Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the foremost feminist of all? Definitely not Ms. Kangana Ranaut, though she claimed on a news channel to a fawning anchor that she is Hindi cinema’s first feminist. The primetime anchor, a woman at that, didn’t deem it necessary to ask a follow up question, or ask Ranaut to justify on what ground has she declared this on national TV. Anyone even with a cursory knowledge of film history will not let this pass.  I don’t think I would have ventured into Hindi cinema’s rich past, but for Ranaut flaunting her feminism as if she discovered it. This very vocal and tweet happy actor is fond of claiming many things, but this was a bit much.

The interview was bang in the centre of the foggy miasma churned up by many contentious issues that our TV channels connected with the zeal of intrepid sleuths-cum-semiotic gurus. They show scant respect for logic or neutrality in their outrageously speculative, misogynistic and intrusive coverage. What they term breaking news and investigative reporting, is vilification of the dead actor’s girlfriend. Trial by media had never looked uglier and more politically motivated. Into this jumped our self-righteous diva, posing as a rebellious warrior taking on Bollywood Moghuls for everything from Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and connections with drug dealers. Feminism is dragged into this slanging match. Jaya Bachchan’s passionately incoherent defence of the industry in Rajya Sabha sent the rant-pitch to shriller levels. Ranaut’s claim needs to be addressed and answered, because the past has some shining examples of women portrayed with nuanced sympathy and courage of conviction by exceptional film-makers and equally, if not more, exceptional actors. It is a legacy not to be scoffed at by a Jane-come-lately.

First of all, we need to define what feminism means in terms of cinema, more so of the popular kind. And who is a feminist. The personal is political — now, then, and in the future. Its expression changes with the zeitgeist, but the core belief remains more or less constant. What a feminist wants is agency to shape her life on her own terms, have control over her body, sexuality, and fertility, and demands equality of opportunity, treatment, and payment. Choice is the key — whether she wants to be a career woman, a home-maker, or combine the two. Utopian goals in a world still ruled by patriarchy, but the feminist often has to reconcile contradictions. Between centuries old tradition that has socialised her into submission, and modernity that beckons with its promise of freedom. Nobody denies it is a struggle — personal and social — but the fight is on.

Given this broad definition, how did Hindi cinema portray women? The safe option is a stereotype that reinforces traditional virtues and glorifies sacrifice, deifying her into a Devi.  Being perched on the pedestal of a goddess is shaky. You don’t know when it will wobble and get knocked down. Glorification is another form of victimisation, robbing her of her humanity. It denies a woman autonomy, and any degree of complexity. So, what we are looking for, are women who are portrayed as characters in the round, individuals who could be flawed and yet succeed in making a statement. The rewards for daring to be different are an honourable place in film history. And there are many who qualify for their landmark films. The female protagonist often blends this image into the persona of the actor.

The earliest icons have the glamorous aura of westernisation at time when India was colonised, not just politically, but culturally and psychologically. Devika Rani, hailed as the first lady of Indian cinema, has a matchless pedigree. Tagore’s grand-niece, daughter of a doctor who served as the first Indian Surgeon General posted in Madras, sent as a child to be educated in England. Devika Rani trained in set design and textiles. When she met and married Himanshu Rai, another scion of a cultured Bengali family, it seemed like a marriage of true artistic minds. Lawyer-turned-theatre practitioner, passionate about bringing cinema to India, Rai and Rani trained at UFA in Germany. When they finally managed to establish Bombay Talkies, they brought German technicians, and director Franz Osten.

Elegant and exquisitely beautiful, Devika Rani left her artistic imprint on production design while playing heroine in nine notable films: from the silent Karma (notorious for its extended kissing scene) to the most well-known Achut Kanya (1936), which valourised an “untouchable” girl’s courage in saving many lives at the cost of her own. As many know, Devika Rani discovered Ashok Kumar, who played the hero. Her active role in making Bombay Talkies a successful production house (she is reported to have sold her jewellery when the couple was searching for a financial backer) gave a still nascent film industry respectability when it was considered déclassé. Her marriage to Rai was turbulent, because his many infidelities provoked Rani to run away with her co-actor, Najmul Hasan, at one point. But scandal left her untouched. Is it any wonder that Devika Rani was the first recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award when it was established in 1969? She retired with dignity from public life after she was widowed and married eminent painter Nikolai Roerich.

The other much loved pioneer is Fearless Nadia — Mary Ann Evans of Australian descent who came to India as a child, catapulted from circus to screen and in the process, enthralled two generations of viewers with her daredevil stunts. She was the first shero, who appealed to the audience whether she was dressed in shorts or ethnic clothes; they did not mind her accented Hindustani as the thrilling action mesmerised them. Girish Karnad wrote a glowing piece In Cinema Vision (a wonderful publication, sadly short lived) on how as a schoolboy in Dharwar, he eagerly waited for a new Nadia film. She brought class to the action genre, and touched it with magic in a few landmark films: Hunterwali, Diamond Queen, Miss Frontier Mail, all in the ’40s. Though her magic wore off in the ’50s and ’60s, with independent India dealing with new problems, Bollywood could not replicate Fearless Nadia and her appeal. Rangoon recreated the period and the Nadia genre, set in an over-ambitious saga where Kangana Ranaut reprised the iconic ’40s star. But neither the film nor Ranaut could make much of an impact. Is this generation deaf to the Bloody Hell cry that once brought eager throngs to theatres?

In the crucible of the clash between tradition and modernity, Hindi cinema forged two enduring images: the archetypal mother, and the rebel who changed according to the particular situation she was fighting against. To the rebel with a cause first. Duniya Na Mane (Marathi Kunku, 1937) is directly reflective of the many reformist movements in Maharashtra. V.Shantaram created India’s first domestic guerrilla in Shanta Apte’s Nirmala, an orphan who refuses to accept the much older widower she has been tricked into marrying. Shantaram used mirrors to great symbolic effect. Nirmala, getting ready after her bath, hesitates to put kumkum. But she gives in to the norms of a married woman, and asserts her right as the mistress of the household, while denying conjugal rights to Kaka Saheb (Keshavrao Date). Interestingly, Shakuntala Paranjpe, a leading social worker and Sai Paranjpe’s mother,  plays Kakasaheb’s feminist daughter who shames her father. A revolutionary film that made Shanta Apte a youth icon.

Late critic Iqbal Masud loved to share a story from his student days at Madras’ Presidency College. The student’s union had gone to receive their chief guest, and Shanta Apte alighted from the train in trousers, shirt, and hat. And elan to match. The conservative Madras youth were taken aback. My mother would rave about what an idol she was to young women of her generation. All this at a time when the film gossip press was absent, let alone social media. Stars were made by their performance and persona. The other great archetype, the mother as the centre of dharma was of course, Radha of Mother India (1957). Mehboob Khan remade his B&W Aurat (1940) as a validation of Independent India’s agrarian growth and five-year plans.

It is the greatest irony that the matriarch who survives so many back- and-morale-breaking hardships, performs her dharma to uphold patriarchal values. It is an irony that survives to this day. It is also worth noting that the mother as the upholder of dharma has been relocated to an urban setting — think Deewar — but over time, her authority has dwindled. The role lost the resonant righteousness of a Nargis where the mother’s person also becomes symbolic of the nation. Mehboob Khan, wearing his leftist sympathy and modernity on his logo, the hammer and sickle, was distrustful of the westernised woman. He introduced the love triangle with Andaz (1949), where Nargis led the smitten Dilip Kumar to misconstrue her playful manners and friendship for reciprocal love. Raj Kapoor appears as her fiancé to shatter his dreams. The unfolding of the intricate plot ends with Nargis shooting a near demented Dilip Kumar and getting sentenced for life. She is now mother to a little girl and tells the  repentant husband: don’t let modernity lead her astray.

Nargis transited from the confused modern woman to the stalwart mother in less than a decade. Nargis graduated to the first lady title on the strength of her sterling performances and social work — for spastics, and touring the border with Sunil Dutt to entertain our troops. She grew into a larger-than-life image. Nutan, in Bimal Roy’s Bandini, is stupendous. A young woman who leaves her village in search of the elusive revolutionary she fell in love with, poisons a demanding woman who turns out to be the wife of the man she was searching for, and expiates her guilt with selfless service in the prison. She chooses to go with the broken and ailing first love than the young, compassionate doctor who wants to marry her. A woman who lives by her choices.

Waheeda Rehman’s Rosie in Guide, is another woman who makes choices and stays with it. She was warned by industry advisers not to act in the film that would mar her reputation as a leading lady. The supremely graceful Waheeda Rehman risked her career to play the role of a lifetime. Similarly, who can forget Meena Kumari’s Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam? A middleclass woman, thrust into zamindari ways of debauchery and feckless extravagance, is not content with luxury or spending her life following the favourite pastime of women in her circumstance: gehne tudwao gehne banwao. To retain her husband’s affection and attention, she drinks with him, to meet his dare. And thus begins her descent into addiction and anonymous death as feudalism fades into decline, and the educated middle-class professionals rise.

The target of Ranaut’s vitriolic ire, Jaya Bachchan, was once the nation’s sweetheart Guddi. Then broke their hearts over the terminally-stricken Mili. Gratefully granted her the position favourite bahu in Abhimaan. Then we mourned with her grieving mother in Hazaar Chaurasi Ki May. She quit films at her zenith, and came back only much later for a few choice roles. In the arid 80s and early 90s, only parallel cinema offered roles of substance in significant films that showcased Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi’s brilliance and commitment. Ankur, Nishant, Bhumika, Manthan, Mirch Masala, Mandi, Chakra, Subah, and the list goes on. Even strictly non-parallel filmmakers made Ek Baar Phir, where Deepti Naval walks out of a marriage to an egocentric star for a struggling singer. Sai Paranjpye’s delightful comedies gave centrality to her heroines. Kalpana Laljmi’s Ek Pal was again a sympathetic exploration of a woman’s loneliness (Shabana Azmi) in a marriage and her brief affair with her first love.

Both Shabana and Smita acted in mainstream films to make a strong statement for independence. Arth is remarkable because the discarded wife (Shabana Azmi) finds the will to gather her tattered dignity to carve out her own identity. She refuses to accept the repentant husband who has come back, rejected by the unstable, demanding actress who sees that he is not dependable. In Aakhir Kyon,  reprises her TV newsreader past who uses the medium and her own talent as a writer to emerge strong after the husband had betrayed her with her own cousin. Rajesh Khanna is the friend waiting to take it further but she is now content with her career and doesn’t need a partner. Both these  films were successful at the box-office, proving that actors of Smita and Shabana’s calibre could carry a film on their own.

It is best to skip the stars from Rekha to Sridevi getting into the female daku mode of Rambolinas – Shyam Benegal’s telling coinage – flaunting leather jackets, boots and tight trousers, riding horses and shooting baddies. They were pale, desperate imitations of Bandit Queen that should have gone to the Oscars but for the politicking of Phoolan Devi’s biographer. Shekhar Kapur’s raw expose of caste and gender injustice that led our most infamously famous woman to take up arms and lead her men to wreak vengeance on their oppressors. The film did not sanitise either the violence or sex and Seema Biswas gave a searing performance. It is a pity that Bollywood had no roles to match her talent. Nothing could really equal the fierce will forged out of her exploitation by her own family. Bandit Queen stands proudly alone.

Madhuri Dixit emerged out of the sensuous seductress avatar to play the educated bahu of a crumbing feudal family who leads a contingent of women against their exploiters in Mrityudand.  Few years later, Sridevi emerged from retirement to give dignity and respect to the taken-for-granted mother-and wife in English Vinglish. Meanwhile, Tabu made her impact in Astitva as the middleclass wife of a man with a calculator for a heart. She will not apologise for a brief affair with her music guru. In Chandni Bar, Tabu’s life of piled on misery and brief happiness represented a section of women reviled by society.

That is then. Now you have Vidya Balan, Deepika Padukone, Kalki Koechlin, Tapsee Pannu, Swara Bhasker playing women of substance with conviction and elan. So Ranaut is not the only occupant of the feminist pedestal. The illustrious past and exciting present demand not only recognition but celebration. Feminism gains strength from sisterhood. Not petty putdowns.