The idealized fallen women victims of early 1970s films (like Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana/Prayer) gave way in the latter half of the decade to tomboyish female heroines (Jaya Bhaduri in Guddi and Hema Malini in Sholay/Embers).

Jaya Bachchan as the naughty school girl in Guddi.

Basanti in Sholay, the tonga waali (horse carriage driver).

Insaf ka Tarazu (Scales of Justice, 1980). The image and film title reinforce the critique of the legal system that this film made.

Family films, diaspora films of the 1990s:

Yaraana. Lalita trying to kill JB by stabbing him with a knife she has hidden in her saree.

After JB falls down because she stabbed him, she hysterically laughs (perhaps the release of all her fear and paranoia).


From remake to the domestic abuse cycle

The recycling of certain themes and myths, while a characteristic of genre films, is also a characteristic of much popular Hindi cinema. Early Hindi cinematic genres like the mythological were just cinematic renderings of sacred myths and stories, and pleasures of watching were pleasures of recognition and difference, as well as pleasures of rituals.[10] As I mentioned in the previous section, the remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy are constitutive of alternate generic universes than those dictated by the industry. They share certain characteristics with the avenging woman genre but are also distinct from this genre. Together these films constitute a sub-generic film cycle of the avenging women films: the domestic abuse cycle.

While the avenging women genre focused more on the public rather than the domestic humiliation and rape of a woman who then takes revenge and kills (and even castrates the rapists), this cycle of domestic abuse films focuses on the domestic space, the battery of the wife, her struggles and escape, and her subsequent release through the death of the perpetrator/husband. These films not only show the underbelly of patriarchy that is much celebrated by the Bollywood family films, they also provide solutions enacted by women who have moved from a position of victimhood to empowerment. Unlike the avenging women films, the final act of revenge is not always allowed to these women, and this denial might be a result of the changes in the industrial products as responses to changing ideologies regarding gender. Still, the repetition and reiteration of domestic abuse in the remakes points to the impact of these films taken together as a domestic abuse cycle. I contend that the remakes’ paradoxical cultural and feminist politics need to be understood within the context of the films as constituting a film cycle.

All four remakes constantly throw up contradictory impulses for articulating a feminist potential or for using the alternate femininities as fresh blood to bring in excitement and thrill. But taken together these films reveal yet another political and industrial aspect. While they borrow from Sleeping with the Enemy as well as the avenging women film genre, these remakes blur the boundaries between categories such as remakes and genres and arguably constitute a film cycle within the avenging woman genre. What Steve Neale calls “systemization” or Rick Altman calls “Producer’s Game” is a set of steps that genre films follow in reusing successful, marketable elements. Certain features are repeated and newer ones introduced based on audience response, providing enough difference to appeal to viewers. Cross-cultural remakes are similar except that instead of picking any successful film, producers, directors, and scriptwriters select a source film based on its adaptability to existing national genres and on how they understand their audience’s desires. The remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy interestingly don’t just borrow from the Hollywood film but also but also adapt and introduce changes that are very similar. For example, in all the Hindi versions the woman’s new partner/fiancée takes part in the extended fight against the abusive partner. Each film is thus formulaic, which puts the remakes closer to our understanding of a genre where the process of replicating the successful formula continues over a number of films. Then again, four films are not enough to constitute a genre. Furthermore, they might share characteristics with the avenging women films, but crucial differences set these films apart as a small group of films with clearly identifiable shared characteristics similar to film cycles.

Certain factors distinguish a film cycle from a genre—it is

“a distinctive and more focused category. A series of genre films…[which are] linked by a dominant trend in their use of the genre’s conventions” (Leger Grindon 44).

The films in the cycle are made within “a specific and limited time-span” (Steve Neale 9), after which they need to be updated or altered in order to survive (Amanda Klein 4). This is because they are responses to current events and immediate social issues, which Klein claims are attempts to capitalize on current fads and success of other films in the cycle (6). Sleeping with the Enemy then provides the master plot, a term used by Grindon to identify the main characteristics of the genre/cycle, and the Hindi versions are emulations of that master plot. While Yaraana, Agnisakshi, and Daraar did well at the box office, Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe was a major flop and signaled the unviability of the cycle in the next decade when the context of women’s movements is absent and the corporatization of the industry in 1998 impacts the genres that were being produced.[11] The combination of the domestic abuse plot along with the representation of sexual and other violence perpetrated on the female body perhaps brings this cycle a little close to the exploitation film. But also the urgency of women’s issues that get articulated boosts the cycle’s the appeal.

The films depart enough from the genre of avenging films to serve as a subset of or experimentation within it. Perhaps, given the comparative short life of the genre, even the avenging woman genre is closer to a cycle. The domestic abuse cycle, then, could be seen as one of the ways in which the avenging woman film changes and adapts. The characteristics that do distinguish the domestic abuse cycle as clearly separate from the avenging women films certainly result from different social and political contexts: There were changes in the industry in the 1990s including the influence of conservative Hindu hegemonic ideologies and the rise in number of remakes. And on the other hand, women’s movements in the late 1980s had been vociferous about the rights of married women. These industrial, ideological, and political impulses came together to shape filmmakers’ understandings of audience tastes. Moreover, because in Indian politics the fundamentalist Hindutva wave harnessed feminist work for fundamentalist purposes and worked to stamp down the feminist impulses in Hindi cinema, the avenging woman protagonist was replaced with the ideal wife in mainstream films. As a result, not only do the female protagonists seem un-vengeful, men occupy a more central role in the remakes than they do in Sleeping with the Enemy. Ultimately, the conservative turn in the film industry is also responsible for the short span of the domestic abuse cycle.[12]

The 1990s experienced a conservative turn because of the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India. It is evident in the generalized Hindu hegemony in the popular films of that decade (particularly in Agnisakshi, produced by Binda Thackeray). Hence, the production of family films with their celebration of the extended family and updated but conservative gender roles. Hum Aapke Hain Kaun/ Who Am I To You (Sooraj Barjatya 1994) is often lauded as the beginning of these family films that celebrate family values and ideal femininity. In the film, Nisha falls in love with her sister’s brother-in-law, Prem but is willing to sacrifice that in order to take care of her dead sister’s child by marrying her husband. By a happy turn of events, Nisha is stopped from making this sacrifice but her role as a protagonist is secured through her ideal femininity. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai/ Some Thing Happens (Karan Johar 1998), another blockbuster that dealt with the anxiety about westernization of Indian diaspora, Rahul is friends with the tomboyish Anjali who is in love with him. He falls in love with the London-born Indian girl Tina, but significantly only after she proves her Indiannes by devoutly singing the religious hymn, "Om Jai Jagdeesh Hare." Tina dies and years later Rahul meets Anjali and falls in love with her, but this happens after Anjali has transformed from a tomboyish carefree person to a shy saree-wearing woman. Films like Pardes/ Foreign Land (Subhash Ghai 1997), Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham/ Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sorrow (Karan Johar 2001) and many others repeatedly follow this pattern of submissive woman respectful of patriarchal structures as the marker of ideal Indian femininity, particularly in films dealing with the diaspora.

The remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy are inflected by this more conservative cultural climate as well and are therefore less aggressive in their resolutions. The women avengers of the 1980s films often came close to goddess Kaali, much in keeping with the drive of 1980s feminists to find strong female figures from Indian myths. In contrast, the women in the domestic abuse cycle are more like goddess Sita, known for being the ideal wife and for being tested for her purity in popular imagination. Lalita, in the earliest remake Yaraana, is the only female protagonist who tries to kill her husband by stabbing him but he still grabs hold of her and tries to stab her with the same dagger she used on him. Then Raj has to come and rescue her. The figure of the avenging woman is tantalizingly displayed for us here but rendered incomplete. Therefore, even though these films seem to be a subset of the avenging genre films of the 1980s, the women are not allowed the same options of violent retribution and vigilante justice. Instead, the films reveal the negotiation between the aggressive femininity of the avenging women films and the new conservative femininity being introduced.

At the same time, though, these films are responding to a different factor, one expressed by the women’s movements, and this difference is partly responsible for the absence of the revenge plot. While the 1990s saw a proliferation of the NRI (Non-resident Indian) film or the Bollywood family film, which imagined happy, modernized, yet still patriarchal families, these films showed the flip side of marriage for women and enjoyed market appeal because of the cultural relevance of the subject matter. What would soon become the global consumer product of the Bollywood family films, the Hindu wedding, is turned on its head in these films. All the films in this cycle, but particularly Agnisakshi because it refers to the Hindu wedding, are anti-romantic critiques of the institution. The avenging women films focused more on the representation of critique of the legal system and demanding justice for public gang rapes of women that were on the rise in the early 1980s. The domestic abuse cycle responds to the concerns regarding married women by asking the state’s intervention to ensure their safety. In documenting this kind of marital abuse, Radha Kumar lists multiple cases of women who were asking for justice for dowry abuse, as is the case of Shahjehan Begum and Satyarani Chhada whose daughters were killed for dowry (157-58). Their families did not provide enough money, so the women were beaten up and eventually killed. Two films in the cycle make obvious the association between money, marriage, and domestic abuse though the connection exists implicitly in other films too: JB tries to purchase Lalita by paying her uncle some money, and Shubhangi agrees to marry Vishwanath to save her father from bankruptcy. Dowry abuse was not the only concern articulated by women’s movement protesters. They were also demanding for rights of maintenance for married women—asking that the husbands be forced to pay for financial support of the wife and the children. Many women have been abused or abandoned without money and men have been able to hide behind religious personal laws; thus, women’s groups were protesting against this and asking the state to intervene. These concerns are particular to the wife and her physical and mental well-being in her family (Kumar 164-68). The women in each of the remakes are stay-at-home wives who become earning women only after they escape an abusive marriage. Their new marriages ensure the safe and equal space that the women’s movement was asking for, and every single film in the cycle presents a new kind of husband as the ideal even if he still continues to be the patriarch.    

The film cycle then is placed very much at the nexus of what Grindon calls the ritual and ideological approaches, where the ritualistic approach “emphasizes the experience of confronting the conflicts and successfully bringing them to a resolution as a means of allaying social anxiety” and the ideological approach

“finds in the designs of the film industry, or other powerful social agents, an attempt to subdue the audience by distorting the nature and causes of prevailing social conflicts and deceiving or seducing the audience into believing in a simplistic and ineffective resolution” (48).

Clearly, the films ambivalently encourage both approaches. The subject matter’s real potential, however lies in the newness of the myth and ritual and its connection with supporting political events. The remakes together construct a cycle of domestic abuse films. Precisely because of the cultural immediacy and the short life of the cycle, the social conflict it brings to light reverberates beyond the film and overrides the ideological resolutions. The ending that re-establishes the heteronormative couple becomes trite convention, a false ending, and the domestic abuse and the female protagonist’s journey become the main plot of the film.

To conclude, I want to come back to the question of transnational feminist critique. This cycle contests post-feminist claims of feminism as passé by showing the reality of domestic abuse that cuts across class, race, and nations. Ultimately, even though the films are implicated within political and conservative ideologies, together they undo the neo-colonial binaries of first and third world in which the third world is the site of domestic abuse, dowry deaths, and gang rapes. And while individually all these films fall somewhat short of presenting domestic abuse as a pervasive problem, when understood as a cycle, they draw attention to multiple individual cases and multiple monster husbands, thereby revealing domestic abuse to be a systemic problem connected with the treatment of women in patriarchy and within the institution of marriage. The cycle also draws attention to concerns about forced sex as marital rape (far more common than rapes by strangers) and about rape as one aspect of an expression of male power along with battery and abuse. Even though the women may not have been allowed vengeance, the cycle refuses to participate in the normalization or naturalization of domestic abuse. Instead, it underlines the far more tame but more practical and empowering message that leaving (and divorce) is an option. Finally, looking at these films as a cycle also reveals the connections between industrial priorities and urgent cultural concerns because the cycle is responding to the demands articulated by the grassroots women’s movements.

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