Cinema is primarily a visual medium. So, it is not surprising when we discuss female objectification in Hindi films, we speak more about images than sounds. It is harder to pin down female marginalization through sound and voice, than it is, to say, call out dance moves in item numbers for objectifying women. When Veeru yells out “Inn kutton ki saamne matt nacho” (“Don’t dance for these dogs”) to the beleaguered Basanti in Sholay, he is more worried about Gabbar and his lecherous men gaping at her body. Imagine him saying “Inn kutton ke saamne matt gaao” (“Don’t sing for these dogs”). It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it (all puns intended).
Film theorists have dwelled ceaselessly on the idea that the sounds we hear in theatres are much closer to reality than the images. The colours and lighting we see in films, for example, are quite different from what we see in real life. But filmic sounds are a lot like the sounds we hear in real life. It is perhaps the sheer reality of this sound that makes it hard for us to isolate how it demeans female characters in films – it all seems real, so it is taken for granted as real, and not often examined as a representation.
Like Body, Like Voice
Kaja Silverman, film theorist and art historian, was one of the first to point out how female voices contribute to their objectification on screen. She observed that the female voice is more closely tied to her body than the male is to his. A female’s voice is forced to sound the way she looks.
Silverman invokes the film Singing in the Rain as a case in point. In that film, silent-screen star Lina (Jean Hegan) is advised not to speak to fans or reporters directly because her voice and accent are not as beautiful or pleasing as she looks.
The trend is easy to track in Hindi films. While a Shah Rukh Khan or Ranbir Kapoor may sound like himself through all the roles he plays, villain or hero, a Priyanka Chopra must modulate her voice. She must lower it to a sexy purr when she plays the villain in Aitraaz, but hitch it up when she plays a bubbly young woman in Agneepath.
Voice, like a character’s costume or body language is an important element of characterization in films. An actor must sound like the character they are playing, in order to appear convincing. Female voices are dubbed over in Hindi films, not because they must fit the character of the women they are playing, but often because their voices don’t sound pleasant enough, or do not jibe with their bodies. Rani Mukerji’s voice was dubbed over in her first few films because it was too husky. Bipasha Basu’s voice double, on the other hand, was asked to make her sound ‘husky and sensual’ in Jism. The irony is that they were both dubbed over by the same female artist.
‘Bond girls’ have also famously been ‘secretly’ dubbed over by women with more sensual voices than the actresses essaying the role; secretly, because the illusion that the beautiful female body has a beautiful voice is an important one to maintain. The female body is imprinted on her voice to such a large extent, that it is impossible to only hear the female voice. Her body must be made visible.
Female Voices Behind The Screen
Silverman also found that the voice of a narrator who speaks from outside the story is almost always male. A narrator outside the boundaries of screen is in a position of power. He knows things about the story that the characters do not and lays them out before the audience when he deems it fit. The reservation of this position for males is emblematic of a larger representational system- the one in which females come in second.
Women narrate their own stories in Hindi films, of course. But they speak from inside the film. Zinta’s ‘Naina Catherine Kapoor Patel’ of Kal Ho Naa Ho, for example, is not speaking from outside the story; she is actually narrating her own. On the other hand, consider Amitabh Bacchan as the narrator, ranging from Baawarchi to the more recent Krissh 3, or Irrfan Khan in Bajirao Mastani. We never actually see them; we just hear their omniscient voices from behind the screen.
Hindi cinema has made us so used to listening to a male voice narrating from outside the story that we do not expect to hear women in that position at all. A female saying “main samay hoon” from behind the camera is simply not the norm. She must appear in front of the audience, and the hero.
Females are gradually appearing in roles that are more powerful and central to the stories being told in films. But the way they sound, and how their voices are heard, is often neglected. Even in a film like Kahaani, which is lauded for being ‘female-centric’, a male narrator speaking from outside the story is the one to resolve the narrative.
More recently, the trauma of the loss of vocal agency has been depicted with beautiful sensitivity in Neerja. Sonam Kapoor’s Neerja is able to retain her composure when a hijacker grabs her and pushes her, but she finally succumbs to tears when he blackmails her into singing for him. The loss of her control over her own voice is a humiliation she cannot bear.
Hindi cinema is making fast strides towards progress by starting to give females more screen space and more nuanced characters. It should keep up with itself by giving them a more decisive voice as well, sometimes quite literally so.
1. The Acoustic Mirror by Kaja Silverman (Book)
2. Dis-Embodying the Female Voice by Kaja Silverman (Paper)
Featured Image Credit: A still from Kahaani