Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 29, May 2012
Neepa Majumdar

Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India 1930s – 1950s

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009
ISBN 978-0-252-07628-2, (pbk) pp xi + 258

reviewed by Tanya Caulfield

  1. The contemporary Indian film industry is entrenched firmly in Indian culture offering both a form of entertainment and escapism into a larger-than-life spectacle of song and dance, melodrama, romance or action. While much attention is given to today's films and the lives of heroes and heroines via popular media, little is known about the origins of the Hindi film industry and the ways in which female stardom was shaped. In an extensive and rich study of commercial cinema and female stardom in India during the 1930s to 1940s, Neepa Majumdar offers an enlightening perspective on the contribution of Indian cinema as an unacknowledged cultural stimulus for the nationalist discourse. This discourse shaped public life and the necessary realignment of Indian female cinema identities, from the portrayal of materialist and exposed lifestyles influenced by ideologies of Hollywood stardom, to a model based on nationalist ideals of normative Hindu womanhood.
  2. Early notions of fame and stardom in India cinema were interconnected and contextualised with reference to Hollywood cinema and stardom, yet restricted by Indian cultural constructions of female respectability and contained sexualities. Majumdar's rigorous research reveals the competing discourses of Indian cinema that continued to compare Indian stars in Hollywood terms alongside the constraints of and need to represent Indian celebrities in ways that protected the private identities and social status of female stars. In a fascinating explanation regarding the role of oral gossip as a contributor to stardom, Majumdar's analysis differentiates Indian stardom from Hollywood by alluding to the official discourse based on professional rather than private information about stars. Majumdar associates the reluctance in offering private information about stars to the complex narratives of Indian nationalism and the role of cinema in the nationalist movement. Based on this association, Majumdar emphasises that the status of cinema in Indian societies was 'closely tied to Indian nationalist ideologies and the role of the modern cultured woman in improving both cinema and nation' (p. 49).
  3. Leading up to and during the 1930s, the cultural status of cinema was less than favourable given that film represented a guilty pleasure, which did not impart any integrity to mainstream Indian culture. The negative reputation of cinema was a factor in the discourse of improvement; commercial cinema's improvement was reliant on the involvement of educated, upper-class women actors. In an interesting comparison of two female stars, who occupied different spaces of female stardom, Majumdar critically examines the star personas of Sulochana and Fearless Nadia with regard to specific film genres and national politics. Majumdar perceptively differentiates between the moral associations of the screen roles played by the two women. Sulochana played roles that engaged in the dominant nationalist discourse of Indian womanhood, which embodied devoutness, modesty and contained sexuality and was regarded as the most popular star during the silent film era. Her star persona from 1925 to 1933 was ambiguous given that her persona was represented by images of the cultured woman based on concepts of cosmopolitanism, which, as Majumdar points out, situated gender identity at the intersection of modernity and capitalistic desires that embrace sexuality, fashion and technology. During her transition to sound movies, Sulochana's image was realigned with the dominant discourse of female stardom, regulating her persona with nationalistic notions of Hindu womanhood. Spectator appreciation, as a result, moved from expressions of sexualised desire for her body to a refined sense of overall appreciation.
  4. The white European actress known as Fearless Nadia, on the other hand, was associated with the lowbrow stunt genre, which was considered to be a 'genre of no consequence' given that it did not contribute to the general discussion of cinema's status in the context of national and social politics (p. 106). Majumdar's comparison of Fearless Nadia's star persona with that of Sulochana's explicitly highlights the disparities between two cinematic genres that were based on gendered discourses of nationalism. Despite her popularity, Fearless Nadia did not elicit comparable expressions of desire from her admiring followers as did Sulochana. This, explains Majumdar, is due to the hierarchical structure of star discourses, which relegate actors associated with lowbrow genres to an unofficial star discourse, which was marked by silence. With the conflation of Nadia with the stunt genre, Nadia acted as a 'constitutive contrast' to the desirable Sulochana (p. 106).
  5. Central to the stunt film were concepts of physical culture and gendered configurations of the human body, which increasingly became interconnected with nationalist politics. In an exposition of Nadia's physical attributes, Majumdar expounds the complicated multiplicity of physical representation. Whilst the athleticism of Nadia's body was a sign of competency and physical ability, it was also recast in terms of normative views of weight and beauty derived from Hollywood. Nadia's physique could be interpreted as female empowerment, based on scenes where she singlehandedly confronts and deals with a gang of Indian men. Yet, Majumdar cautions that such readings could also be read as the reinforcement of gendered racial hierarchies, 'where Indian men are so emasculated that even a white woman is physically superior to them' (p. 115). Despite the differing star discourses associated with the two women, both Sulochana and Fearless Nadia's popularity were framed within quantifiable contexts, in that Nadia received box office returns for her popular stunt films while Sulochana received a salary; the issue of the women's popularity with audiences, as Majumdar argues, was not a significant defining feature of stardom.
  6. With the demise of the studio system and the shift to the Bombay film formula as a consequence of new tax structures, which limited the amount of potential profit from a film in the 1940s, successful box office films were used as guiding textual strategies for future films. The same stars were used over and over again with the aim of reproducing successful box office films. With this transformation in film production and the changing position of stars, there was a shifting demand in how the private lives of stars were portrayed in media. This led to an interest in star gossip about their personal histories, which were not overly intimate. Hollywood remained the reference for star gossip, with a move towards providing more information about various aspects of a star's sexuality and privacy.
  7. In addition, Majumdar enlightens readers of the use of double star roles as a successful way to portray multiple ideological positions to clarify the authenticity of star personas. The double role, Majumdar explains, was distinguished on the basis of gender. In comparison to male double roles, female doubles were predominantly based on a severe moral binary of good and evil. The use of double roles was an effective way to contain public gossip that surrounded female stars as well as showing the versatility of an actor.
  8. The gossip about Nargis, a star whose life became publicly framed by her role in Mother India, was dominated by her romantic involvement with Raj Kapoor, with whom she starred in over seventeen films. Majumdar's extensive study of written accounts of the two stars' relationship indicates that the details of their relationship were evident in oral gossip and on-screen. In a comprehensive account of the gossip surrounding Nargis, Majumdar explains that 'gossip circulated knowledge about her relationship with Raj Kapoor, but the screen version of the romance gave the most visible, public face to their private, off-screen relationship, and this image predominated in the overall star persona of Nargis' (p. 154). Nargis' off-screen romance with Kapoor, who was a married man, was legitimised by her on-screen romance with him, which depicted her in roles that embodied modern Hindu womanhood and traits of sexual purity and domestic virtue.
  9. Not only was the star discourse located within the roles and personal lives of male and female actors in the Indian film industry, Majumdar expounds that it also operated in contexts of aural stardom. The voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bosle have dominated the Hindi film industry for almost fifty years. Like the visual representation of female stars, the voice of Mangeshkar was associated with star roles that reflected ideal Indian femininity due to the perceived purity of her voice and moral character. In comparison Mangeshkar's sister, Asha Bosle, became associated with seductive and sexually provocative roles, which established her as a singer for cabaret or disco numbers. Like the visual representation of female stars, Majumdar maintains that the two singers were 'divided into the main conventional feminine dichotomy of virgin and vamp' (p. 190).
  10. Wanted Cultured Ladies Only is an impressive account of female stardom and the Indian film industry from the 1930s to the 1950s and provides its readers with a unique history of the world's largest and most successful film industry. Majumdar's rigorous research and critical analysis illuminates an unacknowledged era of the Indian film industry and its stars. For this reason, the book would be relevant to scholars and students of cinema studies, gender and anyone interested in the evolution of Indian cinema in general.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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