Gangster Moll: Woman as a Cultural Substance in Bollywood

Gangster Moll: Woman as a Cultural Substance in Bollywood

Popular Indian films conceive women as a cultural substance. Their existence, attitude, profession, and desire peruse Indian morality as it currently exists. By depicting the urban reality on a film screen, the movie delineates a woman's negative ways of living in modern city life. Popular films introduce a character who has all the bad habits of modernized life.  In their early portrayals, they were rejected from traditional family life and were only projected as allies to criminals or gangster molls. In such a way, audiences have seen actresses like Nadira (in Shree 420, Pocket Maar), Helen (in Jaali Note), and Bindu (in Zanjeer) play such characters in the decades following independence (1947). Although they prescribe a threat to traditional Indian womanhood, movies from the late 70s judge their lives humanely. Narratives of Paapi (1978), Ilzaam (1986), and movies of later decades shed light on the hardships of this type of character.       Gangster Moll: Woman as a Cultural Substance in Bollywood
(Credits: Twitter, Film History Pics)

Popular movies present ideal heroines who have maintained traditional values in modern city life. They accept Indian family values. The reform movement increased social mobility among progressive higher-class women (Parsis of Bombay, Brahmos of Bengal) in the 20th century, and modern educated women started to enter urban civic life. The heroines of popular movies are the stereotype of the ideal representation of this new-aged modern woman. In contrast to them, a kind of character is presented (the vamp or gangster moll), who reflects the negative image of the modernization of Indian women in the 20th century.

The abundance of negative portrayals of urban women indicates the yearning and longing for an Indian metropolitan cosmopolitan life. They consume alcohol and associate it with the current form of organized crime, acting as gangster molls. Often, we see them entice male protagonists to an illicit life of crime. They use their beauty and charm to lure the men, supporting criminal or nefarious operations. 

Gangster molls have been materialising the negativity of urbanisation and criminalisation. We do have references to traditional art performances from the preceding generations of the 20th century, celebrating love and sexuality. Performances like Swangs, Nautankis, Ragini, Jatras, and local operas, and the singing traditions of Biraha, Khoria, and Loor were the mainstay of amusement before cinema. These cultural forms often projected the symphony of sexual mockery and loneliness in the absence of a love interest. In contrast, gangster molls were moving out of conventional life to embrace an illicit way of living in an urban milieu. They use their sex appeal in support of organised criminality in cosmopolitan city life. 

These gangster molls mirror their counterparts, the femme fatale of contemporary Hollywood noir films. The extravaganza of their behaviour and appearance has been borrowed from Hollywood. Seeing Helen, it seems that they are following the most current trend in Hollywood.

Helen played several roles as gangster molls. She followed the trends in western movies to make her performances better on screen. Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Grace Kelly were her favourite dancers. She invariably brought colorful contact lenses and, feathers from Paris and the U.K. to add to her costume. 

The characters of gangster moll have brought the traditional mindset of family romance into the plight. We see them dancing in nightclubs and hotels, entertaining big shots. They are assisting crime lords and gangsters in their criminal operations. The evocation of the gangster moll reflected a portrayal of the negativity of womanhood in a cosmopolitan social milieu. 

One of the first characters of this kind in Hindi movies appeared in the 1940s, as Rani in Wadia Movietone’s picture Muqabala(1942). Fearless Nadia as a nightclub-dancer has played the character. Rani is very obedient to her white-collar criminal master, Sibhnath, and dances in his nightclub. 

Sibhnath abducts Rani in her childhood and trains her as a dancer in his club. With her charming beauty and seductive dance, Rani impels customers to drink. Rani enmeshes suspicious persons in favour of her master's criminal purposes. Finally, Rani gets to know the reality of her past, and she dies to save the life of her lost father and twin sister. 

Movies delineate several similar characterizations of a gangster moll in later decades. 

Miss Rita is another gangster moll, a character from the movie Pocket-Maar (1956), played by Nadira. She is a dancer in hotel Paris and associates with a white-collar criminal, Shankar, who runs gambling, black-marketing. Rita falls in love with a pick-pocket named Roshan and expresses her desire to marry him. Roshan takes advantage of  Rita’s feelings and manipulates her in order to annihilate Shankar’s criminal activities. Unknown to Rita, Roshan secretly makes an agreement with the police to catch Shankar. When Roshan accomplishes his purpose, he abandons Rita and she is left heartbroken and shattered.  

We see actress Helen in the role of such gangster molls in the 1960’s Hindi films. In the movies like Jaali Note (1960) and Jewel Thief (1967), Helen plays such characters who help a criminal syndicate. In both movies, she plays the role of a club/hotel dancer and seduces the targeted man according to the wishes of her master. She uses her sexual allure to entice men and compel them to work for her criminal boss.

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Until the 1970s, these gangster molls had an adverse effect on the conventionally accepted way of marital living. However,  their screen appearance and overall depiction changed before the 80s. From then on, there have been examples of many gangster molls sanctifying their characters. They were accepted as marital partners. Here,  we consider two characters played by Zeenat Aman in Paapi (1977) and The Great Gambler (1979). 

In Paapi (1977), Zeenat Aman plays Rano, a gangster moll. Rano lived in a slum in her childhood. Her elder sister works at a construction site, and she has a younger brother, Raj Kumar. One night, a goon rapes and murders her elder sister, and Rano flees from the slum. She loses her family in her childhood. She becomes an expert thief and steals valuable property from several cities. Then she joins an underworld gang in the city.

Over time, she falls in love with Dr. Ashok. Later on, she discovers her own brother Kumar, who has become a police officer,  wants to catch her in a case of diamond robbery. However, Rano decides to help her brother by giving tip-offs about the criminal operations of her gang. She becomes a police informer. At the end of the story, Dr. Ashok happily accepts her as his future life partner and so Rano is blessed with a normal marital life. 

Another movie from the same period, The Great Gambler (1979), presents Zeenat Aman again in the guise of a gangster moll. She plays the character of Shabnam. She is a dancer and works for a criminal syndicate. She makes dance films through which her boss secretly sends code to his international partners. She attempts to attract a man named Jay with her feminine charm. Then, she falls in love with Jay. She helps Jay to get rid of her group. Finally, Jay and his brother Vijay (a Policeman), with the help of Shabnam, divulge the secret of the criminal syndicates. Jay honours Shabnam as his future wife. 

Gangster Moll: Woman as a Cultural Substance in Bollywood
Amitabh Bacchan and Zeenat Aman in ‘The Great Gambler’
(Credits: Shemaroo)

Gangster molls in movies mirror the harrowing experiences of real-life gangster molls. These real women experienced troubled childhood and toxic families. They spent most of their time in the male-dominated organised crime world. Just like the fictional movie gangster molls, these women were often involved in the glamour of nightclubs, hotels, and bars. To get a better idea, let us look at the legacy of the infamous gangster Archana. 

Archana Sharma was one of the most wanted female gangsters in India. She was involved in several sensational murders, kidnapping, and extortion cases. The Pune Mirror branded her as“The lady don with a killer look”.. Archana left her hometown in Madhya Pradesh and came to Mumbai for a lavish life in the early '90s. She joined the orchestra and pop singers as a stage performer.

Gangster Moll: Woman as a Cultural Substance in Bollywood
Archana Sharma (Credits:Indiasil) 

Later, Archana became acquainted with Dubai-based Indian gangsters. She got into a relationship with gangster Babloo Srivastava. Archana flirted and seduced builder R. D. Vyas. The unsuspecting man accompanied her back to her place, where she held him hostage, and only released him when his family paid her whopping hundreds of crores.   She was engaged in a brief affair with the kidnapper Fazal  Rahaman while she accompanied Babloo. Even a former minister of Nepal, Mirza Dilshad Beg, could not escape the mesmerising nature of Archana. He became intimate with  Archana. Later, he was killed by gangster Chota Rajan. However, now Archana has disappeared from the news, and there is no exact news of Archana's whereabouts.

The illusive bright nights of Mumbai have a deep connection with these audacious gangster molls. The dirty money and crime business have flourished in the glittering lights of the city. The novel Shantaram gives a glimpse of the nightlife of the famous Leopold bar in the '80s. Locals and foreigners came there to conduct their business deals. It was a haven for criminals involved in black marketing, smuggling, and the sex trade. Foreign sex workers were attracted to everyman who sits on the other tables.

Later on, dance bars emerged as part of the lavish nightlife of Bombay in the late ‘90s. The free flow of alcohol and sex had created an illusory life within the bars. Bar dancers have been appearing on the film screen as the companions of gangsters since the late 20th century. Films like Jaanwar (1999), Chandni Bar (2001), Gangster (2006), Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007) have been showing destitution in the personal lives of bar dancers and their romance with dreaded gangsters. 

 It was the 1970s when the first dance bar in Bombay, Soniya Mahal,  opened at Nariman Point. From the 1980s to the day  Bombay dance bars were banned (2005), the number and business of dance bars increased a lot. In 1984, there were only 24 registered bars in the state of Maharashtra. By 2005, the number had grown to 1,500.

The movie Chandni Bar (2001) presents a Bombay bar dancer, Mumtaz. Her maternal uncle forces her to join Chandni Bar as a dancer. The attractive nature of Mumtaz mesmerises a deadly gangster, Pottaya Bhai, and he marries Mumtaz. The film shows how the public life of bar dancers has to endure social deprivation and the consequences of social injustice lead her children's lives astray. Her son becomes a goon like his father, and the daughter becomes a bar dancer like her mother. Their lives are open to exploitation by the crime-prone urban society.

Gangster (2006), another movie with a bar dancer character, portrays a love tragedy between the bar dancer Simran and gangster Daya. The story ends with the custody of Daya and the death of Simran. 

Over the period, the relationship between bar dancers and gangsters was a real-life experience in Bombay. The life experiences of Leela, a bar dancer in Bombay, from a non-fictional book 'Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay' exemplify the existing phenomenon. Leena worked as the top dancer in her bar till the day the dance bars were permanently shuttered down.

Leela fairly expresses her attraction towards big gangsters. She thinks they have lots of money to fulfill their desires. On top of that, they are good-looking and straight talkers, and they never seem to deceive any girl. She says many girls from her professional background want to be engaged in relationships with big gangsters, as it is a 'thrilling experience'. But Leela knows the wreckage of their life and considers the lives of gangsters are short, and death accompanies them like a shadow. 

In those years, wealthy men, celebrities, and gangsters had been enjoying the taste of lust and desire with their favourite dancers in illuminated bars. Gangsters were coming to their selective dance bars as regular customers during this period. 

An example of a bar dancer's involvement in organised crime and becoming a gangster moll is encompassing in the story of Bharti Chandmal.  She met an event organiser in her bar and started traveling to the Gulf countries and Dubai for events and dancing at private parties. During this period, she met Aftab Batki, an associate of Dawood and a kingpin of counterfeiting. Bharti starts smuggling fake Indian currency abroad on the advice of Aftab Batki. She makes millions of rupees in a short time. 

Since dancers of clubs and bars lived an open life in crime-prone urban society, it was reasonable for gangsters to have a relationship with them. Hitherto, movies of the 21st century have considered whether a relationship with a gangster is detrimental to social gentility. 

The continuous projection of a woman as an ally of dreaded criminals or as a gangster moll within the Indian urban setup breaks the concept of traditional Indian womanhood. In the early films, they are barred in the narratives from conventional marital living as they are in real life. Some film narratives of the later period tend to judge their position by the hardships of their personal lives. The projection of gangster molls in films contradicts traditional family values. Often, they are facing an unsuccessful ending to their love life. They set the limits of women as a cultural substance in city life.

Author’s Biographical Note: Rohit Roy, pursuing Ph.D. in Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, Research Area: Crime in Indian Society and Indian Cinema

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