Women in Bollywood Films : A Paradigm Shift

Dr. Sarita Prabhakar*

Films serve the same historical purpose as other forms of art such as paintings, books or theater, representing social and cultural attitudes about gender, class, caste and ethnicity.The film is perhaps a closer proximation of reality through its visual image and fluidity. The Indian cinema in its journey of about ten decades has witnessed a sea change in the representation of women.  For quite a long time the issues were raised and explored from the male point of view and the roles of women characters were confined largely to the traditional patriarchal framework of Indian society. They reflected the socially propagated and individually internalized   patriarchal values.

 The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have exerted a pervasive influence in India as they are of the patriarchal culture, they are male oriented and have looked at the world from a man’s point of view. This male-oriented point of view goes on to privilege male over female. The mythological stories of Sita, Savitri, and Gandhari have been culturally interpreted as tales of sacrifice, single- minded devotion and total submission. An ideal woman is still seen as Sita, supported by other figures like Savitri, Draupadi and Gandhari. Society’s expectations and a woman’s perception of herself have long been largely determined by values embedded in these ideal figures.  In this connection, Sudhir Kakar observes:

The ideal of womanhood incorporated by Sita is one of chastity, purity, gentle tenderness and a singular faithfulness which cannot be destroyed or even disturbed by  her husband’s rejection ,slights or thoughtlessness( 1989:55).

To marry, to bear children, to be faithful to husband and to remain in the territory defined for her is the social definition of a woman’s role. Seema Bawa in Gods ,Men and Women :Gender and Sexuality in Early Indian Art makes an interesting observation that  though women are depicted in visual arts in terms of gendered identity such as mothers ,wives, non-wives (both nuns and prostitutes are clubbed in ‘non-wives’ category), there is no such depiction of men as fathers, husbands, or male prostitutes, rather their social and economic standing are used as markers.  Another startling absence is that of nuns; they are virtually absent in the visual art. Even though they have been donors and patrons of art, their donation has not been valourised through sculptures. Film as a product of culture and producer of culture has played an enormous role in fostering these stereotyped ideas. Claire Johnston was among the first feminist critics to offer a sustained critique of stereotypes from a semiotic point of view. She put forward how classical cinema constructs the ideological image of women. Drawing on Roland Barthes’ notion of myth, Johnston pointed out that the sign ‘woman’ can be analysed as a structure, a code or convention. It represents the ideological meaning that ‘woman’ has for man. In relation to herself she means nothing (1991:25).The ‘woman-as-woman’ is absent from the text of the film. Here Johnston is pointing to the constructed nature of reality in films which rather than reflecting reality constructs an ideological view of reality.

Heroines in Bollywood films, after independence, are largely modelled on Sita,  an ideal woman,  an epitome of ‘pativrata’. Films like Dahej (1950), Gauri(1968), Devi(1970), Biwi Ho T o Ai si(1988), Pati Parmeshwar(1988) depicted women as passive , submissive wives .  Values, ideals, principles, morals have dominated the framework in which these films are placed. Rather than allowing them to be normal human beings,  they have been elevated to a higher position of being ideal who can commit no wrong and the one who does not conform to the social norms is regarded as demon which goes on to make simplified categorization between good and evil.  Not only that, a woman’s  role is carved out in  the context of any male character who is central to the script, devoid of  any independent existence and her journey throughout is explored in relation to the male character.

Laura Mulvey’s ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” expands on this conception of the passive role of women. She argues that the film provides visual pleasure through ‘scopophilia’ , the desire to see which is a fundamental drive according to Freud. The female character served as a spectacle to provide pleasure to the male spectator for which she used the term ‘gaze’. She further analysed  ‘scopophilia’ in classical cinema as a structure that functions on the axis of activity and passivity. The binary opposition is gendered. The narrative structure of the traditional cinema establishes the male character as active and powerful, he is the centre around whom the dramatic action revolves. The female character is passive and powerless,   an object of desire for the male character(s).  This kind of straight-jacketing limits the woman’s role to providing glamour,   respite and entertainment. For example, Priyanka Chopra’s roie in Agnipath is not of any significance to the story as such, just a break from the scenes of violence. The hero as the saviour and the heroine as a damsel in distress to be rescued by him are also predominantly seen in Hindi cinema discourse.

How real are the women characters in Bollywood cinema? Though, both on screen and off screen, women’s lives are circumscribed by the social code of behavior, the reality is different from the prescribed code. Economic responsibilities are increasingly shared in modern life and the time has come when they cannot remain confined to the roles assigned to them by patriarchy. Cinema as a mirror of life cannot remain untouched by  the changing scenario .There are film makers who have dismantled these stereotypical images of women and the  female characters are coming out of the shadows of their male counterparts . Actresses like Vidya Balan  (Paa, Dirty Picture, Kahani, Ishquia) and Konkon Sen   (Page3, Wakeup Sid, Life in a Metro,Mr and Mrs Iyer) have led this change of direction, who have appeared in  strong and independent roles with their  identities as individuals. Contemporary cinema has attempted to explore their desires, feelings, ambitions, grievances, perspectives which were earlier completely missing from the scene and  subjects which were considered as taboo like sexuality ,infidelity, surrogacy, live in relationship, divorce through films like Jism(2003), Astitva(2000),Salam Namaste(2005). Astitva explores the unconventional- the physical desires of a married woman who has long been neglected by her husband. The film is a revelation in the sense that it makes a strong statement about chauvinism in society. The film also questions the domain of patriarchy which may not necessarily manifest itself in the form of violence but in other forms also like denial of space, freedom and subjugation. The protagonist Aditi(Tabu) emerges, in the end, as a strong woman who, instead of pleading her husband to allow her to stay back in the house,  rather  chooses to walk out and live life on her own terms.  In films like Chandni Bar (2001), Page3 (2005), the heroines, are the ‘rebels’ who do not conform to social norms. In Chak de India (2007) women are represented as the ones who can voice their priorities. The sportswomen in the film are shown to negotiate the conflicts they face when they decide to excel in the fields chosen by them.

In the last few months,  Bollywood has created more space for female characters to move into unchartered territories without labeling the films heroine-oriented.  In this connection says Imtiaz, the director, “I haven’t made Highway to promote the cause of female characters in mainstream cinema. I just wanted Veera (Alia Bhatt) to live and breathe and say something relevant during the course of the film”. (Friday Review, The Hindu).  Veera tells her captor Mahavir clearly that she does not want to have kids or get married to him. She breaks free as in the course of her journey she comes to know that there is a lot in her body, mind and imagination that she was not even aware of.  She realizes something very basic and essential not just about herself but also about living life, about the whole concept of safety and home after grappling with the concept of freedom. Home is not necessarily the house one lives in. It could be the highway and a sense of belongingness could be established with people whom you do not know.

Comparing the gust of change with the set patterns of the 1980s and 1990s, Deepa Sahi, who was considered an exception in those days, finds the complexity in Highway anew.  She finds it quite encouraging that there is no longer any need of a drunkard husband or an exploitative boyfriend for a girl to rebel. There is an increasing space to let her pursue and struggle with her desires; and the desires may not necessarily be physical” (Interview, webindia:2009). In Hansi toh Phasee, we have a scientist with proper career plans taking on the conservative family and falling in love with a guy who understands her concerns and priorities. The film almost breaks the age old cliché that if a girl smiles she is as good as trapped. Mahesh Bhatt, who has tried to break the stereotypes of female characters, as a film-maker, says, “The good thing is that the ultimate aim of the female character is no longer marriage.”  “It is not her cinematic Kaaba anymore.” (Friday Review, The Hindu).

Recently, the film Queen by Vikas Bahl also marks a significant departure from the past. In the film,  Rani (Kangana) is a middle class Delhi girl raised in a conservative family. Two days before her marriage, her fiancé Vijay (Rajkumar Rao) meets with her in a cafe to tell her that he no longer wants to marry her, claiming he has changed as she would not match his lifestyle anymore. Shocked at the development, Rani shuts herself in her room for a day but then she decides to take control of her life and plans to go alone on her pre-booked honeymoon to visit her favourite place, Paris which she’d never seen before  and Vijay’s favourite place, Amsterdam. Her parents, though a bit reluctant, agree and Rani departs. This act of hers is in itself vey unconventional. Along the way she grapples with the idea of right and wrong that has been thrust upon her as tradition and in the process many knots get untied. Upon returning to India, she meets Vijay at his house. Without saying anything, she simply hands him her engagement ring though he pleads her to marry him. She thanks him for his early act of denial, which proves to be a real eye opener for her; she then emerges as a ‘new’ woman.

Women have conventionally been excluded from participating in politics. Their voices have been silenced by imposing strict restrictions on their right to express themselves in public sphere. There was a dividing line between what they could do and what they could not. The practice of keeping women ‘on the other side of the house’, ‘antahpur’or ‘zanana’was with a purpose-to deny any public space to them. Women politicians in different societies were either unmarried or widowed because politics and family were considered as oxymoron in case of female politicians. The film Aandh(1975),,directed by Gulzar illustrates this with great realism and truth. Arti (Suchitra Sen)is a well educated lady and wants to pursue her career in politics to serve the country. Married to a hotel manager who wants to limit her to her domestic role, she is forced to leave her house leaving behind her husband and daughter. The choice before her is clear; it  has to be one or the other, there is no question of combining the two. Victory in such a battle is won at no small cost and has exacted its price. But at the same time Arti’s rebellious act to break away from her family is not an isolated, whimsical decision. It transcends personal borders to be a part of the key social and political agenda. Her pursuit is a challenge to patriarchy not confronting it headlong but in discovering one’s own strength as a woman. The film also shows that  mass media finds female politicians as attractive content producers,  as readers/audiences are interested in knowing about the family life of the married and love affairs of single female politicians.

Debutant director Soumik Sen’s Gulab Gang is inspired by an all woman gang of social crusaders called Gulaabi Gang. Although Sen steers away from turning it into a documentary,  he liberally borrows real-life references from their pink revolution This, however, works in favour of Sumitra Devi  (Juhi Chawala), who emerges far more influential and striking as the conniving politico head ‘Madam’. The widow of a politician, whom she refers to as Dhartiputra in her speeches, she has no regrets using the twin tools- money and satta (power) to win the coming election. Nothing can stand in her way, not the masses, not an incompetent local politician, not his lust-driven son. When the latter, who is to marry her sister, is accused of rape and the complaint is to brought to her notice, she causally offers compensation by turning to her secretary, “Aaj-kal rape ka kya rate chal raha hai, Sharmaji”. The actress displays the evil side without resorting to loud theatrics or attempting to overpower her co-star. With a smile that turns suddenly chilling, and eyes that convey volumes more than her words do, Sumitra Devi is a politician who won’t allow anyone — be it a policeman, a party leader or a long-time aide — forget that everyone has to bend the knees and bow to her.

Devoid of any reference to her earlier Bollywood image, Juhi sticks to her character, and brilliantly plays her various insecurities and her determination to strike out anyone in the race to political gain. She wages war against Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit) who heads a group, somewhere between vigilante and activist, of   women that takes up varied issues – domestic violence, dowry, rape, electricity, education. The plot develops when Rajjo , their leader, comes in confrontation with the conniving and shrewd politician Sumitra, who uses everyone to her advantage. The protagonist as well as the antagonist are women, while men are merely peripheral characters .The chameleon-like opportunistic character of Juhi reflects the contemporary political scene in India and stands in sharp contrast to Arti in Aandhi who reflects the late nineteenth century women who went off course such as Pandit Rama Bai,Anandi Bai Joshi and Indira Gandhi.  Juhi defiantly ventures into an alley she has never walked into in her career earlier.

It is definitely a rare thing to see a Bollywood film solely on the shoulders of females, for despite the advances that the Bollywood industry has made in recent years, it is still male-driven. Speaking to The Express Tribune, Juhi has much to say on the prevalent notion that a leading man is an important staple in a Bollywood film. “All the distributors and financiers said the same thing when Gulaab Gang was in its initial stages. ‘Where is Shahrukh [Khan]? Where is Aamir [Khan]? Where is the male hero? How can the film work?’ But the film does work”. The remarkable thing about these recent films is that when a woman breaks a taboo, it does not come with a clamorous uproar and these films are not being marketed as heroine-oriented. In Highwa, also when Veera(Alia Bhatt) asks why her parents did not  tell her that  she needs to be protected from men inside her home as well, it is a rebellion but it does not come with a capital R. Moreover, when an artist rebels or resists these conventional codes, then not only a new meaning is created but realism is also subverted. A good film, like a poem, suggests, it does not explain nor does it make any overt statement. The consistency in the tone of these films suggests that for the youth gender equality is not something they aspire for but is becoming a part of everyday life. The directors need not make ‘heroine-oriented’ Ghar Dwar or Khoon Bhari Maang to attract the female audience or exhibit body to lure a voyeur in the name of celebrating womanhood.


  1. Ali,Imtiaz. ” The Journeyman”. Friday Review, The Hindu. January 24, 2014.
  2. Bawa,Seema. Gods,Men and Women :Gender and Sexuality in Early Indian Art .New Delhi: D.K.Printworld,2014.
  3. Chawala, Juhi The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2014.
  4. Johnston,Claire.”Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema”. Notes on Women’s Cinema,1973. SEF,Glasgow:Screen Reprint,1991.
  5. Kakkar, Sudhir. Intimate Relations:Exploring Indian Sexuality. New Delhi: Penguin,1989.
  6. Kumar,Anuj. “Making Space for her” Friday Review, The Hindu. February28,2014.
  7. Mulvey,Laura ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Notes on Women Cinema. London:Macmillan, 1989.
  8. Sahi,Deepa.movie.webindia123.com/movie/interview/2009/February.

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