White Western female character never played an important role in Bollywood cinema. If white actresses were given a role, they were represented as a prostitute, vamp, or dancer in a single scene, often a dance scene. Thoughts about white Western women hardly changed over time, however, the representation of the Western female character did a little, in a positive way. This can be illustrated by the character Sue (Alice Patten) in Rang de Basanti (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2006).
Bollywood of the 21st century recognised that Western women are not only suitable for the role of prostitute or vamp, as Bollywood cinema of the 1950s and 1960s did for example. On the contrary, it showed that Western women are not necessarily the opposite of moral Indian women. They are ambassadors of modernity but in a positive manner. They represent the ‘good’ West, an image Indian women can learn from.
Rang de Basanti is about the British documentary filmmaker Sue, who wants to make a film on Indian freedom fighters in India. She is inspired by the diary of her grandfather, a former officer of the Indian Imperial Police during the Indian independence movement. When she arrives in India, she asks a group of five young men to act in her film.
Sue is a pale British woman with blond hair, often dressed in Western clothes. Despite her appearance, she plays a lead role in Rang the Basanti, which is remarkable compared to Bollywood films of the 21st. Sue isn’t a tempting dancer or prostitute, on the contrary. She is a filmmaker with Indian friends, both male and female. Of course, Sue is present during dance scenes, however, there is no focus on her face or erogenous zones, which was often the case in Bollywood films.
Sue doesn’t seem to consider herself as different than her Indian companions. She really cooperates with them in order to make the film she wants to make. Moreover, the British woman is sincerely interested in the stories and the lives of her Indian friends.
She tells her Indian female friend Sonia that traditions are important to retain and even visits an Indian temple with her. In other words, in Rang de Basanti the Western woman is not the immoral opposite of the moral Indian woman. Sue is receptive to Indian traditions and supportive to her friends than a threat.
The British woman functions as a kind of moral authority as well: she creates unity and wants to resolves conflicts between her friends. She is more rational than her Indian friends and states that having a good conversation is better than having a fight. The role of Sue is rather pedological for both the modern Indian woman and man.
Sue doesn’t act tempting in order to seduce men, however, despite her normal/moral behaviour, she does get attention from Indian men. Several men look at Sue when she walks along. Especially DJ is impressed by her appearance. Despite not performing for the men through dance or dress, Sue is still presented as a sex object for the male gaze, and her whiteness is a part of that.
The male characters are still more present and powerful than the female main characters who seem like smart independent women in the beginning of the film. However, when DJ and his friends fight for the rights of their generation Sue and Sonia are absent: they are almost removed from the last part of the film’s narrative. Women are apparently still considered as incapable for protests against the regime.
Besides, the dominance of male characters is also expressed visually, via the mise-en-scene. When Sue and Sonia are sitting in a classroom, Pandey walks in and stands still beside the women. During their conversation, Pandey is shot from a low camera angle while the women are filmed from a high camera angle over the Pandey’s shoulder. The women have to look up too Pandey; there is clearly a hierarchy between men and women here. Pandy is more powerful than Sue and Sonia.
White Western female characters remain sex object for the male, though the way in which they act in more recent Bollywood films can’t be compared to films produced decennia ago. The Western female character now functions rather as a role model for Indian women, ideally protectors of Indian culture and tradition, for how they could behave in contemporary modernised or Westernised Indian society while staying true to traditional Indian values.
Western and Indian women are not necessarily each other’s rivals anymore. White women are representatives of Western modernity but instead of a threat they are examples for Indian women how they could combine modernity with Indian traditions in their lives. They act like supportive white sisters.