The Changing Female Portrayal In Bollywood

Jyoti Prakash Mohapatra*
Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee**
Dr. Ashish Kumar Dwivedy**

Cinema in India incorporates mainstream cinema which holds popular appeal, art or parallel cinema that deals with social issues, and middle and regional language cinema concerned with local issues.

‘Bollywood’ is a term associated with the Hindi-language film industry centered in Mumbai (Ganti, 2004). In this paper the term ‘Bollywood’ will refer specifically to the Hindi-language film industry.

The justification of studying Hindi films is best provided by Dasgupta (1996) who saw in them a very popular form of art and literature. In terms of reach, they top the chart. Moreover, Bollywood has been a major point of reference for Indian culture (Bagchi, 1996). It has reflected the changing scenarios of modern India to an extent that no preceding art form has ever achieved.

It is true that the portrayal of women characters in Bollywood has been studied by various scholars. Past studies, however, mainly focused on the portrayal of lead female characters, the stereotyping of women and the construction of women as good or bad. (Kishwar & Vanita, 1987; Gopalan, 1997, and Ganti, 2004). Survey of available literature suggested a paucity of studies to examine the extent to which these portrayals reflected the socio-political realities of their times. The present study aims to fill the gap.

Also, there is a dearth of literature on the changing construction of female characters in Bollywood. By examining films from different time periods the present study aims to capture the changes in the depiction of lead female characters of Hindi films over time.

Objective of the study  :

The present study poses and answers the following issues related to portrayal of women in HIndi-language cinema: To what extent have the female portrayals in Hindi films represented the socio-political milieu of their times? How has the portrayal of lead female characters in Bollywood changed over time?


The paper chooses three Hindi movies, typical of the genres at the time of their release, as case studies. The movies analyzed are Mother India (1957) directed by Mehboob Khan, Arth (1982) directed by Mahesh Bhatt, and The Dirty Picture (2011) directed by Milan Luthria. Roles played by women in these films have been analyzed from social, political, economic and psychological standpoints.

Mother India and the post-independence scenario

Mother India, first screened in 1957, tries to link the fantasy of a primordial, pre-colonial society to the secular, post-colonial, post-partition state. It is the story of a poverty-stricken rural woman named Radha (played by Nargis) who struggles to raise her sons and survive against an evil money-lender amidst a number of trials and tribulations. Despite her hardship, she sets a goddess-like moral example of an ideal Indian woman. In the end she kills her own son Brij (Sunil Dutt), a criminal, for the greater good. The movie is considered by many as the cornerstone of Indian commercial cinema because of the way it glorifies the strength of a woman.

Allusions to Hindu mythology are abundant in the film, and its lead character has been seen as a metonymic representation of a Hindu woman who reflects high moral values and the concept of what it means to be a mother to the society. The chief protagonist of Mother India is a virtuous Hindu woman, reflecting higher values, and motherly self-sacrifice (Natarajan, 1994). The character of Radha has also been identified with various goddesses and mythological characters, such as Radha (the consort of Lord Krishna), Sita (the divine heroine of Ramayana), Savitri (representing great morality and loyalty to husband), Draupadi (personifying duty and morality), and Dharti-mata (earth-mother goddess) (Chatterjee, 2002).

According to Gokulsing and Dissanayake (1998), while clinging to traditional Hindu values, the character of Mother India also represents the changing role of the mother in Indian cinema and society, in that the mother is not always subservient or dependent on her husband.

Mother India has also been seen as a metaphor of the trinity of mother, God, and a dynamic nation (Virdi, 2008). The film symbolically represents India as a nation in the aftermath of independence, and portrays the tussle between the traditional and the post-colonial, with Radha representing the former and Brij representing the latter.

Following India’s independence, the period from the late 1940’s to the 1960’s is regarded by film historians as the golden age of the Hindi cinema. The rich body of films produced in the 1950’s frequently balanced entertainment and social commentary. This was the period when the spirit of freedom was at its peak. Driven by stars and songs, the popular cinema firmly established itself in the daily lives and cultural imaginations of millions of Indians as well as audiences in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere.

Arth and the emergency decade

Arth, released in 1982, is the story of Pooja (Shabana Azmi) who is married to Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a struggling director. Inder has a relationship with his well-off colleague Kavita (Smita Patil), who lends him the necessary finances to buy and furnish a new house. After Inder discloses their relationship, Pooja chooses to leave the apartment for a women’s hostel with only 2000 rupees that she had when she got married. She is helped by Raj (Raj Kiran) to become financially independent. Raj and Pooja become good friends. Raj falls in love with Pooja but the latter does not reciprocate as she believes she cannot give Raj anything in return. Meanwhile, as Kavita’s mental condition worsens, Pooja divorces Inder. Her act can be seen as an attempt to rescue Kavita from a growing feeling of guilt and insecurity. Pooja then continues to live as an independent woman with the daughter of her maid.

The film showcases the emancipation of Indian woman from the stranglehold of her image in society. She evolves from that of a subservient component in the scheme of marriage to an independent being. The film is special because the characters are not larger than life and every transition in the movie is gradual, which is very reminiscent of real life. The change in Pooja’s persona is also gradual and not sudden (Raheja, 2003).

The 21-month long Emergency period was intensive enough to leave scars on Indian democracy. The 1970’s completely changed the way films were made, especially Hindi films. Changing economic realities and social norms began to influence the movies. The narrative style changed. The story structure and characters changed. Directors such as Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta and Mahesh Bhatt were making films charged with social issues. This period also saw movies such as Ankur, Mirch Masala, Aakrosh which drew universal praise.

Arth aptly reflects the strain of individuality evinced during the period. It also hinted at a renewal of the feminist movement in India.

The Dirty Picture and the new century

The Dirty Picture, released in 2011, was inspired by the life of Silk Smitha, a South Indian actress who was noted for her erotic roles. A film producer, desperate for a hit, spots Reshma (Vidya Balan), a sexy and extremely ambitious girl. He calls her Silk. The movie is spun around Silk’s rise to stardom, the controversies that surround her, her hook-ups and break-ups as well as the highs and lows in her life and career. The supposedly decent and respectable society is the one that makes a Silk out of Reshma and a sex-symbol out of Silk. The movie also reflects the lonely and painful lives of once upon a time superstar (Silk Smitha). It asserts how a broke heroine of B-Grade films resorts to pornography for subsistence.

Upon release, the film received mostly positive reviews from critics. Prominent dailies rated the movie high (Malani, 2011). The protagonist of the movie won National Award for outstanding performance. The Dirty Picture was seen as a seminal work worthy of study in feminist discourses.

The 21st century came with new faces of terror and severe economic recession. Yet, Bollywood demonstrated how the show must go on by ushering in a new era in the world of Hindi movies. This is a period in the history of Bollywood that, so far, has been characterized by novel story-lines, new experimental themes, and enhanced technology. But this too is a period that has seen an aggressive portrayal of women as commodities and symbol of sex and lust. The Dirty Picture also proves that we still remain a country of voyeurs.


The present study tries to contribute to the existing body of knowledge by examining female characters of Bollywood from different time periods. The three time periods chosen are the post-independence era, the emergency decade and the beginning of 21st century.

Female characters in Bollywood have traditionally been portrayed as controlled, chaste, surrendering individuals, who are not afraid of making sacrifices. The ideal of archetypal motherhood has been a cherished theme for Bollywood. It is also evident that the construction of women characters in Bollywood films has changed over the years and has been driven by the demands of society and changing times. Hindi movies have, indeed, responded to the dominant ideologies of their times.


  1. Bagchi, A. (1996). Women in Indian Cinema [Online]. Retrieved February 2, 2008 from
  2. Chatterjee, G. (2002). Mother India. British Film Institute.
  3. Dasgupta, S.D. (1996). Feminist Consciousness in Woman-Centered Hindi Films, The Journal of Popular Culture, 30(1), 173 -89.
  4. Ganti, T. (2004). Bollywood: A Guide to Popular Hindi Cinema. New York. Routledge.
  5. Gokulsing, K.M., & Dissanayake, W. (1998). Indian Popular Cinema: A narrative of cultural change. U.K., Trentham Books.
  6. Gopalan, L. (1997). Avenging Women in Indian Cinema. Screen, 38(1), 42 -59.
  7. Kishwar, M. and Vanita, R. (1987). The Labouring Woman in Hindi Films. Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society (42/43), 62 -76.
  8. Malani, G. (2011). The Dirty Picture: Movie Review [Online]. Retrieved February 7, 2014 from
  9. Natarajan, N. (1994). Woman, Nation and Narration in Midnight’s Children. In I. Grewal & C. Kaplan (Ed.), Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. University of Minnesota Press.
  10. Raheja, D. (2003). ‘Arth’: an ode to relationships [Online]. Retrieved February 7, 2014 from
  11. Virdi, J. (2008). Deewar/Wall (1975)-Fact, Fiction and the Making of a Superstar. In A. P. Kavoori & A. Punathambekar (Ed.), Global Bollywood. NYU Press.

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