Bollywood action films are well known for their strong heroes who can pack a mean punch. The classic Bollywood film has long been one where a pretty heroine falls in love with a brazen young man who overcomes various obstacles (eg. fights goons, saves the heroine from villains, earns lots of money) to protect his love and their story comes to a happy ending. A new stream of producers, directors and scriptwriters, however, are working hard to change these Bollywood norms with films featuring strong female characters and focusing on the extraordinary stories of everyday Indian women.
While the level of execution maybe a matter of debate and discussion, it must be acknowledged that there is a new wave of women centric storylines hitting the shores of Bollywood. One might argue that the number of such films released in a year is miniscule in comparison to the movies which are intent on portraying women in their stereotypical roles or as just a pretty face. I agree with the fact that several films continue to be produced, which depict the heroine as a weak little lady who needs the help of a hero to accomplish anything in life. However I believe that it is important that we also appreciate and acknowledge the effort being made to change this situation.
The story perhaps began with Mother India which emphasized on the immense strength of the will and determination of an Indian woman. Although the film was met with much popularity and accolades, stories of strong women seem to have trailed off in the subsequent years. There was a sort of revival in the film Damini which showed a woman prepared to overcome all predicaments in her path and pressure from her family, determined to bring justice to another. Today the film’s principal character is a symbol of resilience and courage. Another film of the last decade of the 20th century which saw the light of Indian theatres over a decade after its worldwide release, Bandit Queen brazenly represented the life story of Phoolan Devi depicting in excruciating detail the physical and mental torture that she underwent. The film though banned for a prolonged period in India, received praise all over the world for its compelling direction and powerful content.
The 21st century brought in a new look at womanhood, beginning with the movie Lajja which brought together the shocking stories of the plight of various women, going onto show their unyielding spirit in fighting against those who wronged them. In 2003 the film Matrubhoomi brought to light the glaring situation that mankind would be faced with in a land without women. Through the portrayal of the plight of the sole existing woman in a land of depraved men, this hard hitting film addressed the urgent need to deal with important issues like female foeticide and male child preference. No One Killed Jessica addressed the problems that women continue to face regarding access to justice, having been filmed in the light of the Jessica Lall murder case. Talking about remarkable movies I cannot forget to mention English Vinglish which had a simple purpose which it served beautifully. The story of an ordinary Indian housewife attempting to learn the ‘polished’ English language resonated with the million Indian housewives who are constantly ridiculed even by their near and dear ones for not being able to converse fluently in the foreign language called English. Though filmed in a different vein than the other films, English Vinglish too deserves consideration in the same light for its celebration of the never-give-up attitude of the Indian woman.
Bollywood has for long been known for its objectification of the female body. Three films released in the recent past however have turned this objectification into glorification by showing the story of the lives of the very women who face such depictions. Fashion, Heroine and The Dirty Picture have played an important role in bringing to light the often problematic circumstances that women in the glamour world find themselves, the huge pressure that being pretty and attractive puts on women and the hypocrisy of the very society which transforms women into sex symbols. Highway has proved apt in its representation of a woman who chooses the freedom of travel and decides to acquire experience in the real world over sitting pretty in a home which was unable to protect her. Bollywood is slowly beginning to accept that today’s Indian woman is independent and liberal. The best instance of this can be found in Queen which shows the journey of a woman who decides to go on her honeymoon alone when her fiancé changes his mind on the day of their wedding.
Women power is coursing its way through the veins of Bollywood expressing itself in movies like Kahaani, Gulaab Gang and NH10. The lead characters in these films deserve to be greatly commended for being bold, unapologetic women ready to serve justice in their own way when the system is no longer reliable. Mardaani is another film with a courageous and gutsy woman seeking justice, tackling the men of the patriarchal world who are intent on exploiting the ‘feminine’. Hate Story 1 and Hate Story 2 though mostly in the news for their ‘explicit content’ took the less ventured route in Bollywood of showing women using their feminine features and sexuality to extract favours and ultimately whatever it takes for their revenge. I feel that such a storyline deserves applause for its rejection of patriarchal norms and celebration of a woman’s right over her body. Films like Mary Kom, Neerja and the yet to be released Jai Gangaajal are also notable in their portrayal of the inspiring tales of exceptional women.
There is no doubt that Bollywood has been making a conscious effort to support the blurring of the hero-heroine role binary but whether it has made a difference is to be seen. Enlisting of anti-women stereotypes featured in Bollywood movies and an apology by Aamir Khan for his former participation in such portrayal on the show Satyamev Jayate is surely a positive response in this regard. Several women centric films like Kahaani, Mary Kom and NH10 have also been massive commercial successes, bringing audiences back to the theatre again and again. The success of films belonging to this niche genre is surely promising as it shows a gradual acceptance of the independent iron willed, assertive and if required aggressive Indian woman. The urban success of such movies may take some time to be replicated in rural India but as long as even one woman finds motivation or one man realizes the problems that a woman is faced with or there is a change in the mindset of one individual through such movies, I would think that these films have done their job.