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Where are Bollywood’s Working Women?

by Aadya Chaturvedi

This article examines the portrayal of women in Bollywood films, in the specific context of women’s careers. Through several archaic and sexist tropes, Bollywood keeps reinforcing the idea of a reality or at least the aspiration of a society where women either only have certain socially approved professions such as teacher or nurse or have no careers whatsoever. Too many female characters are relegated to the role of wife or mother, which is the socially perceived image of a good woman. This image is then juxtaposed against that of the career-driven woman who is “too empowered” and is shown as the “bad” woman who smokes, drinks, and has sexual autonomy. These qualities are shown to be so inextricably linked to ambitious and professional women that having a career, which is largely unfavourable to the objectification of women by the male gaze, itself becomes a trait of a bad woman.

Introduction

So many iconic Bollywood movies have revolved around the careers of their protagonists. The glory of the uniform in movies such as Holiday: A Soldier is Never Off Duty, Uri: The Surgical Strike, and Singham, the struggles of sportsmen in Sultan, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, and the thrill of criminal life in Gunday, Sholay, Don, and the Dhoom franchise were all expertly showcased by strong male characters whose professional arc was the axis the entire movie revolved around. But where are the working women in Bollywood films? Most female characters’ prime focus is shown to be their pursuit of or by the male lead. A career is either just a plot device that facilitates a romantic rendezvous, or it is a modern evil that is deterring her from finding a man and ‘settling down.’ Such stark extremes paint working, career-focused women in a bad light or undermine the importance of their ambitions altogether.

Complete Lack of Professional Engagement

A massive corpus of female representation in Bollywood films has been one that casts women primarily in the roles of a dutiful mothers or wives who prepare breakfast for their working husbands and school-going children and ensure their clothes are ironed and bags are packed. While this image was prevalent in the films of the 1950s to the 1980s era of Bollywood, it has made an unwelcome reappearance very recently as well. Movies such as Manmarziyaan, Veere Di Wedding, and Tanu Weds Manu where the female protagonists are shown to be modern, autonomous and supposedly empowered lack any professional engagement. In fact, in some of the above, the primary occupation of these women is shown to be their “guy problems” and concerns about finding the right man. The careers that they earn their livelihood from find absolutely no representation. Thus, the cinema of this decade seems to have regressed into an inability to conceive of women’s careers as the norm or as an independent character point as opposed to male characters whose portrayal often revolves entirely around their professional career.

Subordination of Women’s Careers

As Salva Mubarak argues in Vogue, even when Bollywood started allowing its female leads to work, it was only as long as the career did not come in the way of her sex appeal or apparent dependence on the man. Take the example of the 1994 blockbuster hit Mohra. It is seen that despite her work as a journalist being important to the plot, Raveena Tandon is most remembered for her ‘sexy’ monsoon-themed dance number titled ‘Tip Tip Barsa Pani’. Another such character is that of Miss Chandni from Main Hoon Na, who is a competent chemistry teacher, but the focus is always on her obvious physical attractiveness and the male protagonist’s infatuation with her. Even in very recent movies that have ostensibly empowered female characters, their status as professionals is largely a token– irrelevant to the main plot — unlike that of the male protagonist. This was seen in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, where Naina, the narrator, despite being a doctor, is never shown in a professional setting. At the same time, a major chunk of the story is dedicated to detailing the ambitions, professional achievements and milestones of the male lead. Such skewed portrayal supports the narrative that women’s careers are subordinate and secondary to that of men. In most cases, this token career allotted to the female characters is important to the story only to the extent of facilitating their relationship with the male characters. It, then, is only a minor plot point that is otherwise irrelevant to the story or to the character development, if any, of the woman herself.

Good Woman vs. Bad Woman

Another harmful trope is the villainization of career-focused, goal-driven women who are cast as ‘too modern’ or ‘too liberated’ and they are usually shown to worry their family members due to their lack of interest in finding a man to marry and settling down, or their lack of devotion to domestic life. The negative characterization of such women is further reinforced by showing them to be sexually active and engaging in smoking and drinking, which are considered ‘unladylike’ behaviours in popular perception. There’s a juxtaposition of these apparently ‘bad’ women in contrast to docile and supposedly well-mannered women that stay at home and get married ‘in time.’ This is illustrated in both Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, where the ‘wild’ Aditi later gets tamed into an arranged marriage, as well as in the classic example of the movie Aitraaz, where her villainous traits were largely attributed to her professionally ambitious nature. She was painted as a promiscuous, bad woman due to her decision to abort a foetus as she was not prepared to give her career up to raise a child. Her reluctance to settle into the acceptable role of a married woman and mother, her ambitious career goals, and her sexual autonomy were repeatedly used as a tool to villainize her. Several other examples can be found in more recent films like Tanu Weds Manu and Cocktail that reinforce the dichotomy of the good woman and the bad woman who works, but also smokes and drinks, in order to really hammer home the point that professional liberation might lead to the woman becoming ‘too liberated’ which roughly translates to ‘free from patriarchal control.’

The Male Gaze

The concept of the male gaze was first expounded by Margaret Atwood. The gist of it was that the way or the gaze with which society views women is inherently male, to the extent that women internalize it and view themselves with the same male gaze as well. The impact of this male gaze on cinema was explained by Laura Mulvey in her landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In the above, she introduced the idea of ‘phallocentricism’ in film and cinema, whereby the male character lives out his ambitions and desires, as an active agent, and the effect of these actions is merely imposed on the female characters who are the passive, silent figures with no agency of their own. This is consistent with the limitation of women’s careers as a mere plot point to further men’s character development, as well as the constant subordination of her career to her sex appeal. This gives way to another important concept of Mulvey’s essay which may be called double objectification. Herein, women are subjected to two levels of objectification, one by the male characters in the film itself, and the other by the audience watching the film. She talks about a third layer which comes during the filmmaking process, the male gaze of the camera. This third type comes into play when female characters are kept devoid of any independent, relevant professional engagement. Most directors and producers in Bollywood are men and this surely plays a large part in the characterization and portrayal of women in such a skewed, dependent, and misogynistic manner.

Conclusion

With the level of influence that Bollywood wields over its impressionable audience, the flawed and archaic narratives discussed in this article can and do prove to be extremely harmful to the participation of women in the workforce. It discourages the professional empowerment and consequently the economic security of women by constantly diffusing negative connotations to such liberation. In the rare cases that there is a set career path for a female character, it is overshadowed and undermined by the canvassing of her identity as a sexual object or the focus of the male lead’s affections. There are a few recent examples of healthy portrayal of women’s careers in Bollywood, such as Piku, Dil Dhadakne Do, and Tumhari Sulu. However, these are not sufficient to bring about a lasting change. In 2023, a powerful instrument of influence such as Bollywood must necessarily bring in more nuance to its supposedly empowered working women than just smoking, drinking, and the free exercise of sexual autonomy.  

Author’s Bio: Aadya Chaturvedi is a student at Jindal Global Law School, pursuing B.A.L.L.B. (Hons.) in the batch of 2020-25. Her areas of interest are feminist economics, gender studies, Human Rights law, and child rights.

 Image Sources: SheThePeople, Filmfare

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