Are empowered women in Hindi films truly liberated? Since it is Women’s Day today, and Bollywood is flooding our timeline with cute posts celebrating new moms, fiery individuals, empowered daughters etc, it is only apt to discuss how women are represented in films today. Looking back, one may feel we have come a long way. Bollywood films may not have completely broken the mould of “sexy” leading ladies who can twirl when the beat drops and cry for help so that they can be rescued by heroes, but there are big cracks in it for sure.
Courtesy the force of powerful performers and empowering writer-directors, women today are portrayed as self-made and independent. They are moms who are unapologetic for having flourishing careers, like in Shakuntala Devi, they are addressing their sexual desires, as in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare and they are even questioning the normalisation of domestic violence with films like Thappad.
Be it feel-good films like Queen that hailed self-love over the happily ever after that we have long associated with marriages, or a hard-hitting film such as Pink that questioned our understanding of consent, Bollywood is taking clear and progressive steps that talk of empowerment of women, in an empathetic tone, and not a melodramatic one. It moves us to root for Shashis (Sridevi in English Vinglish) of the world who are your everyday middle-class women nurturing dreams that may seem small to those who are privileged, but larger than life to those who are not. And there are many like her, some even in our homes and neighbourhood.
However, are women truly liberated on the silver screen? Or has “liberated woman” become a trope in itself, perpetuating stereotypes of women who smoke and drink copiously and indulge in sex that rather conveys titillation than liberation?
Besides, has Bollywood done enough good work to absolve it of its past, and present crimes, when it comes to the portrayal of women as objects and plot points? Can we overlook its ghastly understanding of justice in cases of rape and sexual assault, as portrayed in films like Simmba and Himmatwala (2013)? Or trivialisation of stalking and harassment in Toilet Ek Prem Katha and Judwaa 2?
Hindi films have always shown the potential to churn out phenomenal films on women-centric subjects, that stood the test of time. Mirch Masala, Arth, Manthan, Sujata, Fire, WaterÂ etc have showcased women-centric issues in a memorable way. In the last two decades or so, the number of films that do not adhere to the stereotypical portrayal of woman has significantly gone up, but the number of such films still remains a handful as compared to those that do otherwise.
Infact, when a bunch of films addressing the same issue (read violation of consent or empowerment) are showered on us in quick succession, do they originate with the intent to cause a genuine change in society, or just to capitalise on an issue everyone is talking about?
Bollywood can’t pat its back yet, there’s too much to be done. Unless it can weed out the need to cater to the male gaze, or to champion machoism altogether at the cost of misrepresenting women, no matter what it does, it will remain an industry that is male-dominated, where women-centric cinema is a genre and not a regular part and parcel of each film.
Views expressed are the author’s own.