In mainstream Bollywood cinema, the new trend has been to tactfully structure the plot in a way that it appears to promote women empowerment but a close reading would tell how those films are based on the same regressive ideology. The female lead gets to have increased screen time, she gets to fight the bad guys like a male hero and makes it a point to say out loud that she does not the hero to solve the conflict at hand. Is that enough?
How is a film progressive if that is all it tries to be? How is a narrative organic if the “empowering” dialogues clearly sound like someone behind the camera was dying for brownie points for making a ‘feminist film’? Then come the films that show supposedly sexually liberated women. They explore many potential lovers, hang out at clubs, casually take puffs of cigarettes. That is it. Films like Cocktail come to mind.
Not giving out verdicts on the behalf of the Indian audience but these seven Bollywood films calling out sexism should set an example:
Subh Mangal Savdhaan
The Bhumi Pednekar and Ayushmann Khurrana film touted to be a romantic comedy ended up giving a strong message on how society blames women for everything. Even when it comes to her would-be husband’s erectile dysfunction.
The love birds soon to get married face an untimely accident in the privacy of the girl’s room and that is when the plot gets its grip. The way Khurrana’s character is judged for something so natural to the human body by being asked to be a “mard” also tells how we need to do better as a society.
The subject of domestic violence has mostly been judged by its severity. In a way, this Taapsee Pannu starrer film is just about that one time the husband slapped his wife but the question raised by the film is plain and simple–can he do that?
It is not about how poorly someone was physically abused at the hands of their spouse but about the disrespect and the underlying patriarchy which makes many men feel they have the right to do so. The film without painting women as victims successfully gives voice to several survivor stories, the ones who remain unheard.
There is nothing intense about this Alia Bhatt starrer. Her character is possibly in her early 20s trying to make a living in the film industry with a safety net provided by her wealthy parents she doesn’t like very much. The reality lived by her is on display when she meets a therapist (played by Shah Rukh Khan) and talks about how her dating multiple men have made people question her character.
Khan’s character in a very animated exchange explains to her how dating different people is like trying out different chairs. If it doesn’t feel comfortable, look for someone else. How is that have to do anything with anyone’s character? The film also sheds light on how many young women find it difficult to get noticed for their work and but get “compliments” on their attractiveness.
Elevated by the nuanced acting skills of late Bollywood actor Sridevi, the film essayed the struggles of a homemaker. Someone who entirely devotes herself to her husband and kids and gets disrespect in return.
The middle-class Indian woman, a mother of two children, visits New York and shows courage to learn something new–the English language. The language which even though is not the mother tongue of Indians but for some reason makes them think that they can judge someone’s intelligence by it. The middle-aged woman’s triumph is not in learning the language but speaking the language to her family members and making them see how she has been ridiculed without any valid reason.
The Radhika Apte starrer shows a childless woman, a widow and a sex worker escape the clutches of the patriarchal society to live as free women. The film talks about masturbation, sexual desire, and the unfair burden of judgment bore by women just because they don’t give an heir to their families. Exploring multiple issues about women in India, the film points out how women are treated as sex objects. It also talks about severe social evils like child marriage which is still very much practiced by people and is prominently prevalent in different parts of India.
Lipstick Under My Burkha
A film with an ensemble cast has the most important thing one needs in a feminist film–different struggles of different women without generalising any of them. The film unsettles the viewers by showing an older woman expressing her sexual desires and also makes them question why is that the idea not normal? While one woman deals with her demanding husband and sneaks around to be able to do a job, the other hides her pleasures and similarly, the women in the film portray how so many women in India are living secret lives. A life that is away from the eyes of society. A life where they are able to do whatever they want without being judged for it.
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