivalric values…Secondly women directly caused vendetta among males by their sinful actions (p. 17).

    [2] Priyamvada Gopal, 'Of victims and vigilantes: the "Bandit Queen" controversy,' in Signposts: Gender Issues in Post-independence India, ed. Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, New Delhi: Kali For Women, pp. 292–330.

    [3] Jeffrey A. Brown, 'Gender and the action heroine: hardbodies and the "Point of no Return",' in Cinema Journal, vol. 35, no. 3 (Spring 1996):52–71.

    [4] Ranjini Majumder, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City, Ranikhet: Permablack, 2007.

    [5] Griselda Pollock, 'Modernity and the spaces of femininity,' in Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, London: Routledge, 1988. Pollock argues that modernity did not accommodate the woman as an experiential agent. Drawing from the representation of the female body in paintings of the period she observes:

      But the flâneur is an exclusively masculine type which functions within the matrix of bourgeois ideology through which the social spaces of the city were reconstructed by the overlaying of the doctrine of separate spheres on to the division of public and private which became as a result a gendered division. In contesting the dominance of the aristocratic social formation they were struggling to displace, the emergent bourgeoisies of the late eighteenth century refuted a social system based on fixed orders of rank, estate and birth and defined themselves in universalistic and democratic terms. The pre-eminent ideological figure is MAN which immediately reveals the partiality of their democracy and universalism (p. 67).

    [6] Janet Wolff, 'The invisible flâneuse. women and the literature of modernity,' in Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 2, no. 3 (1985):37–46. Wolff also voices a similar critique.

    [7] Deborah L. Parsons, Streetwalking the Metropolis: Woman, the City and Modernity, UK: OUP, 2000. Parsons' study is significant in the sense that she contends that given the gendered models of 'modern urban vision,' it is perhaps necessary not only to posit a flâneuse but also to define how she might be different from a flâneur. Also it is necessary to understand why is it that one wishes to do so. Is it merely to 'valorize the female wanderer' something that Parsons argues that Virginia Woolf was inclined to do? Such a move would be inimical to the woman's social participation and agency.

    [8] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge, 1990. Butler's conceptualisation perhaps needs no elaboration. However its applicability to my mode of analysis will be clear in due course. While dealing with gender in a cinematic text one is actually dealing with various layers of 'performance'—being a mode of audio-visual representation it re-presents bodily acts and gestures through the actor's body (who looks upon herself as the performer) and then there are acts within acts (where she dissembles or deploys her gender to exploit cultural associations) which belong to either a pure survival tactic or part of a well thought out modus operandi to accomplish her vengeance.

    [9] Michele Barrett, Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis, London: Verso, 1980, pp. 84–113.

    [10] Rakesh Roshan, Khoon Bhari Maang, Mumbai, India, 1988.

    [11] Above, I have roughly translated the song in the film which went on to become a popular hit…Jeene ke bahane lakhon hai/jeena tujhko aya hi nahin/koi bhi tera ho sakta hai/kabhi tu ne apnaya hi nahin etc. This film had sent box office cash registers ringing.

    [12] Rahul Rawail, Anjaam, Mumbai, India, 1994.

    [13] Hamid Ali Khan, Mehendi, Mumbai, India, 1998.

    [14] Sriram Raghavan, Ek Hasina Thi, Mumbai, 2004.

    [15] The inspector says: 'Sirf soti thi uske saath ya uska kaam bhi karti thi,' which roughly translated goes: Did you only sleep with him or did you also work for him?

    [16] The inspector goes further. When the father takes umbrage at the fact that her daughter's innocence isn't being considered, she says 'Sab achhe ghar se aate hai par unke baap ko kya pata ke unki beti ne yahan kya dukaan khol rakkhhi hai,' which may be translated thus: All come from good families but their fathers never know what shop their daughters have opened here.

    [17] Ketan Mehta, Mirch Masala, Mumbai, India, 1985.

    [18] Shekhar Kapur, Bandit Queen, Mumbai, India, 1994.

    [19] M. Madhava Prasad, 'Realism and fantasy in representation of metropolitan life in Indian cinema,' in City Flicks, Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience, ed. Kaarsholm, Calcutta: Seagull, 2004, pp. 83–99. In his piece Madhava Prasad contrasts the tension between the transparent city of planners and administrators and the opaque city of lived human experience. The prison, from the terrace from which she looks down, is one such manifestation of the general human desire to create a place of perfect visibility.

    [20] Jean Baudrillard, 'The precession of the simulacra,' from Simulacra and Simulation, (Simulacres et Simulation), Paris: Editions Galilee, 1981), trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 1–42.

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