Urban/Rural Divide: Gender Politics in Middle Cinema in Hindi

Abstract : Cinema, a narrative of life, finds expression within the cultural matrix of the community. It weaves stories rooted in the social milieu and enriched by social experiences. A major milestone in the Indian culture, cinema is an endearing spectacle of our copious heritage, rich in diversity. On a broad scale, Indian cinema movement illustrates three streams of cinematic creation – popular cinema or mainstream cinema, middle cinema or middle-of-the-road cinema and serious cinema or art cinema. Middle cinema, treading a mean path borrows munificently from popular and serious cinema to form a relatively new genre, bearing the imprints of both. This paper seeks to analyse the gender politics involved in Middle Cinema in Hindi.

Keywords: urban rural divide, cultural matrix, rooted social milieu, Indian cinema movement, gender politics, serious cinema, commercial cinema, gender roles, gender identity, middle cinema, narrative life cinema, cinema’s social expression, caste identity, gender politics

Cinema, a narrative of life, finds expression within the cultural matrix of the community. It weaves stories rooted in the social milieu and enriched by social experiences. A major milestone in the Indian culture, cinema is an endearing spectacle of our copious heritage, rich in diversity. The diversity abounds to differences in languages, customs, ethinic specificities and cultural ideologies.

On a broad scale, Indian cinema movement illustrates three streams of cinematic creation – popular cinema or mainstream cinema, middle cinema or middle-of-the-road cinema and serious cinema or art cinema. The differences among the genres are evocative of the cultural differences governing the societal hegemonies of power. Commercial cinema often adheres to a formulaic structure and is primarily dictated by box-office success rate, while serious cinema bears neo-realistic imprints, moves between the abstract and the concrete to portray reality with much austerity. Middle cinema, treading a mean path borrows munificently from popular and serious cinema to form a relatively new genre, bearing the imprints of both. These sublime streams of thought have found their way into Indian cinema (Hindi cinema and other regional cinemas).

Within the purview of Hindi cinema, commercial cinema, serious cinema and of late middle cinema have carved out a niche for themselves. While commercial cinema and serious cinema, exist on planes diametrically opposite, middle cinema seeks to bridge the chasm by evolving a new cinema aesthetic. Without adhering to a tried-and-tested formula, middle cinema like serious cinema is experimental in the choice and treatment of themes. Conversely, similar to commercial cinema, it makes allowances for song, dance, glamour, subtle drama, and action sequences to mitigate the seriousness of the theme or the narrative. Realistic, yet with a sizeable share of concessions, these movies do conform to the basic story. Eminent filmmaker Govind Nihalani acknowledges ‘middle cinema’ as one with artistic integrity and a poignant subject clubbed together.

As a medium, middle cinema uncovers Indian society, hierarchically segregated and simultaneously integrated into families, classes, religions, castes, ethnic communities and gender. In its attempt to be relatively true to life, middle cinema illustrates easily identifiable situations by approximating reality through representation. Be it the plight of the poor and downtrodden or the shams of the cosmopolitan affluent society, middle cinema makes a matter-of-fact representation through the visual imagery and appropriate sound effects. They bring to light the economic inequalities between the classes, the exploitation of the underprivileged women, problems of landlessness and other social concerns without any inhibitions through the experiences of ordinary men and women.

Middle cinema attempts to approximate these realities by manoeuvring through the politics implicit in the representation of identities, both personal and social – gender identity, sexual identity, class identity, religious identity, caste identity, ethnic identity, age, social relationships and kinship associations. Represented through cinema, it entails the continuous act of living out these identities.

Each person’s identity is unique ensuing from multifarious sources. ‘Our identity is a specific marker of how we define ourselves at any particular moment in life’ (Kirk 49). It is communicated through our domiciliary backgrounds, profession, language and conversational style, clothes, food, habits and etiquettes, modes of conveyance, leisure activities and style statements. Apart from these, there are many socio-cultural markers (rituals and customs) that underlie these obvious identity markers. Folbre refers to these markers as ‘structures of constraint’ (6) (ethnicity, sexuality, class and caste) which determine an individual’s personal and social identity. These markers interplay with the gender of a person to create the base identity of every person.

The socio-cultural identity markers diversified along the lines of topographical variations also consider the urban and the rural divide. In this modern age, with the urban / rural divide becoming more glaring, the notions of identity and gender differentiations are also undergoing a major change. Contemporary middle cinema has expanded its horizons to inculcate the changing tides. It renders realistically the contemporary socio-political issues and the changing urban and rural way of living. Middle cinema stands out for its attempt to simultaneously illustrate the social order and also deconstruct it.

The paper seeks to explore how contemporary middle cinema gives an up-to-date representation of identity vis-à-vis identity creation, sustenance and change in both the rural and the urban milieu. The attempt is not to draw a comparison between the urban and the rural but to foreground the changing perspectives. The movies chosen, proffer vivid examples of the urban and the rural scenario with reference to identity and its markers. All these movies conforming to the category of middle cinema, particularly in Hindi also lay special emphasis on the lives of women, with due respect to the construction of gender in the urban or rural socio-cultural sphere.

The movies selected for analysis are Bandit Queen (Dir. Shekar Kapur; 1994), Bawandar – Sandstorm (Dir. Jaqmohan Mundhra; 2000), Godmother (Dir. Vinay Shukla; 1999), Page3 (Dir. Madhur Bhandarkar; 2005), and Phir Milenge – See You (Dir. Revathi; 2004). Among these movies Bandit Queen, Bawandar and Godmother are rooted in the rural life, whereas Page3 and Phir Milenge illustrate the urban social setup. The films highlight the evolving urban and rural socio-cultural and political set up through representation of images and sounds.

Bandit Queen, based on a real life incident, delineates the meteoric rise of a sexually abused socially backward class woman, Phoolan Devi as a dacoit leader and spokesperson of the Dalits. Bawandar (Sandstorm) narrates the story of a sexually exploited rural woman, Sanwari, who protests against child marriage, as a renowned social activist. Godmother traces the stages in the life of Rambhi from a humble devoted wife of a caste leader to that of a widow who endeavors several hardships to emerge as a powerful political leader to reckon with. Page3 unfolds the glib world of the socialites infested with social and moral maladies through the eyes of Madhvi, a journalist. Phir Milenge (See You) shows the fight for justice by Tamanna, an HIV patient and her right to live and work in the society.

In the following sections, some of the key identity markers are highlighted. The paper throws light on how middle cinema represents as well as shows the changes with reference to these identity markers, feminine gender in particular. These markers considered for analysis are gender roles, sexuality, caste, class/lifestyle, clothes and language. Gender role differences endowed with some prescribed norms, privileges and attributes are constantly constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed in our lives. Jane Alpert comments, ‘…the essential difference between women and men does not lie in biology but rather in the roles that patriarchal societies (men) have required each sex to play’ (qtd. in Scott 512).

Women are categorised according to their role performances. In the words of Clara Nubile, ‘being a woman in modern India means to be entrapped into the inescapable cage of “being a woman-wife-mother”’ (qtd. in Singh 44). They are adjudged according to the prescribed notions of an ideal daughter, wife or a chaste woman. In these movies, Madhvi, Sanwari, Rambhi, Phoolan Devi and Tamanna are assigned definitive gender roles and specific domains by the urban and rural society.

Gender roles vary according to the milieu, topography and its socio-cultural beliefs. In the cities and townships, women are often given a more liberal upbringing as against villages seethed in conventional practices subjecting women to a secondary status. Roles undertaken by Tamanna and Madhvi are in stark variance to those executed by Sanwari and Rambhi. Middle cinema not only portrays this status quo, but also shows women attempting to deconstruct the patriarchal notions. Tamanna and Madhvi, the modern free thinking women and Sanwari, Rambhi and Phoolan, the prototypes of the rural women are coerced to make compromises, but they resolutely defend against these stereotypes to establish own identity.

Phoolan as a daughter is an encumbrance to her parents and is egged on to learn the socially accepted traits of subservience and meekness which is along the lines of the child marriages in Bawandar. Nevertheless Phoolan’s interaction with her parents indicates the slowly changing mindset of the girls, unwilling to yield to uneven gender paradigms even within the rural settings.

Marriage as an identity marker bears immense significance both to the identity of an individual and to the institution of marriage per se. In the rural context, marriages are society and family based and bound by scores of tradition. This finds expression in the child marriages in Bawandar and the ‘Kaum’ as a decisive factor in Godmother. The movies portray the changing perceptions when Sejal (Godmother) marries Azad in spite of the Kaum opposing their decision with its iron hands. In the urban context marriages can be based on mutual understanding or for the sake of convenience. While Pearl (Page 3) happily marries an older man to secure her future, Phoolan is forced to marry an older man to save her family from financial encumbrance.

Marriage decides the identity of the individuals, both man and woman. Female identity finds expression through marriage whereby her identity is linked to her partner’s. Phoolan’s husband Puttilal, heedless to the agonies of his child bride brutally rapes her for sexual pleasure, asserting his identity as her husband. Strong willed as she is, Phoolan abandons her husband, spurning all popular beliefs that a woman lacks an identity without her husband. Her father comments at her decision, ‘usne apni zindagi apne haath mein le li’ (she has taken her life in her own hands). Middle Cinema also depicts the bracing change in the rural scenario where mutual respect and love defines the marital relationship between Veeram (Godmother) and Rambhi and Sohan (Bawandar) and Sanwari.

Motherhood is a pivotal aspect of woman’s femininity. Sudhir Kakar proposes, ‘…an Indian woman knows that motherhood confers upon her a purpose and identity…both a certification and redemption’ (qtd. in Jain 109). When Rambhi decides to give birth to her child at the risk of her own life, she is at once the archetypal Indian mother selfless in her sacrifice as well as the representative of the new age woman, making her own choices and being responsible for them. Gayathri (Page 3) an unwed mother trapped in the modern urban social mores opts for an abortion to evade disgrace. Godmother unearths a different facet of motherhood. Rambhi, contrary to the socially expected role of a mother unconsciously nurtures the grubby rules of power in her son Karzan. Without glorifying motherhood, it gives an unbiased representation, taking into account the complex human psyche, which influences the frame of reference in a positive or negative light.

Middle cinema ventures beyond the socially acknowledged roles of a wife, mother and sister to depict the different challenging roles that women perform with ease and poise – be that of an activist, community leader, corporate executive, journalist etc. There is resistance to women donning certain roles, but ultimately society tends to accept the same illustrating that there are no roles that can be clearly said as belonging to man or woman. Tamanna and Madhvi are the career-oriented modern women but Sanwari and Rambhi hailing from the villages also venture into the public domain to assert their identity as women having a will of their own.

Stereotypes structure gender roles and insolence especially from women is severely reprimanded. Even when middle cinema attempts to show the society’s repressive measures to crush women’s aspirations, it does not hesitate from foregrounding those women who go against self- constructing tags. Rambhi’s victory celebration negating all popular conceptions of female etiquettes in the village gives voice to her happiness in her victory in the panchayat elections. Sanwari’s protest against a villager’s misbehaviour towards a woman is representative of a changing woman even if she is from a village. Her determination to seek justice is unacceptable to the village elders.

Sexuality, an identity marker is codified in connection with the construction of gender in every sphere of life. Controlling woman’s sexuality by reinforcing women’s susceptibility, society perpetrates the social stigma attached to women whose sexual chastity has been violated. The concept of being impure is entrenched in the female psyche as Sanwari cries, ‘I have become impure’. Movies like Godmother, Phir Milenge and Page 3, show contemporary sexually liberated women advocating their right to their body. They express their innate sexual desires and play up their rights to sexual pleasures on their own terms by confronting the redundant customs.

According to Anurima, ‘totally non-stereotypical view of Rambhi bhai assuming command of her sexuality, and acting in full partnership with her husband, rejects the constructed image of rural women, which would normally have us believe that they are coy, submissive, backward, and confined by puritan norms’ (36). Likewise Tamanna has no qualms about premarital sex and Gayathri (Page 3) dares to exploit her sexuality to realise her dreams. Phoolan who has been sexually exploited has a clear say when it comes to her sexual relations with Vikram Mallah (Bandit Queen).

Caste, an identity marker differs along the lines of the urban and the rural. In the rural context, the ideologies of ethnicity and caste together delineate the identities manifested in the representation of Kumhars and Gujjars in Bawandar, Mallahs and Thakurs in Bandit Queen and Mers in Godmother through their dress, occupations, religious specifications, indigenous customs and local dialect. In the urban setup caste is often subsumed under class differentiated along the lines of money power. Page 3 and Phir Milenge flaunting the lives of the affluent focus on class than caste disparities, in contrast to the villages where caste keeps alive the uneven power equations. This explains the exploitation of women and the violence inflicted upon the likes of Phoolan who are persistently reminded, ‘Aurat hai tu aur mallah’ (You are a woman and a mallah). Gender identity interplays with her caste identity and this testifies the double exploitation that she has endured.

Purity and its implications on gender within and between castes is visibly pronounced through endogamy. Jakhra (Godmother) murdered his sister for having married out of the Mer Jaat, caste community. On the other hand, Rambhi performs the rituals at the village shrine upon her victory in Panchayat elections, striving to take her gender identity beyond that of her caste identity and its codified laws of purity and impurity. Within the community, family organises identity according to age, gender roles and sexual division of labour. Family as a social institution is undergoing change with the joint family in Bawandar, disintegrating joint family in Godmother, nuclear families in Page 3 and Phir Milenge and the modern single women sharing an apartment together. Villages and cities are simultaneously caught in transformation phase of existence, which middle cinema attempts to represent with utmost fidelity to reality.

Class configured around social cataloguing and power is a marker of individual identity. Lifestyle, a marker of social class is another signifier of individual and social identity. In this modern age, lifestyle replaces social class and many a time religion as a marker of social status. The significance of lifestyle as a marker of identity varies from the urban to rural. Phoolan and Sanwari’s impoverished existence is in stark contrast to the plush lifestyle of Tamanna and Madhvi, their urban counterparts. Page 3 projects the ‘hedonistic’ lifestyle of indulgence and extravagance of the rich socialites. Their lives center on money, power and glamour as against the personal association and the community centered world of rituals and relationships in Bawandar, Bandit Queen and Godmother. Class stratification computes female exploitation. Sanwari’s rape and the injustice meted out to Phoolan in the name of justice when she is molested by Thakurs clearly reflect this.

Clothes, as powerful signifiers communicate and create our identity. These markers demarcate status groups, class positions and caste connotations visible in Bawandar and Godmother. The social butterflies (Page 3) vying for a space in the Page 3 columns cannot afford to overlook the niceties of their social appearance. Experimenting with clothes to make their indelible style statements, they outdo their fellow beings in the mad race for social appreciation even if it be for a funeral. The sincere expressions of grief at the death of Veeram speak volumes for the irreparable loss.

Clothes identify the gender. Men’s clothes are suggestive of the social status and women’s clothes represent social control and the underlying power differences. Phoolan is admonished for not covering her head, in front of the Takurs, belonging to the upper class. When Rambhi upon the death of her husband Veeram has to clothe herself in white eschewing the colours of the world, the clothes take on a different role. Clothes pronounce the differences in the gender identities of men and women. This is more defined by the traditions of the villages than the ever transforming cities. Middle cinema represents clothes as signifiers of power. When at a crucial juncture, the rapists foresee their defeats, they request Sanwari to withdraw her case by placing their turban at her feet.

Clad in ‘kaakhi’ attire with a red band fastened around her forehead, Phoolan comes across as the picture perfect image of a woman desperate to conceal her femininity in the man’s world. Nevertheless middle cinema does not overlook society’s disparate attitudes towards cross-dressing, as Phoolan remains all the more vulnerable.

Language which varies according to the specific regional trappings and the urban/rural divide can also produce our sense of selves as subjects. Phoolan, Rambhi and Sanwari echo their innate identity through the local dialect and the rustic version of Hindi they converse in. Tinged with the specific regional trappings, their language is in contrast to the sophisticated and urbanised curt phrases and polished accent of Tamanna and Madhvi.

Language crafts an individual’s gender in a socially precise manner. Women are expected to maintain an air of seriousness and decency befitting their feminine gender. When Phoolan uses abusive language, she is reproached by her parents and reminded of her feminine identity. Middle cinema goes a step further to show women exploiting the power of language to redefine their identity as Phoolan and Rambhi use offensive language when the situation demands them to consolidate their power over men. Entering the coveted public arena earmarked for men, they establish and redefine their gender status through language to cast off the mantle of powerlessness that society has thrust upon them.

Middle cinema represents the socio-cultural reality in the urban and the rural scenario. However through representation, it also involuntarily tends to ‘decolonise minds and lead to a transformation of society’ (qtd. in Vasudev (1986) 49) by reproving the evils wrought by religion, casteism, feudalism, exploitation, subjugation and gender differentiations. Contemporary middle cinema rightly signifies through a dialogue from Page 3 which goes as, ‘You have to be within the system to change the system.’ Within the colourful medium of cinema, middle cinema is slowly but steadily effecting a transformation of both the society and the medium. Assimilating the creative aspects of commercial and serious cinema, it becomes a catalyst of change by attempting to portray reality realistically. Middle cinema provides us with a spectrum of identities to choose from that women can achieve and actually achieve in the urban and the rural India. Urban or rural, the stark reality strikes the eye.


Bandit Queen. Dir. Shekar Kapur. Perf. Seema Biswas, Manoj Bajpai, Nirmal Pandey, and Govind Namdeo. 1994.

Bawandar (Sandstorm). Dir. Jaqmohan Mundhra. Perf. Nandita Das, Raghuvir Yadav, Deepti Naval, Rahul Khanna, Govind Namdeo, and Gulshan Grover. 2000.

Godmother. Dir. Vinay Shukla. Perf. Shabana Azmi, Milind Gunaji, Nirmal Pandey, Govind Namdeo, Vinit Kumar, and Raima Sen. 1999.

Page3. Dir. Madhur Bhandarkar. Perf. Konkona Sen Sharma, Atul Kulkarni, Sandhya Mridul, Tara Sharma, Boman Irani, Soni Razdan, and Jai Kalra. 2005.

Phir Milenge (See You). Dir. Revathi. Perf. Salman Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Shilpa Shetty, and Mita Vasisht. 2004.


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