Smita Patil-Naseeruddin Shah’s Bazaar explains how women are pushed into buying society’s misogynistic agenda
The 1980s saw a new wave in Hindi cinema that seemed to acknowledge that the mainstream movies were too over-the-top and if Hindi cinema intended to finds its place on the global map, they had to rise above the cliched storytelling and its melodramatic execution that was, by that point, very formulaic in nature. Actors like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Farooq Sheikh and a few others became face of this movement that was dubbed as ‘parallel cinema’. These films often catered to socially relevant subjects and were ably supported by actors who didn’t necessarily categorise themselves as stars but rather, focused more on their craft. One such film from this era that mesmerised the audience with its impactful storytelling was Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar starring Smita, Naseeruddin, Farooq and Supriya Pathak.
On the surface, Bazaar focuses on the subject of young girls being married to much older men for money but it actually discusses the internalised misogyny that women are conditioned to as they grow up in a patriarchal society. Here, Najma is forced into prostitution by her mother because, we are told, the family’s reputation would be tarnished if she goes out to work but if she secretly engages in sex for money, no one would get to know. She is clearly not happy with the arrangement but gives in. Even when Najma is out of her mother’s reach, she can’t seem to start her life afresh and finds herself in a new mess when she has to find a young bride for a middle-aged man.
Of course, this arrangement doesn’t end well for anyone involved but the idea of selling a teenager to an abusive man does not repel Najma. In a crucial scene, one of Najma’s friends asks her if what they are doing is wrong and she just moves on by saying that if they don’t do it, someone else will. The promise of financial security has Najma turning into her mother who once pushed her down the same hellhole. Even though Najma physically escaped from her mother’s clutches, her conditioning has led her to believe that women have to go through uncomfortable experiences, and now, she is being a conduit for the same.
Bazaar opens with a shot of Smita’s Najma looking at herself in the mirror and then shifting her gaze towards the camera, making the audience aware that this is a dialogue with them, and not a story that exists in a fictional land. The film ends with a similar shot concluding the dialogue. The gaze almost feels like the filmmaker is accusing the audience of existing within the same ecosystem as them, and watching the world burn, just like Najma did. In the third act, when Najma wishes to undo all that she has done, it’s not out of the goodness of her heart. She wants to make changes only because she has hurt her brother who could die if Najma’s plans come to fruition.
The film, however, does not present Najma as an unaware vamp but chooses to empathise with her circumstances, almost making her a victim. The film’s sole voice of reason is Naseeruddin Shah’s Salim who delivers a painful monologue where he equates ‘marriage in exchange for money’ to ‘flesh trade’. Salim feels like the storyteller’s voice who encourages Najma to be independent, and get rid of her opportunistic good-for-nothing boyfriend.
In the years since, Bazaar has been appreciated for its sensitive and delicate storytelling. Watching it in 2023, one must keep in mind that the 1982 film wasn’t far removed from the extremely loud 1970s where punches needed ‘dishoom’ sounds and women were casually treated as second class citizens in most movies. So the film reminds you over and over again that this is ‘for women’. Bazaar enhances its pivotal storytelling points by underlining them a little too hard but also, it offhandedly makes larger statements by the stolen looks between characters that say much more than words ever could.