The inspiration for this post was a question that occurred to me toward the end of 2015: Are there any Korean films of the 60s and 70s that feature strong women making their own choices in lead roles?
The Korean Dramas I watch almost all reflect the male-dominated, chauvinist hierarchy of traditional Korean society. The phrase “male-dominated, chauvinist hierarchy” applies with equal force to traditional Indian society too, which is precisely why the three films I’m briefly looking at here really stand out for me.
Two of these were made in the 60s, and the other in the 70s. One I like, I really like, one I really don’t. But all three seem almost anachronistic in their depiction of the female leads, hence the title of this post.
The blurb on my DVD of this film says that Waheeda was told she was committing professional suicide by taking the role of a woman who left her husband to pursue her dream of being a dancer, aided by her manager/lover.
It really was a remarkable story for 1965 India, and Waheeda made the role her own, with her dancing skills and nuanced portrayal of a woman’s journey of self-discovery, coming to believe that she could choose to live her life on her terms.
TEESRI KASAM (1966)
Another Waheeda starrer, this film has many similarities to Guide. Once again she plays a dancer living life on her own terms, or in this case on terms she has chosen to accept. In Guide Dev Anand’s character was initially her guide into independence, helping steer her to fame and fortune. In Teesri Kasam she has neither fame nor fortune, and the man who enters her life is no smooth-talking guide, but a very simple bullock cart driver.
What I love about this film is the way Waheeda’s Hirabai deals with the reality of her life. Others may see it as demeaning and sordid, but whatever, it is her life, and she will be the one to accept or reject its constraints. She may not have been an empowered woman, but she was not powerless, and demonstrated that her dignity was her business, no one else’s
SEETA AUR GEETA (1972)
This film is named for the two female lead roles, only one of whom qualifies for consideration as an independent,self-assured woman.
Seeta is a meek, downtrodden Cinderella character, not unlike the Candy trope of East Asian Dramas. Her separated-at-birth identical twin sister Geeta on the other hand is a real gem. After the opening twenty minutes of the film establishing how miserable Seeta’s life is, Geeta’s introduction is a welcome change of mood. She enters singing “life’s a game” in the song above, and the rest of the film shows her keeping that spirit.
Geeta’s character shines for simply refusing to accept the kind of treatment her society and culture considered both normal and proper for women to receive. Confronted with routine physical and verbal abuse, degradation and oppression, she gives as good as she gets. Especially noteworthy is the climactic fight scene at the end, in which she is an active, vigorous participant. No demure heroine waiting to be rescued, she plays a major part in saving herself, and helping the hero.
Another thing these films have in common is that the actresses were both famous for their dancing skills. All three films reference the low esteem female dancers were held in, and it’s central to both Guide and Teesri Kasam. Perhaps being part of a contemned (and often condemned) profession played a part in the characters’ resilience?
Like Waheeda and Hema, my bias Wang Ji Won came to acting from dance. So did several other actresses I follow, including Han Ye Ri, whose major was in Korean traditional dance. Unlike Waheeda and Hema, I’ve never seen any of the Korean dancer-actresses I follow in a role involving dance in a truly significant way, though Ji Won played a ballerina in Fated To Love You. So now I have two questions:
First, are there any Korean films from the 60s or 70s that feature similarly independent, self-assertive women? Second, are there Korean films or Dramas about dancers or featuring dance prominently and starring actresses who are or were dancers? I look forward to your responses, gentle readers.