Does Watching Women Antagonists On Screen Make Us Uncomfortable?

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Bollywood Female Villains: In Bollywood women antagonists are hard to come by. Grey roles, arguably among the most exciting on film, almost always go to male leads. Whatever is left on the villain platter is carelessly, stereotypically disguised and presented to women as the femme fatale character, of which there have been many throughout Hindi cinema.

‘Homewreckers’, husband-snatchers, seductresses, gold-diggers – that’s usually as far as Bollywood dares to venture in exploration of layered roles for women beyond dancing, jiving, loving, nurturing, and frankly boring, figures on screen. On a good day, there might be a Supriya Pathak Shah as the terrifying Dhankor Baa in Ramleela or Taapsee Pannu as the calculative Naina in Badla. 

But these finds are painfully rare to encounter.

Why? Are we fearful of looking at women in flesh and blood characters? Does comprehending them as individuals whose emotional range goes further than Mother India’s unsettle us? Or is it a lack of trust in women to handle complex characters? Can our comfort in seeing them in roles that are positive, happy, sacrificial be directly linked to how we typecast women in real life?

More Bollywood Women Antagonists On Our Screens Please!

Some of Hindi cinema’s most memorable dark roles have surfaced offroad in parallel, arthouse, independent or cult films that didn’t quite make it big in the mainstream. Satya, Dev D, Maqbool, Aakrosh – all fantastic, all male. This is not to say that our cinema is totally vacuumed of female characters that are extreme-ranged. Veterans like Helen, Bindu, Manorama, Padma Khanna, for the time they ruled the Hindi screens in the 1970s and 80s, made for quintessential ‘vamps.’

But those characters were almost always monotoned. Not grey, an almost-black. Because how were they moulded and perceived? As immoral, sensuous women always looking to honeytrap the virtuous male lead. To date, mention of these actors instinctively hearkens to flashes of kohled eyes, skin show, seductive touch – all considered bad virtues for women – which further shows that their roles were more stereotypical boxes, not really deep-dives into the complexity of human emotion.

Of course, a timeline of more mature, dark, undefinable female characters can be traced through Smita Patil, Manisha Koirala, Tabu, Vidya Balan and the likes. But often, these roles end up being over-humanised to the point they feel like apologetic justification for women being cast in something other than saccharine romances. Why shy away from giving them the retribution they deserve?

Is it because associating women with multi-dimensional emotions shakes up our idea of gender norms?

With the full-throttle surcharge of OTT content, characters from across a broad spectrum are coming to our screens. Where a Shweta Tripathi as Golu overlooks a drug empire in Mirzapura Samantha Akkineni as Raji picks up arms for liberation in Family Man 2. and a Paoli Dam as Binodini manipulates schemes to power in Bulbbul.

Clearly, the thriller-crime genre is fast gaining precedence over the boy-meets-girl love story trope, even for Indian audiences raised on and obsessed with linear, no-fuss, good ol’ Hindi films. In anticipation of more and better, are we ready to accept that women characters can be more grey, less yellow?

Views expressed are the author’s own.