+Vamp and the Vedas
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.
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.
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
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.