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The Femme Fatale in Contemporary Bollywood Noir

Written by Kriti Arya

October 10th, 2020

Well into its first hour of Reema Kagti’s Talaash (2012), Rosie, an enigmatic sex worker, delivers an impish, yet all too familiar dialogue: ‘Jaanti thi tum wapas aaoge, meri ada par sab fida ho jaate hai, tum kaise bachte?’ (I knew you’d come back, everyone succumbs to my charms, how could you escape?),  while the disillusioned Mumbai cop Shekhawat stares at her resolutely. 

In global cinematic tradition, the femme fatale or the ‘deadly woman’ archetype is all too common; this popular character is usually sketched in literature, film and art as a temptress who is either the reason behind the male protagonist’s demise, or is responsible for putting him in dire situations. Yet when it comes to Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood, this trope has been largely borrowed from the noir genre of the West. Most noir films are characterised by theatrical lighting effects, dark imagery, and cynical plotlines usually set in the sordid underbellies of densely urban cities. In most cases, you would find a Hindi film noir etching too close to the themes of the post World War II American noir – a crime/thriller fiction with a morally ambiguous male ‘hero’ at the centre of the story, a femme fatale e, and a disenchanting world-weariness with which the mood of the film takes shape. 

However, what conveniently escapes this idea is that both Indian as well as American Noir reflect their own discrete anxieties about the social world through either the plot of the film, or its characters. Indian noir, has been known to do this job quite surreptitiously, expressing cultural anxieties through the figure of the femme fatale in innumerable instances. The femme fatale character is written off as the seductive, lethal woman who’s motivation can be reduced to the quick pursuit of money and/or fervid ambitions. In this process, we see her as an overly simplistic figure who is stripped away from the cultural and political contexts in which her characterisation takes place.

A still from Ek Hasina Thi

For instance, Sri Ram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi (2004) is seen as a tale of vengeance and a reassertion of feminist sentiment. The film follows an unassuming and guileless Sarika living alone in Mumbai who starts dating Karan. Sarika enters into the relationship before realising that Karan works in the organized crime scene of the city, and has feigned his romantic interest towards her in order to frame her for his crimes. This instead becomes a rather cautionary, albeit exaggerated tale warning young, single, ‘modern’ Indian women of not only the dangers of promiscuity and flouting socio-sexual norms of society, but also the threat that densely urban, liberalized spaces present to Indian women. Interestingly enough, this movie hit theatres just a decade or so after India’s LPG policy. Mumbai symbolised the realm of the material world, brandishing its promises of foreign exchange, development and cosmopolitanism. At the same time, residual post colonial sentimentality propounded the need for preserving the sanctity of ‘Indian’ culture and identity, assigning the Bhadra Mahila as its guardian. Women then stepping out into a city rife with influences from the west would mean corrupting their sense of forced female morality so essential to the nation’s identity. Sarika breaks these norms and is served the ‘punishment’ for this by ending up in prison. Of course, in a turn of events, the film eventually sees her successful in seeking retributive justice. But the confounding question that the film manages to pose is: Does Sarika embody the femme fatale figure because she embarks on a path of retaliation and murder in the latter half of the film, or because she oversteps her boundaries in society and shatters the perception of the Indian woman’s collective national identity in the first half? 

Right at the beginning of the film, we see Sarika talking to her mother on the phone, who tries to  convince her that she should return to Pune to live with her parents. What follows in the film can be viewed as the threat of sending your daughters away into the frenzied city, which holds within itself the desirability of a modern life, as it simultaneously teems with sex and murder. 

Does the pigeon-holing of female characters into the femme fatale trope in Noir then sustain a kind of underlying symbolic violence? The femme fatale is more often than not read as a feminist, ‘badass’ figure, establishing her own independent ground in a world rife with systemic injustices and expectations of the principles and standards of morality that women are supposed to uphold. A review about Raghavan’s Andhadhun (2018) published in Feminism in India (FII) discussed the character of Tabu in the film, citing her as a “Deviant woman who does not conform to the morals and values constructed by society”. Of course, while much of the praise lies in the materialization of Tabu’s character as a villain without employing her sexuality as a weapon, it becomes hard to imagine her as an antagonist if it wasn’t for her aspiration to escape a marriage filled with ennui. In Bollywood noir, the extrapolation of women’s desire for freedom and independence from socially acceptable relationships into a rampage of murder and theft lends to the audiences’ skewed perception of equating female ambition as an equal crime, or rather an accomplice to homicide or larceny.  

Tabu in a still from Andhadhun

We also witness a shift in the manner in which the ‘femme fatale’ figure is portrayed through the years. Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai (2020) echoes most sensibilities of a neo-noir; except it is set away from the much famous urban landscape of Mumbai. By driving the plot of the film away from the tumultuous environment of the city and into a quiter, smaller town, the genre is itself revised and adds to what we understand from the gritty nature of the crimes committed in the film. Shedding light on the intersection of caste and gender, the movie establishes Radha as the ‘femme fatale’ from the get go. However, here the sketching of her character as the faux femme fatale is deliberate. At the outset, Radha is completely misread by all the other characters in the film, undoubtedly owing to casteism and the deep rooted patriarchal mindsets of the privileged upper caste Singh Parivaar as well as the misogynistic yet glorified police investigator, Jatil Yadav.

With the rise of extremist Hindu nationalism, the country has witnessed several instances of police brutality against its minorities this year. A film like Raat Akeli Hai stands as testimony to how institutionalized violence, supported by powerful politicians, their pawns and the state, is endemic in spaces which lack the framework in which all citizens regardless of their socio-economic, religious, caste and gender backgrounds can be provided justice. In this light, is it justified to read Radha as a sympathetic femme fatale, but a ‘femme fatale’ nontheless? While the film may target and question the power of the state and its representatives, it clumsily fails at doing its bit towards the female empowerment it claims to stitch within its narrative. Radha’s character is never oversexualized, yet she is granted agency and an arc in which she can escape prison time only because she becomes the object of pity and fantasy for Yadav. The film attempts to portray Radha as a complex character but comes up short; the male gaze that she is constantly subjected to unpacks more about the self-righteous Hindu cop’s masculine anxiety rather than revealing much about her.  

Indian neo-noir cinema posits most of its intrigue around its female characters. There is an overlapping of the cultural and nationalist imaginings of gender norms and sexual morality that have always been at play in the execution of the femme fatale; who perhaps unwittingly becomes more crucial to the story than the bereft hero. To a great extent, there are problematic notions in even labelling the women in noir as the ‘femme fatale’, as well as the subsequent debates about the reclamation of it as a feminist term that follow it. Crafting the women in Noir as such that they challenge the male characters to test the system perturbs the audience. And this is unfortunately not without its real-life implications – unnecessary and excessive vilification of women in the face of any sort of tragedy is prevalent yet. Now whether contemporary noir merely expresses, champions, or challenges the collective ideologies of a nation through its female characters is something that depends on the persistent approach of filmmakers towards issues in the cultural as well as the political landscape of the country. 

Today, the femme fatale trope might have several offshoots from what it had been in the past. And while there is an illusion of granting agency to the women in contemporary Bollywood noir, little is done to explore the complexities and individual personalities of the characters. Female emotions and ambition are sold in theatres under the garb of sensationalized violence, in a bid to mete out a distorted feminist ideology that is appropriated by the cis male gaze. Filmmakers of mainstream neo-noir would then be better off reflecting whether what they dispense through their female characters is an actual sense of empowerment, or simply just a myth.

Experience Further: The King Princess rendition of ‘Femme Fatale’ by The Velvet Underground is raspy, slow, and not quite as breezy as the 1967 original. Without paying much attention, I caught myself humming the chorus to this multiple times while writing the piece.  

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Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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