'Shata janamer shwapno tumi amar jibane ele' sung by Sabina Yasmin from the movie Rajlaxmi Srikanto
'It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple: one must be a woman manly, or a man womanly.' -Virginia Woolf
The Dhaka-based film industry, as one of the most popular sources of entertainment, has provided the people of this country with countless melodious songs in its golden era. People, even today, respond to those songs very positively claiming that the poets who penned the lyrics, the musicians who composed, and the singers who rendered them in those decades, from the late'60s to the early '90s, would always remain the best of their kind.
And people were highly influenced by the stars, the stories, the conflicts, the loves and obviously by the lyrics of the film songs. So an award-winning popular number like 'aami rajanigandha phuler mato gandho biliye jaai' (I spread my fragrance like a flower bloomed at night) used to have a great amount of influence upon yesteryears' society and lifestyle; contributed a lot in teaching women how to conform to the male dominated world.
The typical soundtracks have always wanted the male voices to sound 'active' enough to express their admiration (rather fascination) for 'passive' 'beautiful' women. Numerous hit numbers were full of gender-biased, sexist comments on women. The lyricists (mostly male) have always considered female beauty as something always-obviously passive.
'Rup dekhe bolbo ki/ Bhasha khunje paai na/Ghare Jodi chand thake askasher chand chai na' (How can I comment on her beauty? I have lost all my words. If a moon lives in my house, why should I want a moon in the sky?)
As if women should always be treated as moon, without light of their own, never empowered; and whenever they need to glow, all they can do is to borrow some light from the sun (the men).
'Megh kalo bhromora kalo/ Aaro kalo mathar chul/ Shei na kalo lage go bhalo/ Narir onge phutle phul' (Dark clouds, bumble bees and black hair turn beautiful when the body of a woman blooms flowers)
Or women are merely flowers in the eyes of the male poets. They are born merely to entertain, 'to be looked at.' As they are not capable of traveling, they should wait for the bees (the men) to come and drink the nectar of their youth. Only men can move from flower to flower (woman to woman), according to the mainstream soundtracks of Dhaka-based movies.
These sorts of analogies have been very common, popular and powerful in the traditional film music of this part of the world. The lyricists have remained strongly romantic like Wordsworth or Tagore only to use the nature-centered romanticism as an excuse for their gender insensitive lyrical words.
No one has ever compared a woman to a bumble bee and a man to a flower. The lyricists would like to believe that a natural element that can move can never be considered female.
In a timeless classic number like 'Chander shathe aami debona', written by a poet like Syed Shamsul Haque, composed by a veteran like Alam Khan, we can quite easily find that the male voice sings 'chander shathe aami debona tomar tulona' (I won't take you as the moon) and the female voice sings 'nodir shathe aami debona tomar tulona' (I will not compare you to a river).
These two lines apparently sound like a deviation from the tradition. But a more attentive reading can eventually find that, in a way, these lines reconfirm the ever-existing patriarchal ideology. The lyricist associates dependent moon, motionless flowers, created paintings with the female whereas moving river, traveling bees and creative poets for the male.
It is almost taken for granted that the music arena of the Indian sub-continent is mostly dominated by the female singers. Crooners or divas like Noor Jehan, Mala Begum; Lata Mageshkar, Asha Bhosle; Runa Laila and Sabina Yasmin are widely regarded as the most popular voices of all time in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh respectively. But the question is whether their timeless popularity has been misused to re-confirm or strengthen the already existing sexism.
Runa Laila and Sabina Yasmin, for decades, have sung thousands of songs for the movies, and have been representing our women, the yet underprivileged part of the country's populace, helplessly trapped within a male-chauvinist society.
Sabina Yasmin has always been appreciated for the inimitable sweetness of her voice. This pleasant nature of her voice has been exploited by the male-dominated industry. Most of her famous numbers- like 'shata janamer shwapno tumi amar jibane ele' (fulfilling my dream of a hundred lives, you have entered my life), 'aamar shokol chawa tomari kachhe tomari kachhe aami chai (you are the only person from whom I can get everything I need and only from you I can want something), 'aami kopale porechhi shwamir shohagi chandan' (on my forehead, I am wearing the blessings of my husband's love), ' mon Jodi bhenge jay jaak kichhu bolbona' ( I won't say anything even if my heart breaks for you), 'dukkho amar basho raater palonko' (this affliction is like my marriage bed)- express the helplessness of the so called 'laxmi' Bengali women.
Apparently, there is no problem as long these songs are regarded as a proper emotional reflection of the miserable condition of Bengali women. But the all-enduring portrayal of women through the voice of one of the greatest singers of all time, eventually, tries to justify the already existing gender discrimination; and teaches women 'to sound as sweet as Ms. Yasmin' by patiently tolerating all sorts of injustice to their sex.
There is a sub-genre in playback music, usually recorded in a female voice, and widely used to introduce the female protagonist, 'the heroine'. And these songs mainly present a young woman who is dying of loneliness and desperately waiting for a man to come and seduce her. Most of these songs were recorded in Runa Laila's enchanting voice. The attractive sensuality of her voice has been exploited to claim that a woman can never live without her man. She cannot even control her emotion or her body.
Every woman is basically restless, lecherous, crazy unless until a man appears into her life and suffice her desire. The sexist film industry of Dhaka has provided Runa Laila, one of the finest crooners of the Indian sub-continent, with numerous songs like- 'ailo darun fagun re laglo mone agun re' (the desperate spring has come once again to burn my mind) 'ei brishti bheja rate chole jeo na' (please, don't leave at this rainy night) ', 'rupe amar agun jole jouban bhora onge' (the beauty of my young body burns like fire), 'he jubok edike takao ( hello young man, look at me), ' amar shonar onge phul phutechhe kemne eka roi', ( my body is blooming like flowers, how can I stay alone), ' pahari phul aami mou rani, haay keu jane na' ( No one knows, I am a wild mountain flower; I am the queen of the honey bees )- to affirm the idea that the female sexuality is always more vulgar and perverse than the male. So the 'sweet, submissive Sabina Yasmin' and the 'sensual, seductive Runa Laila' - are mainly projections of dreams and desires of the men involved in the production and consumption of playback music.
Diversity means beauty. The songs we love to listen, the words we like to receive wrapped in beautiful tunes should not sound biased and repetitive. We can always expect that the film songs of tomorrows will exclude gender biased clichés to accommodate both manly and womanly feelings. A woman will be, at times, compared to the sun or a butterfly. Sometimes, we will find men compared to the moon, flowers and poems. The creative mind of any lyricist will be both manly and womanly at the same time.
The author teaches at Jatiya kobi Kazi Nazrul Islam University
-Abdullah Al Muktadir