Cinema is always reflective of the nuanced relationships between individuals and society. It engenders a sense of imagination that transcends boundaries; both physical and intangible. As an outsider looking in, Bollywood seems to be an expanse of endless possibilities. On the contrary, it is also portrayed as a space that is problematic on many accounts. One such is the depiction of the issues that women face every day. To clarify, this article is not referring to the position of women in the Hindi film industry, but rather, the manner in which issues such as domestic and sexual abuse are portrayed in these movies. While the the position that women or the so-called “heroines” possess is much debated, the scope of films that deal with social issues concerning women is rarely discussed.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), for instance, narrates the story of Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena and depicts the story of her struggles and achievements in the Indian Air Force. While the film was applauded for tackling issues of everyday workplace sexism, it harboured criticism for “peddling lies” in the name of creative freedom. These claims came after retired Wing Commander Namrita Chandi and numerous other women spoke out about the film’s portrayal of the dynamics within the Air Force. Chandi, in her opinion piece in Outlook, wrote that the film’s critique had to do with “the house of Dharma Productions and of all those penny dreadful story and screenplay writers, who contributed to this monstrous film that has shown us all in the proud blue uniform in very poor light.” While the makers of the film claim that it is a biographical depiction of Gunjan Saxena’s life, it sensationalizes and dramatizes elements of Gunjan’s life that other women in her cadre would otherwise trivialise. Thus, making their attempt of catering to the complexities of issues that women face, somewhat counterproductive.
The Bandit Queen (1996) was also a biographical film based on the tragic life of politician Phoolan Devi. This film was ahead of its time in the sense that it dealt with issues such as child marriage, domestic abuse and sexual assault among others. It portrayed Phoolan Devi as a woman who took charge of her own life when she was faced with numerous challenges time and again. The film is a compelling portrayal of issues like caste conflict and violence. It contains powerful images like Phoolan Devi’s musing in pondering whether she was born out of the act of love or violence. It becomes a tale of bravado and tragedy. However, the film falls short when it is the man (Vikram Malla) who is portrayed as the rationalizing factor in an otherwise hysterical depiction of Phoolan Devi. She was characterised as being taken hostage by the trauma that she had suffered, while the men become the voices of reason in her story.
These are what some would call women-centric films, meaning that they consist of “strong female protagonists.” That said, these films are inadequate in the manner in which they engage with the message that they seek to put forth. While it is beyond the scope of this piece to take into consideration the numerous movies that bollywood produces each year, it is safe to assume that the plot and characters of a film are heavily influenced by the production houses and the considerations they need to make, given the fact that they need revenue to sustain. All movies then, in one way or another cater to both an audience and a profitable business model. This poses a greater challenge in ensuring that films are reflective of the diverse and intersectional identities that individuals possess in society. In this context, then, while it is unfair to conclude that the problems in the aforementioned films could be attributed to the fact that both the directors were men, it seems as though they were in need of a different perspective.
Contrary to the aforementioned films, Parched (2015) portrays the lives of three women in a village in Rajasthan. Leena Yadav captures the complexities in the lives of women living in an extremely patriarchal society. Rani is a widow looking to marry her teenage son to a child bride. Lajjo, who lives in the same village as Rani, grapples with an abusive marriage to an alchoholic husband who accuses her of being infertile. On the flip side, Bijli is an erotic dancer, who is portrayed as the immoral, yet free-spirited ally to the two women. This film skillfully captures the complicated dynamics of the village in the manner in which they deal with domestic abuse, the notion of the outsider and caste. Unlike many other Bollywood movies, this film encapsulates the tragically monotonous nature of dealing with abuse on a daily basis. It does not romanticize the notion of female empowerment but engages in the multiplicity of the issues that these women face.
Leeches (2016) is yet another film that stays true to its message. This film, directed by Payal Sethi, is set in the old city of Hyderabad. It is the story of how Raisa devises a dangerous plan to protect her younger sister from becoming a one-day bride. The film portrays a sense of helplessness and Raisa’s resolve to save her sister. It brings out the complexities in the relationships within their family when Raisa confronts her mother and realises that she was aware of everything that is going on. This film too breaks out of the mold in terms of its depiction of Raisa and her unmitigated resolve to protect her sister. Interestingly, this film, like Parched, is solely available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and both films were premiered in film festivals outside of India. While one can only speculate, this could be because of the way in which these movies deal with complicated issues in Indian society, that are often tabooed. While these movies artfully represent the realities of numerous women, they remain largely unrecognized for reasons that are beyond the scope of this piece.
For almost a hundred years now, Bollywood has produced movies that were symbolic of their time and a few that were ahead of their time. Furthermore, movies also bear witness to the changing times and evolving complexities of the social and political spheres of society. Paulomi Sharma writes about a “Neo-Bollywoodism” that arose after the rampant vocalization of feminist issues arould the world. This phenomenon, according to her, seeks to make movies in tandem with contemporary feminist issues, while also being equally palatable for mass consumption. She further explains that it promotes male complacency as the ‘easiest’ solution to end ‘cinematic sexism.’ While films mirror the structures, mechanisms and hierarchies within society, it is imperative to understand the complexities in engaging with identities and ensuring that they are represented. Sharma’s article speaks to the need for inclusivity that is long overdue. While there is a long road ahead, movies like Thappad (2020) and Chhapaak (2020) are a step closer to achieving this goal.
Sriramaya Ghanta is a third-year undergraduate student, pursuing a major in political science and a minor in sociology and anthropology at Ashoka University