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Believe It Or Not, There Was A Time When Bollywood Songs Were About Women’s Rights

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By Saquib Salim:

These are times when we are being fed with misogynistic bollywood songs like ‘Munni Badnam hui’, ‘Shiela ki Jawani’ and singers like Honey Singh and Mika, whose lyrics are extremely sexist. It has become difficult, if not impossible, to think of Hindi/Urdu songs as as a platform for progressive or feminist ideas. There is no denying the fact that the ongoing discourse in bollywood movies and songs reinforces the age-old notions of patriarchy. However, the assumption that bollywood has always been an agent of regressive ideas is a popular but misplaced notion.

There was a time from the 1950s to 1980s when progressive writers like Kaifi Azmi, Majaz, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Shailendra Singh and others were penning Bollywood songs. The poets, all of whom were part of a movement known as the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), brought with them, ideas of social revolution in the landscape of Bollywood. A language of women’s rights and feminism also found its way into mainstream Bollywood. In the present era, songs and movies that talk of social change are supposed to be ‘offbeat’. In the fifties that was not the case.

Sadhna’, a 1958 box-office hit featured a song. ‘Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko’. This song has a tone that confronts patriarchal notions of society and religion. It should be kept in mind that this movie was a ‘mainstream’ film that was directed by B.R Chopra. Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala were in the lead roles. It was declared a box-office success and the song became a hit. Sahir Ludhianvi was nominated for the Best Lyricist in the 1959 Filmfare Awards for the song.

The film tries to portray how society treats a sex worker and this song defines the very theme of the film. At the very outset, Sahir holds men responsible for the commodification of women. He writes, “Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardon ne usey bazaar diya.” (Woman gave birth to men, men gave her the market.) It also brings out the idea that this society is a male dominated society and men have turned women into a commodity. Later lines of the song include, “Mardon ne banayi jo rasmein, unko haq ka farmaan kaha.” (Writings/Customs formulated by men were claimed to be the word of God.) It is an open attack on all the existing religions and their treatment of women. Ludhianvi is fearless in asking the bitter truth. Where were the women when the religious texts were being written? For him, all these religious institutions are made by men to legitimise their dominance over women. In the next sentence, he attacks Sati and Jauhar (The self-immolation of queens  of the Rajput kingdoms in Rajasthan, when it was evident that they were going to be defeated.) He writes ‘Aurat ke Zinda Jalne ko Qurbani aur Balidan kaha’ (Burning of women is celebrated as sacrifice.) It should be kept in mind that a Jauhar Mela is held annually at Chittorgarh, organised by the state government even today and is attended by ministers and parliamentarians. It seems almost impossible today to believe that Bollywood could stand against patriarchy and other regressive notions.

Sahir’s attack on religion does not stop here. He goes on to write, “Avatar payambar janti hai phir bhi shaitan ki beti hai.” (Gives birth to avatar and prophet, yet she is satan’s daughter.) This is in reference to the Semitic belief that women are the root cause of evil as they were responsible for the exit from paradise. (Story of Adam and Eve)

It is not the case that he attacked only religion while challenging patriarchy. With the words ‘’Mardon ki havas hai jo aksar, aurat hi paap mai dhalti hai,” (Lust/curiosity of men takes shape of a sin for women) he points towards the hypocrisy of our society where different treatment is meted out to men and women for the same conduct. While a sexual relationship a man indulges in can be called anything from curiosity to lust, for a woman the same thing will be called sin. Why this hypocrisy when both are equal partners in the sexual union?

Being an active member of the Progressive Writer’s Association, economic issues were close to the heart of Ludhianvi and is reflected in the line, “Chaklo hi mai aa kar rukti hai faaqo se jo raah nikalti hai”. (The journey which begins due to starvation/ hunger ends in the red light areas.) He points out the socio-economic reasons which force women to take up the profession of prostitution. For Ludhianvi, social etiquette and morality are explained through class. The poor are seen as shameless. “Sansar ki har ik be-sharmi ghurbat ki goad mai palti hai.” (Every shamelessness of the world grows up in the lap of poverty.) Ludhianvi believes that prostitution is forced upon women because of the adverse economic conditions they face. Yet, it doesn’t prevent them from being called  ‘shameless’ and ‘characterless’.

Like any great poet worth his salt, he keeps his most powerful words to conclude the song. For him, every woman is as much a woman as his own mother. He scares the listener to the core with the words “Ye wo bad-qismat maa hai, jo beto ki saij pe leti hai.” (This is that unfortunate mother, who is lying on the bed of her sons.) He draws out the irony in a brothel where a man might be having sex with the same woman his father had also visited.

This iconic song, written by Sahir Ludhianvi and sung by Lata Mangeshkar is just one of several such from the era of 1950s to 1980s. Now, consider the present scenario. Is it really possible to think that bollywood can produce such bold attacks on social, economic and religious institutions of our society in contemporary times?

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