The scene is only too familiar in Hindi films of the 70s and 80s - a vile woman, known as the “vamp", flicks out a lighter, lights a quick cigarette while plotting the next set of machinations to trap the intrepid, vulnerable hero into falling in love with her instead of the heroine.
And then, of course, there’s the degenerate - the druggie, pot smoker who got lost in her ways and was kidnapped by a hippie group or gangster gang who made her lose her mind to drugs. Over the years, the depiction of women smoking in films and television has undergone a vast change in terms of treatment. But the core values remain the same - women who smoke and drink are either vamps or degenerates.
The recent arrest of actress Rhea Chakraborty, who is in judicial custody till October 6 after the Narcotics Control Bureau charged her under several sections of the IPC, has launched a fresh conversation into the greater scrutiny on women when it comes to taking accountability for a widespread practice like drug use. Chakraborty’s arrest has been followed by reports of several actresses like Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan, Shraddha Kapoor and others getting a summons from the NCB.
READ: Spot The Difference: Rhea Chakraborty Hounded by TV Cameras Vs Salman Khan Walking Free
And yet, no male names have so far come out in connection to the drug investigation, which was launched after late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s family alleged Rhea Chakraborty abetted his suicide by making him depressed and getting him drugs like marijuana.
When it comes to weed, it has only been worse.
While acts like smoking, drinking and making merry in general are all traits associated with the hedonistic males, the same has been used to create stereotypical female characters and moulds that are not only sexist but also deeply rooted in the male gaze.
According to academic Sharmila Sen, “Up to the 1970s, Bollywood often relied on the figure of the vamp – a cabaret dancer, a tawaif (prostitute), a gangster’s moll –to provide musical entertainment of a more sexually-explicit nature. The heroine might sing and dance, but the vamp wore more revealing clothes, smoked, drank, and sang in bolder terms of sexual desire".
This further helped solidify the role of good woman (the heroine) vs bad woman (the vamp). While the former was pure and chaste, the latter was sexualised and vulgar. While the former would sing and dance with her lover and deliver coy smiles behind tree stalks, the vamp would wear revealing clothes in order to try and seduce men in bars with cabaret dances.
The cinematic trope allowed Bollywood filmmakers to capitalize on women’s sexuality by objectifying them as the bar dancer and tawaif while basically just relegating their role to being nothing more than a desirable body. On the other hand, this very trope also allowed them to cater to misogynistic ci-male wife-fantasies by creating the perfect anti-thesis to the vamp - the pure, virginal girl and bride-to-be who looks down upon all vices and perversions as the curse of God.
Cut to the last decade and Bollywood’s use of smoking as a narrative tool to symbolize a certain type of woman has undergone an arduous transformation. While earlier the smoking woman was seen as detestable and unworthy of true affection, today she has come to be identified with a perceived version of feminism that modern (both male and female alike) filmmakers seem to adore - the independent woman who smokes (publicly or otherwise) because she damn well can.
Think of characters like Tapasee Pannu’s Rumi from Manmarziyaan or Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu from Tanu Weds Manu (1 and 2!). From being the accessories of vixens, cigarettes are now the friends of feminist girls who just want to “have some fun" without the binding obligations of gender.
And yet, the act of rebellion still fails to become more than a trope as it continues to symbolize a kind only a certain type of rebellious woman or “bad girl" that caters just as much, albeit to a different variety, of male gaze. Both Rumi and Tanu ultimately wish to marry and settle down with Mr. Right who might be chill with the smoking but is quite patriarchal in myriad ways. While they defy stereotypical conventions by drinking and smoking in train compartments or stealing smokes from her parents, they are acceptable to their chosen males and heroes of the films (and thereby society because we all know all women are basically just extensions of their husband’s personalities).
The small-town rebel smoker aside, women who have smoked onscreen have either been high-powered, career-driven corporate bitches or victims of drug abuse. Kangana Ranaut portrayed the other side as well in films like Fashion, Gangster and others where she played a drug addict who later lost her marbles and, in case of Fashion, ultimately ended up dead.
When we look at it this way, it is clear why there is popular support for the sudden spotlight on actresses and their alleged involvement in drug rings. If the so-called witch hunt itself was not enough, the media circus and social media malignment of the actresses is proof that while the online depiction of women smoking may have evolved, the mental make-up of Indians with regard to women and their right to their own bodies and their own habits remains as patriarchal as ever.
The vile, sexist bile against women (read hashtags like ‘Charsi Deepika’) are no less than character assassination and priming and call for serious introspection into the alarming levels of misogyny in India despite growing literacy and emancipation.
It is as the actress Divya Spandana recently put in an outraged tweet. “When men smoke up its shiva shambho when women do it’s dum maro dum“.