Saawariya’s Exploration of Women in Bollywood

When asked to explain what makes a film an American film or, in this case, an Indian film, answers will tend to vary depending on whom you ask. However, up until recently, my answer would have been something along the lines of a product of the nation itself. What this could consist of is a great many things, but most specifically, I feel that movies should be understood as indicative of the nation’s culture and its attitudes, which can be surmised based on characters, dialogue, and themes among many other things. One of the themes that has been a critical part of class discussion has the dynamic of gender roles, particularly pertaining to women. The film that I chose to watch outside of class was the 2007 Bollywood film Saawariya, a story about a musician named Raj and the prostitute who loves him, Gulabji, and the woman he loves, Sakina, who has promised herself to another man. Although the film is primarily known for its lavish use of color and magical realism, one of the most interesting aspects of the film to me was the handling of the female characters. Up until this film, the extent of my knowledge of Bollywood cinema and even India itself has been somewhat limited. However, with this film, what I thought I knew about Bollywood and specifically the roles of women as typically seen in these films and themes that we’ve seen in other films, primarily the idea of sacrifice, was absolutely turned on its head.
Although there are plenty of instances in this film that defy the typical roles of women in Bollywood, one of the first instances is the usage of a prostitute as the storyteller. While we have seen indications of prostitutes before, these women tend to be courtesans, or at least higher class prostitutes who are more renowned for their singing and dancing skills than their talents in the bedroom. However, in no uncertain terms, Gulabji is a lowly prostitute. While she proclaims herself “princess of the streets” she also says later in the film that her body is essentially her only asset. There is no sense of disillusionment about what she does. Furthermore, Raj, who is a very likeable protagonist, has no qualms with this. His landlady and Sakina both scold him for consorting with a known prostitute on one occasion each, but that does little to question his devotion to her as a friend. As we have discussed in class, women are particularly forced to sacrifice some part of themselves, and Gulabji is no exception. Although she is clearly in love with Raj and even bestows the title Saawariya, which means “beloved” on him, it’s quite clear early on that she will never be with him. After Sakina has scorned Raj for what seems like the last time, he goes to Gulabji, even offering to pay her for her services. However, she refuses him, knowing that his heart is not true and he’s only coming to her out of the pain of Sakina’s rejection. Her sacrifice, unlike most of the other ones we’ve seen in these films, isn’t forced upon her. She willingly does it out of respect for not only Raj, but for herself. This kind of respect for women is something we haven’t seen in most of these films.
Also having to do with the idea of sacrifice is the love story between Raj and Sakina and the man she has promised herself to, Imaan. Even the most casual observer, it’s very clear that Sakina has held off with any other man, because she is waiting for Imaan to return to her. However, Raj struggles with this, even to the point of burning a love letter that Sakina asks him to give to Imaan. In the end, Imaan does return, despite Raj trying to prevent the inevitable. Sakina returns to Imaan shortly before the film’s end, but as a result, Raj is left with no one. While in most of the great Bollywood love stories we’ve watched, there’s rarely a happy ending and there seems to be almost always a great sacrifice made on behalf of the greater good, it’s usually the woman who suffers. In this film, Sakina is reunited with the man she loves, even at the expense of Raj. It is Raj who performs the sacrifice saying, “Even if you loved me for a few moments, it’s enough to give me joy for a lifetime.” This is not to say that Sakina doesn’t perform a sacrifice of her own. For instance, she’s been waiting at a bridge at midnight every night for a year, which is time she’ll never get back. She even holds back from loving Raj too much, for fear that Imaan will return. She certainly does sacrifice, but in the end, it is her sacrifice that pays off. Raj is left with the memories of the 4 nights they spent together, but even these memories seem to be tainted by his agonizing over what their future could have been. Ultimately, Raj sacrifices more than Sakina was ever willing to, but the film’s treatment of the idea of his sacrifice is more bittersweet than we see in most of these films. Once again, his decision to let her go is based upon his desire to see her happy. It is not something forced or resentful, but rather, it is the purest expression of love.
The roles of women and the sacrifices they make are staples of Bollywood cinema and even in the more pragmatic world outside of the movie theaters; they seem to exist as a statement of the role of women in Indian culture. However, with Saawariya, the women seem to exist in a world entirely their own, in a world outside of the realities of India. The role of Gulabji is a testament to this. While she is doomed to a life of prostitution, she is neither victimized, nor is she scorned for her profession. She is given texture and dimensionality, which seems uncommon for most of these roles. Even though some of her actions are questionable, they are performed with love and respect for Raj’s well being, adding a complicated element to an already complicated love triangle. Even by the end, it seems almost impossible for audiences to fully dislike her. In regards to the role of Sakina and Raj’s sacrifice, while it seems that the traditional gender roles of Bollywood are switched. Furthermore, the idea of sacrifice, as explored in this film and in this paper, exists in an entirely different state than seen in most earlier Bollywood films. While it saddens the characters and the audience that has grown to love them, sacrifice is not seen as a hardship, but as the ultimate expression of love.

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