What does it mean to suggest that the woman is the embodiment of the nation and how do nationalistic Bollywood films suggest this?
Mother country, homeland, motherland, and mother tongue are some of the names we give to countries and languages. “Stand beside her, and guide her,” we sing in “God Bless America.” Our planet too, is referred to as mother Earth. A lot of female agency has been given to nations and to our planet. At the root of this is the sentiment of the mother-child relationship because the idea of birth is inseparable from the mother and inseparable from the place where one is born. The mother-child relationship is the highest of human bonds, exceptions to which are rarest of the rare. Thus, it is natural that when society needs to provide stature to the country, comparing her to one’s sacrificing and unconditionally loving mother is the obvious choice.
The mother-Earth-nation triad is a powerful one. A woman embodies all the qualities that one often associates with one’s land: it gives sustenance to keep us from hunger, protection to keep us from danger, and roots to ground us to our cultural identity. Public morality is strongly linked with cinema; films such as Mother India (1957) and Deewar (1975) make powerful commentaries on what it means to be a woman. Brigitte Schulze writes, “As woman she can be stylized as the abstract potential of recreating life, and as peasant she is supposed to represent that energizing connection to the soil, to “mother earth” (Schulze 73). But Radha’s morality is so pure that she is willing to gun down her own son for protecting the honor of the village. Deewar’s (1975) Sumitra Devi, too, is the personification of grit in the face of sacrifice. She make a clear distinction between right and wrong and hold everybody to those standards, even her younger son, Vijay. The apotheosis of Sumitra Devi signifies her strength and dignity not only in the face of an absentee husband but also as a symbol of the nation’s pristine values. The suffering mother serves as an inspiration for her children, the young men of the nation. She evokes a sense of duty in her sons to work hard in order to bring respect and wealth to their family. Characters such as Radha and Sumitra Devi exemplify both the unconditional sacrifice as well as the high moral ground that women often exhibit. A nation too, is supremely forgiving but a nation’s fury, too, has grave repercussions.
A woman is also exceptionally adaptive. In her lifetime, she must keep up with her changing identity as a daughter, lover, wife, mother, and matriarch. This is not much different from the ever changing responsibilities of and expectations from one’s nation. We see in examples of women such as Mrs. Meenakshi Iyer and Zaara the reality of a woman’s struggle with her changing identity; what is also unmissable is the graciousness with which these female characters ultimately dignifies their assigned responsibilities. Zaara is an obedient (though mischievous) daughter, a loyal lover and a devoted public servant. Mrs. Iyer sacrifices her love for Raja in exchange of a more stable life for her son and her parents because separation from her real husband, Mani, would have wreaked havoc in both families.
A woman is also fiercely protective. We see Liz (Lagaan, 2001) making the unconventional choice of helping Bhuvan only because she cannot bear to be a silent onlooker while her brother exploits and dominates the villagers. In Mother India (1957), Radha is fiercely protective of her village’s honor. It is no coincidence that the village honor is personified by the honor of Rupa, the village landlord’s daughter. The village landlord had exploited Radha and her family their entire life and this was cause for Birju’s frustration and the reason why he kidnapped Rupa. But in a situation where a man’s frustration reached its limits, Radha still maintained a righteous moral compass. Radha believed that the village honor resided in all the daughters of the village including Rupa and so she was willing to defend Rupa even at the cost of her son’s life. In Hindi cinema, a man is often perceived as driven by his love for a woman, his drive to prove others wrong or take revenge, or his greed for money. A woman, however, is shown to often taken into consideration the sentiments of her parents, her siblings, her lover’s, her community and so on. Once again, this personifies the magnanimity and selflessness of a nation.
Britannia is the female personification of Britain; she is the symbol of unity and strength. In India, too, some of the most important Gods after Ram, Shiv and Ganesh are Paarvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati. But there can be a dark side to the idea of women being the embodiment of the nation. Women are responsible for growing the population of any nation and that makes them an indispensable part of the national discourse. This gives rise to a nationalistic desire to control and protect the purity of the woman’s womb as well as her sexuality. Schulze points out that “[Radha] is not supposed to expend her strength on her own but rather only in the context of her functioning for the community, which is the Indian nation, controlled by men” (Schulze 74). Contrasting Radha with the character of Priti in Purab Aur Paschim (1970), one gets the sense that Preeti is not fully accepted or respected by any of the other Indian characters (or the audience) until she returns to India, dones a sari and gives up sexual promiscuity and alcohol. In Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), the fact that Lucky’s daughter, Simran, is manglik makes her unfit for an arranged marriage. This goes to show that until a woman is perfectly pure, she is not good enough. In journey-based films such as Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002) and Veer-Zaara (2004), it is unthinkable that Veer or Raja would let a woman travel alone, lest she be raped, kidnapped or propositioned. Throughout Indian cinema, the casting of the traditional Indian woman reveals the nations wishfulness to share a united identity. If the nation can come together to safeguard the woman, then the nation gets a common goal.
In the end, while representation of women as the embodiment of the nation can be found in a very large number of Hindi language films, there remain multiple interpretations of why women are chosen for this role instead of men.