Misogyny or Equality – How Has Bollywood Treated Its Leading Ladies?


In a recent interview for the BBC, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Zeinab Badawi pointed out a rather interesting paradox to Shah Rukh Khan – for all the talk about women empowerment, Bollywood still makes a lot of films that propagate misogyny and age old stereotypes about women and their role in society.

The context and explanation for this paradox is not a simple one. In fact, it is one that warrants a deeper look at the evolving role of women in Hindi and Urdu cinema over the years.

Context is crucial here – at their heart, South Asian societies are still deeply patriarchal and whether consciously or unconsciously, that has reflected in the films that have come out of this region as well.

Srijita Sarkar, from the University of Louisville in a recent study where she looked at women centric Hindi films, concluded that Bollywood has very set moulds for ideal women – more often than not, they are submissive, chaste, very ready to sacrifice and rooted in tradition and religion. In contrast the vamp or the ‘bad woman’ is one who puts herself and her needs first, is probably financially independent and is, more of than not, westernised in the way she dresses. These characteristics are conveyed through the choices that she makes and equally importantly through her body language and clothes.

Srijita also makes another interesting point about what defines most male and female characters. While male characters are defined by what they do professionally, their female counterparts are usually defined by their beauty and their relationship to the male protagonists. This one dimensional and shallow portrayal of women begs the question – how did we get to this place and has it gotten any better over the decades?

A closer look at the history of Indian cinema reveals that the seeds for such portrayal were sown in the very first film ever made in India ‘Raja Harishchandra’. Over the years this submissive portrayal

continued with the first inflection point coming in the 1950’s.

In post Partition India, women suddenly found themselves out of the house a lot more, as families rebuilt their lives in a newly independent country. It was in this decade that we saw some of the most iconic women centric films being made, most notably Mother India. Advantageously to the cause, this was also the time when powerhouse actresses like Nargis (the leading lady of Mother India), Meena Kumari (known as the tragedy queen for her intense emotional performances) and Madhubala (the first Indian actress to be noticed by Hollywood) emerged. Even though the female protagonists now had more of a meaningful role in the story, the characters they played were still shown to be largely at the mercy of society in one way or another.

By mid 1960’s, through to the mid 1980’s, Bollywood witnessed the rise of the superstar in Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. By and large the most commercially successful films of these decades were those that featured these men in starring roles, fighting the odds and coming out on top. There were a few notable exceptions in mainstream cinema though, including films like Abhimaan (Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan) and Aandhi (Sanjeev Kumar, Suchitra Sen) where the female protagonists had roles equal in stature to the heroes.

When the shift took place from the more sombre films of the post

– partition period of the 1950’s, it was the women who had to provide the entertainment quotient in mainstream cinema. So whether it was Helen doing item numbers or Zeenat Aman providing the glamour quotient, the role of the heroine was visibly diminished in stature.

Amusingly, at the same time, the parallel cinema movement took flight, with Smita Patel and Shabana Azmi leading the way. The films they made, however, never became big commercial hits and were confined to the art films category.

The late mid 1980’s and early 1990’s saw the emergence of the iconic leading ladies

like Sri Devi and Madhuri Dixit – actresses who could deliver box office success. However, the roles that these actresses played remained of ‘good girls’. They were still often seen through the prism of how much they could give and sacrifice for their families and loved ones. Even blockbuster films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun did little to break these stereotypes – rather they helped reinforce them.

The second half of 1990’s saw a lot of fresh, young directors and producers like Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar enter the industry and while the new blood brought in a fresher canvas and filmmaking style, the woman’s definition did not change too drastically. As Shabana Azmi famously called Karan Johar to tell him – Kuch Kuch Hota Hai reinforced modern day sexism in Hindi cinema by showing Anjali to be more desirable when she has undergone a complete change in the way she looks – from the longer hair to eastern dressing.

Similarly in Dil Toh Pagal Hai, the contrast between Madhuri’s chiffon shalwar kameez clad, soft spoken, Pooja and Karisma’s tom boyish, hanging out with the boys, Nisha is made quite evident and of course it is Pooja who ends up with the charming Shah Rukh Khan.

The surprising thing is that these films have done incredibly well with the NRI audiences who themselves live lives where women are as much in the driving seat as the men.

The real change I feel has come since the mid 2000’s when we

finally saw the films like Chameli, Jab We Met and Fashion. In all these films, it was the female protagonist who drove the plot and for the first time it seemed like it was acceptable for the leading lady to be playing the role of a prostitute (Kareena in Chameli) or an ambitious, aspiring fashion model who knew exactly what she wanted from her career and was willing to put her own self above others.

Since 2010, we have really seen this trend continue with acting mavens like Vidya Balan being the ‘hero’ of the film – from Kahaani to her latest, Tumhari Sulu. Another

leading lady, Kangana Ranaut completely broke the mould with Queen – it was incredibly refreshing to see an under confident, dejected Rani make the decision of a lifetime to embark on her honeymoon travels by herself and to discover herself and her own self worth during the journey.

Deepika Padukone too has now been working in films that feature her in complex, intriguing roles where she is so much more than just a showpiece. From Bajirao Mastani to Cocktail and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Deepika has not been afraid to play characters that are as central to the plot as her male co-stars’ roles.

But with the progress there has also been regression. The item song is one such trend that has continued to flourish in the past few years. These ´extra’ songs featuring provocatively dressed women dancing to a dance track that is supposed to add glamour and sexiness to a film have been a step in the wrong direction.

What’s worrying is that earlier these item numbers were left to struggling actresses but in recent years, we have seen most A list actresses from Priyanka to Deepika to Katrina and Kareena performing item numbers as a special guest appearance in films.

The irony is that these item numbers performed by women are used to lure audiences to watch films where the plot usually revolves around the male protagonist. Examples are everywhere, from Katrina’s Chikni Chameli in Agneepath to Kareena’s Fevicol Se in Dabangg 2.

Cutting through this misogyny and gloom though, we have seen some of the more recent entrants into Bollywood like Alia Bhatt and Parineeti Chopra make some very off beat choices. Alia chose the grim and gritty Highway as her

second project and since then has worked in films like Dear Zindagi, Udta Punjab and Badri Ki Dulhaniya (which again broke stereotypes). Parineeti, too has not been afraid to make bold choices, whether it was playing the commitment phobic runaway bride in Shudh Desi Romance or the spirited aspiring singer who is not quite sure of what she wants in life in Meri Pyaari Bindu.

In the same positive vein, we now finally have female actresses like Anushka Sharma setting up production houses that are telling interesting stories like NH10 and Phillauri where the woman is in some ways the ‘hero’ of the film. And that I believe is most crucial to how women are eventually portrayed on the silver screen. There has to be an organic change within the industry as there need to be more women behind the camera, more female producers, more female directors and certainly more female writers because in some ways we have mostly relied on the men to tell the stories and we should thus not be surprised to see few tales told from the woman’s point of view.

As the industry undergoes this change, hopefully fresh scripts and stories will emerge and once they garner the box office numbers, the space for women to do more character driven roles will grow. This organic transformation will hopefully also address issues like the wage gap as it puts more women in the decision making seat.

Bollywood is currently at a bit of a crossroads – the direction it chooses now will possibly shape the future in monumental ways. In the meantime, more power to the women who have not stopped striving for change and have continuously worked for more meaningful roles and to make the Indian movie industry a more level playing ground for men and women.



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