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Where is the Vamp?


Jerry Pinto


The only Hindu woman who ever needed a cold bath in mainstream Bollywood was Mala Sinha in Suhaagan (1964). She was married to a man whose heart was so weak he would die if they ever consummated their marriage. And so he sang Tu mere saamne hai, teri zulfein hain khulin while she bathed in cold water to cool her heated blood. Other Indian women could not admit to desire, even after marriage. In hundreds of films, an amorous husband would make a playful lunge at his wife who would respond with an ‘Oh fo’ and an admonition to act his age, to watch out for the children, and other such.   Temptation was a male preserve. Women had to fall in love before they had sex. Men could fall after slipping against the wrong woman in the shower as Jeetendra did in Ek Hi Bhool (1981). (He is given additional justifications for his randiness: his wife is menstruating; and the fellow-shower-slippee is a widow.) Or he could find that the face of a dancing girl was beginning to resemble the face of his beloved after a few drinks, as Shammi Kapoor discovers in Pyaar Kiya tho Darna Kya (1963). Temptation presented in film after film in feminine form. She was often clothed in the flesh of the outsider. Sometimes, she was a tribal. Sometimes, she was a gypsy. Sometimes, she was a white woman.   This is of course always implicated in the operations of popular culture. Popular culture is generally xenophobic, since it bases its assumptions on shared notions about an ‘Us’. When it represents the Other, it seeks only to exoticize it, presuming matter-of-factly that the Other as a community are happy to reshape the ordinariness of their lives into the extravagant; that they are willing to offer up their culture for our selective consumption, willing to turn their homes into menageries where we can watch strange beasts at play. Helen, who danced through thirty years of Bollywood and vamped three generations of 'heroes', played all these roles. In addition, she was a Chinese spy, she was a fallen woman, she was what Indian men needed temptation to look like at that moment.   For the nature of temptation changes all the time. Perhaps the most significant change is not in the death of the vamp, although generations of patriarchalist observers of Hindi cinema have regretted the takeover of the role of the ...


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