Vanishing act of the vamps

What exactly happened to the busty Vamp? Why is there no place for her in the contemporary syntax of Hindi films? Find out

Cleavage spoke volumes of a woman’s character in Hindi films once. It was a topographic indicator of how low a woman could fall. Today, the Vamp in Hindi cinema has been banished from Bollywood’s geography, fumigated with Vedic pest control. The voluptuous Venus, the singer with soul, the hooker with heart – these characters are now retro-relics in Bollywood. So what exactly happened to the busty Vamp? Why is there no place for her in the contemporary syntax of Hindi films?

Vamps added significant texture to Bollywood films. Bindu, Prema Narayan, Kalpana Iyer, Padma Khanna, Helen had distinctive characters, and features for that matter. In analyzing the decline of the Westernized Vamp, it is important to keep in mind that Vamps were auxiliary manifestations of Bollywood Star System and the socio-political climate that informed this Star System. Vamps ruled the roost when their celluloid ecosystem was truly urban. Vamps represented modernity, a genuine cosmopolitanism pre-liberalization that has vanished. What we have now is former Miss Universes and failed starlets doing item numbers. In other words, the decline of the Vamp is inversely proportional to the rise of the Vedas and consumerism in India.

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The Vamp in Bollywood had a set menu of actions. She would shake a leg at a party for smugglers, she would massage the Don alongside blonde extras, she would pack diamonds into VIP suitcases when the time was right. Despite this rigidly robotic schedule, the Heart of a Vamp (displayed on the exterior via generous cleavage) would sometimes be employed to give her paltry existence a psychological depth.

In the climax, she would turn the tables on the Smuggler. Castigating him for his various sins, this was her turn to speak out loud and clear. But nobody wanted moral science lessons from a whore. She was shot dead by a lackey in the corner or if circumstances were logical, The Don himself. The Vamp’s dying speech would be an ode to unfulfilled love. “I’m merely a lowly woman, I never deserved your love, but love you I did” she would moan before dolloping her head onto the lead’s thigh. The lead would kill the Don. The lead heroines, faced dabbed with soot and hands tied across pillars, would be freed. In the foreground, women in saris would bend over for aashirwaad, blessing from the Grand Matriarch who too had found Freedom. In the background, a Vamp would die in a pool of her own blood.

The only two leading ladies that managed the crossover from the Vedas to Semi-Vampdom were Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi. These urbane hipsters were actresses whose chic personas overshadowed the banality of their roles, unlike a Hema Malini who was custom tailored for the village belle prototype. Rakhee had attempted a similar crossover in Sharmilee, a double role that portrayed sibling rivalry between identical twins. One was an innocent homey girl. The other was a nasty, urban bitch. The urban bitch dies in the end, raunch claiming her life. The rules are strict in the parameters of Bollywood plot cycles. You don’t need to drink and drive to smash your skull. As a woman, you only need to drink.

Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi changed the rules in this Moral Snakes and Ladder game. It was for the first time in history that a leading lady could play smuggler’s moll with finesse. A spillover from Bombay Bohemia (an era that peaked in the 70s and faded in the early 80s) allowed for a disguised, exploitative liberalism that this urbane duo took full advantage of. Besides, the commercial prowess of Amitabh, Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna and Shashi Kapoor had reached a crescendo. Nobody cared if the leading ladies wore Western clothes and smoked their brains silly. As long as they hung around the sets and winked into the camera when asked to, nobody was complaining.

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Kalpana Iyer and Prema Narayan had much accompaniment in the husky voice of Usha Uthup. Bindu and Padma Khanna too had some hope despite age catching up. The elegance of a Helen already had ushered in the grand era of cabaret. But these were sadly the last legs of the cabaret. Jaipur feet at best. Producers turned Helen into a tramp by the end of the 70s, a redundant number restricted solely to absurd dance numbers. So much so, that in the Ramsay horror flick Sannata, Helen had to do sing, “Superman, you know how much I love you, you know how much I care for you”. After this routine, bogeyman hacked her to pieces in a bubble bath tub.

The only two directors that stood by the Vamp were Feroz Khan and Subhash Ghai. Simi Garewal in Karz and Aruna Irani in Qurbani spewed venom with verve. Saarika in Vidhaata was the last psychologically endowed moll. “Pyaar ka imtihaan hum denge” she sang in honour of Sanjay Dutt. The examination of love I shall take. Examined and exhausted, the Vamp failed in this test on all counts in the early 80s. Riddled with machine gun pellets, her blood soaked body was the carcass that had started smelling at Natraj Studios. The lights had begun to dim.

Bollywood’s Bohemian brigade and urbane newcomers fared no better. Zeenat Aman entered marital hell twice over, Parveen Babi had a breakdown and left for the States, Vinod Khanna attempted a half-assed nirvana at Osho’s and returned with a sex symbol tag ten years too late. Kumar Gaurav, urbanity’s last plea to Bollywood, was a resounding failure. If the plight of urbane heroes and heroines had reached such nadir, what place could a Vamp have? The Vedas were quick in reacting to this divorce of urbanity and Hindi films. Drastic Dravidian infiltration was well overdue by 1982. Wholesome goddesses slithered up North from Kanyakumari. Jaya Prada and Sridevi were the Natraj incarnate. The most risque role Sridevi ever played in the Vedic era of Bollywood was a Nagin. Her only threat was Silk Smitha whose blubber was indication enough that the Vamp bubble had finally burst.

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From 1984 till 1989, Leena Das and Huma Khan repulsed more than they sizzled. These babes refused to lose weight because producers did not tell them to. Everyone was in for a quick buck. Another mirage in this desert was failed NRIs and disillusioned Bohemians returning to scrape the bottom of the barrel alongside catty starlets willing to thrill. But the writing was on the wall. Sonu Walia frolicking with an aging Kabir Bedi in Khoon Bhari Mang did not cut it. Persis Khambatta as the smoldering seductress in Nari Hira’s only-for-video release Shingora went unnoticed. Parveen came back insane. Sonam and Kimi Katkar’s water-soaked debuts were misplaced ambitions at Stardom, and not Vampdom as it ought to have been.

Courtesy Subhash Ghai, Sonika Gill was the Vamp’s Swan Song circa 1989. Vivien, portrayed by the C-grade starlet was Sir John’s moll in Ram Lakhan sang, “Mr. Hero tu batlaa pyar mohabbat cheez hai kya?” Tell me Mr. Hero, what is love? Slick costumes, contact lenses, decent dialogues, and the hooker-with-heart casting might have lent some hope to bad girls. But nah. Another false signal. In the diabetically disgusting Hum Aapke Hai Kaun (1994), Bindu got slapped by Alok Nath, reprimanded for her vicious tongue and barren womb. Vamps had lost the right to speak or procreate. The Vedic onslaught had sterilized Bollywood’s stray bitches.

No urban chic could be replicated. Sunil Shetty croons “Ladki, shahar kee ladki” without having any awareness of what urban chicks are. The item number is now the norm and the root of such lust lies in the kotha and not the metropolis. Inspired to madness by the pain in Aamir Khan’s voice, a local scotch-guzzling Kalpana Iyer danced like fire for Raja Hindustani (1996). Then again, this was a gypsy number. It wasn’t a cabaret. It wasn’t a smuggler’s den. It was a small town dhaba. And there are no Vamps in small towns. Only housewives.

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