September 2017

“Women in White: Femininity and Female Desire in the 1960s Bombay Melodrama”

by Anupama Kapse in Film, Fashion, and the 1960’s edited by Eugenia Paulicelli, Drake Stutesman and Louise Wallenberg (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2017), pp. 149-168.


White as a Fabric and Architectural Frame
Clothes have served as a visual shorthand for representing the class or moral stature of popular characters in Bombay cinema since the time of its inception. The hero, heroine, villain, and others could be recognized as stock characters quite simply by what they were wearing: the heroine in a simple, demurely draped sari; the vamp with an “ostrich feather fan, gold wig studded with rhinestones, and leggings under a dark blue bikini bedecked with shiny doodahs”; the Anglicized hero in a black suit, shirt, and tie; the poet or artist in a pristine white kurta pajama; a rich father in a pipe and dressing gown; a poor father in a tattered dhoti and vest; and a villain (often acting as a buffoon) with hair dyed red, bow tie, and bright checked jacket. In the formulaic cinema of the 1960s, narrative patterns were established according to the easy recognition of this stock cast. Characters were simple and bordered on the stereotypical: the virtuous heroine, the sexualized vamp, the rich and overbearing father, and the lascivious villain were standard characters who stood for specific social types with well-defined moral values, or, sometimes, lack thereof.

Indeed, Bombay cinema mobilizes clothing as the primary sign of dramatic enunciation in highly coded and spectacular ways. If, as Peter Brooks has argued, melodrama is a form structured by the extreme polarization of good and evil, then, Bombay cinema is unapologetically melodramatic in its unfailing reliance on costume as an immediate and pervasive sign of this Manichean, black and white universe…