New does not mean that something is modern, or for that matter progressive. Most among our generation believe that Netflix shows like ‘Sacred Games’, ‘Lust Stories’, ‘Ghoul’ or movies like ‘Lipstick under Burkha’, ‘Pink’ etc are path-breaking. We believe, or are being made to believe, that it is the first time that Bollywood is opening up to the progressive modern ideas of ‘women rights’ and these filmmakers are a sort of revolutionaries. While truth being that the present Bollywood has yet to catch up with the progressive elements of the 50s or 60s in Bombay films.
India has a gender pay gap of around 20% (Monster Salary Index, 2017) and its Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) is one of the worst. With 27% of FLFP India ranks 121st out of 131 countries surveyed. Still, we find a deafening silence regarding these issues in mainstream cinema. In movies, with A-line star cast, we rarely find mention of these gender issues, either overtly or covertly.
It is true that we have Padman or few other propaganda movies but these films don’t talk about Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP), gender pay gap and sexual harassment of women at the workplace.
Most of us, from the current generation, are quite unaware of the fact that Bombay Cinema was dominated by progressive filmmakers, with Marxist leanings, from the 1940s to 1970s. Progressive people like Majrooh, Kaifi, Manto, Balraj, Raj Kapoor, Shailendra, Dhawan, and others dominated cinema during that era. Movies were themed around the class struggle, exploitation of peasants, corruption and other social problems of the time.
Among these, a movie which needs to be revisited is ‘Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan (Eleven Thousand Women)’ directed by KA Abbas. Script and dialogues of the movie were written by two progressive writers KA Abbas and Ali Sardar Jafri, who also produced it. It was under the direction of Abbas that Bharat Bhushan and Mala Sinha played the protagonists, where the society played a villainous role.
Released in 1962, the movie is a reflection of a society which locks its women inside the boundary walls of a house, and when a woman steps out to work, she is exploited. Lower wages, certain gendered employments, and sexual harassment at the workplace were a few of the themes this film looks closely into.
The movie opens up with a courtroom sequence, where a woman, Asha Premchand (Mala Sinha) is being called into the court. She has been charged with a murder, a charge that she accepts. There enters a journalist Pooran Chand (Bharat Bhushan) asking for permission to defend her as a lawyer. When asked, by the judge, if he has any witness to prove the innocence of the accused he replies that there are eleven thousand witnesses. Eleven thousand women, who work in Bombay are witnesses to the conditions in which Asha is living, and which led to the ‘crime’.
The movie, after it, moves to flashback-in an office, a few women workers are reading an article written by Pooran Chand. Titled ‘Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan (Eleven Thousand Women)‘, the article was an account of economic exploitation that the working women face in Bombay. According to the article, approximately 11,000 women work in Bombay and these are modern day Chand Bibi and Jhansi Rani. These women who work in offices, schools, shops etc are the future of the nation. Yet, these women are highly underpaid. For teaching, a woman is paid 80 Rupees/month while Mala herself at Rationing office gets a meagre 110 Rupees/month. Many jobs are deemed unfit for women.
Most of the women, including, Asha are appreciative of Pooran and his writings. She calls him to her office on the pretext of some discrepancy in ration card account. A minor confusion exchanges her salary envelope with his application and they meet again. It is at the second meeting that he asks about her views regarding his articles.
Here she raises a very important point and criticises his writings on account that while he is talking about the economic problems and is well aware of those, Pooran is oblivious of the social stigma, and personal problems that a working woman faces. In a way, through this movie, Abbas and Sardar have actually raised the issue that while writing about women how much aware are the progressive writers themselves. Kaifi, Faiz, Makhdum etc have written a lot about the conditions of women, but still, a woman’s perspective was missing. Experience of a woman is must, in order to understand the problems, that she faces.
So, Pooran interviews her in order to publish her views in his next article.
During the course of the movie, Asha goes jobless and her younger sister Uma (Madhavi) joins a night-club as a dancer. Manager of the night-club tries to molest Uma on gunpoint. In self-defense, Uma shoots him dead and Asha takes the responsibility of the murder as police arrive.
Back in the courtroom, prosecution lawyers ask that if Uma is ‘shareef (Innocent)’ why was she working at a night-club. Pooran calls in three women to prove the point that as a society we do not pay adequate salaries to educated and skilled women. Once at a workplace, ‘employer tries to sexually exploit them and do harass them’. Women are exploited twice, first by not letting them work at equal wages and then through sexual harassment.
Pointing towards Uma, Pooran says that her eyes reflect ‘the temptation of future, desperation to survive, and fear of stepping out’. This is not the story of Asha or Uma, but the tale of each one of those 11,000 women who step out to work. Neither Asha nor Uma, but society is the criminal and we need to punish this society.
Like any other Abbas movie, songs convey crucial social messages. At the outset of the movie, title song, gyarah hazar ladkiyan (eleven thousand women) sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Penned by another progressive poet Majrooh Sultanpuri, the song was sung by Mahendra Kapoor while Datta N composed the music. Song celebrates working women as the future of the nation. It eulogizes the fact that women have started reading files like they were supposed to read only love letters in the past. Picturisation of the song includes the women working as typists, air-hostesses, nurses, soldiers, teachers etc. and marching down the Rajpath at republic day parade. Song defines women as ‘’sare jaha pe surkh-roo (red coloured face for the world)”. With the leftist leaning Abbas, Majrooh, and Sardar at the helm, it can be safely assumed that they saw the liberation of women through the communist lens, of which red was the symbol.
Another song that stands out, and should be mentioned was penned by Majrooh but inspired by a famous poem Aurat(woman) by Kaifi Azmi. The song goes like-“Meri mehboob mere sath hi chalna hai tujhe,Raushni le ke andhere se nikalna hai tujhe”(My beloved you have to walk with me, With torch in hands, you have to break through the darkness)
The song was a perfect ode to working women. In the voice of Rafi, Pooran asks his beloved that she should accompany him at every step of their lives. She is not a sexual object meant only to be loved but a comrade in life. Capabilities of a woman are in no way less than a man.
Though Majrooh penned the lyrics for the movie but ideas for two songs were taken from the heavyweights of progressive writers- Movement Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Kaifi Azmi.
Presently when women are voicing their concerns about sexual harassment at workplace through #MeToo campaign Bollywood remains largely silent on the issue. Filmmakers should look back at the rich legacy and films like Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan to understand what actually needs to be shown to the viewers in theatres and cinema halls.