Women in charge

Issue 02, 2020

Women in charge

Aarti Kapur Singh |author

Issue 02, 2020

Ever since Hindi films began to find acceptance among the masses, the films have continued to pose an incisive critical commentary on the performance of femininity and gender roles. The general outlook is finally changing, becoming more understanding and accepting of female characters in unconventional roles, says Aarti Kapur Singh

A movie that highlights how women in Indian villages are treated when they demand hygienic sanitation facilities. Another that addresses the stigma around the menstrual cycle. One, which depicts the battle of a girl who falls victim to an acid attack. A film in which the female protagonist questions her husband’s abusive acts. These are a few examples of how India’s largest movie industry, Bollywood, is responding to issues regarding women’s rights. While, many of them are helmed by women protagonists, several feature men in leading roles. PadMan (2018), for example, a movie that was steered by one of the most successful actors from the industry, Akshay Kumar, narrates the story of a man focused on improving women’s menstrual hygiene.  Filmmaker R Balki, who directed PadMan, said in an interview “Gone are the days when there were just two kind of female characters in Bollywood movies – the weak and compassionate ones, and those who went around brandishing guns.”

Actor Shabana Azmi, who has straddled the realms of both parallel and mainstream cinema, sees a distinct difference in how women’s issues were portrayed earlier and now. She says: “There was a pandering to prevalent sensibilities earlier, but then women were cast in the traditional stereotypical mode of the forgiving wife, the sacrificing mother, the understanding sister, etc. I am proud to have been a part of Arth, where the complexity of what it is to be a woman was explored. But by and large, these outings were few and far in between. And look how it is all changing to being more than just a flash in the pan phenomenon.”

The times are changing

From the black and white films to colour movies, Indian cinema has evolved in a big way and so has the portrayal of women and their issues. Indian cinema caters to masses and the way society has seen an altered viewpoint of a woman’s life and her challenges, cinema too reflects the same. Audiences today not only walk up to a multiplex with popcorn and cola in a tow, but they review the movie intensely. Therefore, the rules of entertainment are altering rapidly and filmmakers are tweaking their scripts.

Film scholar and author Shoma Chatterji says, “Women in Hindi cinema have been decorative objects with rarely any sense of agency being imparted to them. Each phase of Hindi cinema had its own representation of women, but they were confined largely to the traditional, patriarchal frame-work of the Indian society. The ordinary woman has hardly been visible in Hindi cinema.”

Today, women‘s roles in Indian cinema have transformed in several ways. Feminism seems to have mobilised the media for women‘s struggle, as well as subjecting them to a process of interrogation. Since the past years, women‘s roles in commercial Hindi films have changed and many blockbuster films have included women in significant roles. But the important question is what these roles mean.

Movies like Pad Man are bringing important issues like provisions of inexpensive sanitary pads for rural women, to the forefront and creating awareness amongst the general public

Keeping it real

“Earlier, Hindi films subjected women to a representation that was submissive to traditional values and men who controlled them. This is evident in the characterisation – the various archetypes of women, being daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, vamp, courtesan and widow – were two dimensional, had no substance and existed in relation to the men in the film. However, now, increasingly more and more women are real – from within us. These are the strong women who live life on their own terms and those characters are also becoming very important,” asserts actor Vidya Balan, who has been a part of several women-centric movies.

A still from the movie Tumhari Sulu (2017), starring Vidya Balan as a loving homemaker for whom things start to change when she accidentally lands a job as a radio jockey and her show becomes an instant hit.

There have been movies which have sent as India’s official entries to global events like the Academy Awards also known as the Oscars. For instance, Bandit Queen (1994),  a biographical drama based on the life of Phoolan Devi, was India’s official entry in 1994, preceded by Rudaali (1993), the story of a woman who is abandoned by her mother shortly after her father’s death. The strong women portrayed in Bollywood are the types of women who exist in the world – they are not flat as portrayed in the earlier films. The characters have become more real. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali says, “In a country like India, where fates of movies are decided every Thursday or Friday, it isn’t possible to make sweeping generalised statements claiming that the portrayal of women in Bollywood has progressed or regressed. As a director, strong women have attracted me. I cannot resist their demand for a centre-stage. Hence movies like Padmaavat and a character like Mastani.”

The last few years have seen female characters come into their own in several films – Queen, The Dirty Picture, Kahaani, Tumhari Sulu, and many others. “In fact this change that has now become so discernible has been brewing gradually. Films, like Lajja, Astitva, Laxmi, Mardani  etc. women are visualised as central characters of films and they are seen as an integral part of socio-economic–political reality,” says Balan. In the ‘80s and ‘90s and even in early-2000, women-centric movies continued to be made but follow a rather erratic graph. “The new tilt to project how women are represented in my view is at an embryonic phase of change. In the coming years, the percentage of women-led narratives is bound to increase keeping in tune with the rapid surfacing of women in socio political milieu post economic liberalisation and their presence as leaders, activists, workers and professionals – even as women directors!” says actor Deepika Padukone, whose recent venture Chhapak portrayed the struggle of a real-life acid attack victim.

Shabana Azmi, an actress who has been known to redefine the parameters of conventional cinema with her adaptations of difficult roles that highlight the struggles of everyday women; Actress Tabu, who has played unconventional roles that portray women faced with difficult scenarios throughout her career in movies like Maachis (1996), Adhadhun (2018) and The Namesake (2006); Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone on her way to the Time 100 Gala. Padukone has featured in enigmatic, empowering and women centric roles in movies spanning various genres, from history, drama to real-life, like Ramleela (2013), Padmavat (2018), Chapaak (2020)

Future projection

But there is always scope for betterment. According to actor Kangana Ranaut, “Indian popular cinema likes to keep commercial risks to the minimum. And adopting a formulaic approach is the best way to do that. These formulae or ‘tropes’ include family dramas, song and dance, love stories, happy endings, larger-than-life melodrama and so on. A handful of directors are trying to introduce contemporary themes, everyday characters and real social soul into cinema. A lot of work still remains to be done in balancing out the mis-representation of women’s issues and women in our films. “

What is promising is that audiences are increasingly receptive to unconventional storylines. They appreciate the struggle of real women, who face ordinary challenges yet come out with extraordinary results. As society evolves and truly accepts gender-equality, Hindi movies too are moving ahead — setting a precedent, providing inspiration and becoming empowered role models that echo with the audience.

Aarti Kapur Singh

Aarti is an independent writer with close to two decades’ experience in various media. After securing a doctorate in film studies, she is now indulging in her passion to discover the world. She writes on food, luxury, films, travel, wellness and celebrities.
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