In the 70 years of existence of Hindi Cinema, women have played a wide spectrum of roles ranging from the perfect submissive woman trope to the damsel in distress, to mere objects in the film to lately gaining power and portraying the strong, fierce and independent woman we so admire! But what also extensively impacted these characters were the different eras that these films were made in, for cinema is simply a reflection of the society it was created in. Be it in the film or on set, representation of women grew with time, to reach the rather acceptable stage it has today. With some rebellious directors that pushed boundaries to some determined actresses who refused to accept less than they deserve, they changed the definition of being a Bollywood ‘heroine.’ Even though there’s a long road ahead, the roller coaster set of events and films that took place to make women essential and not simply additional to Bollywood is an exciting chapter in itself, so let’s decode this journey!
THE EARLIER ERAS
In the 1950s-60s, considered the ‘Golden Era of Bollywood’, the country had just acquired independence and the state of the people was more hopeful and positive. Thus, women’s roles also reflected this mindset. Their bodies weren’t sexualised and their roles weren’t compromised either. They portrayed women as strong characters compared to the horrors the next decade has in store for us, for instance Nargis’s role in Mother India – a movie that celebrated the idea of women being celebrated as the nation's pillar of strength or Waheeda Rahman’s character in Guide, that had the courage to leave toxic relationships. However, women continued to be portrayed by the lens of a man.
Now enters a more realistic time, where women had two jobs – they were either a dutiful wife or a mother. Both these character types just continued to suffer in silence, all the trauma inflicted on them, and their silence was rewarded with equivalent male validation in the end which apparently was equivalent to years of trauma. Talk about equity! It was almost like the characteristics of an idealistic woman were identified through her level of submission, endurance of torture and silence. It is hard to imagine Bollywood of the 50s having any kind of a relationship with a woman who pursued something beyond a marital relationship. Other than a few rare examples of working women, the only purpose of most women’s lives was marriage.
Next came in another trope- the action movies. Now to show that your hero is larger than life and the saviour of this planet, the most overused element was him saving a woman or taking revenge on her behalf, more often than not, the rape (or attempted rape) of his sister, girlfriend or any other woman in his life. This is where Cinema peaked at being quite ridiculous to be honest. Women were simply added to the storyline to make their violation the mid-point or wake-up call for the hero to take action and be her knight in shining armour.
Eventually, these roles were further classified as women being of only two types – either a vamp that distracts the hero from his goal and is an obstacle in his journey often portrayed by degrading roles or a damsel in distress that is basically spineless and co-dependent on the guy for all her decisions. This is not to say that there weren't films that defied the norm, for instance, in Sadma (1983) and Chandni (1989). The entire narration of Chandni’s trailer as well is from Sridevi’s point of view.
Trailer of Chandni
The ripples of the second wave of feminism now started hitting India too in the late 80s. Women had roles where they had actual careers that didn’t involve getting prepped for marriage all their lives! This began with Raveena Tandon’s role of a journalist in Mohra. However, despite being educated and accomplished she’s still seen only as a Damsel in Distress, in constant need of guidance and help. Also, Mohra you wonder? It’s the same film in which she was seen dancing in a yellow saree in the rain; ironically the only part of her role from the film that most of us can recall. Now came in the early 2000’s that also witnessed some changes in narratives that can be felt till date from Priyanka’s bad guy'—driven, career-focussed, sexually liberated, with bodily agency role of Sonia in Aitraaz to Tabu’s – strong, powerful, dominating and unfazed portrayal of Beghum Harzat in Fitoor. The two-dimensional roles finally had layers, and we were here for it!
A NEW WAVE
The last two decades brought in a fresh perspective on the representation of women in the industry, both on screen and behind the camera. The ratio of women in crews and higher positions began increasing and so did their roles - both in size and eminence. With this wave came in astounding female directors like Farah Khan whose choreographies and movies were larger than life for instance, Om Shanti Om or Happy New Year and Zoya Akhtar whose films felt like a breadth of fresh air be it Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Gully Boy. Later geniuses like Mira Nair, Meghna Gulzar and Gauri Shinde entered the scenario, who focused solely on strong women lead roles that changed the narrative about women being ‘secondary’ to the film.
Even though a handful, this began the cult of watching women from the lens of a woman and not the general male perspective we had mostly gotten accustomed to. Female characters now had qualities they were usually stripped off of, like Alia’s loyalty to serve her country in Raazi, Sridevi’s determination to gain her family’s respect in English Vinglish, Deepika’s fierce inner strength in Chhapaak or Ayesha’s individuality that gives her the courage to leave a toxic household in Dil Dhadakne Do. These women wrote women more intricately -women now had layers, beyond just overtly good or blatantly bad. They shaped complex characters that were important to the story arch, had their own struggles and victories. Not to forget allies like Anubhav Sinha and Shoojit Sircar who stepped their game during this and gave us gems like Thappad and Kahaani.
On the downside, some stereotypes grew deeper. The ideal ‘zero figure’, unrealistic standards of beauty, the classic and beyond dangerous trope of ‘item girl’ increased by leaps and bounds. In his 1972 essay on art criticism, Ways of Seeing, English art critic and novelist John Berger said, “Men act, women appear. Men watch, women watch themselves being watched.” He used this to describe women in media in general but I strongly believe he thought of this when he watched a modern day item song, my best guess being ‘Munni Badnaam’, ‘Fevicol Se’, ‘Chikni Chameli’ and the almost 57695844th absurd and objectifying names that this list has the capacity to have.
If you haven’t still concluded, No, the male gaze, or the overtly sexualised portrayal of women with men gawking all over her in the liberated society of the twenty-first century is as dark as it gets and subtly - intolerable. The manic pixie dream girl trope where the chirpy girl only exists to make brooding men happier and reach their goal is another phenomenon difficult to comprehend. Like Asin’s character in Ghajini or Kareena’s in Jab We Met. I won’t deny that these characters bring so much light and entertainment to the table, I mean Who does not like indulge in a, clichéd fun movie that doesn’t ask you to spend your brain calories? But what we fail to realise is that gradually, we lose the sense that these stereotypes that set pretty damaging standards, and subconsciously we are already internalizing them, reducing women to sheer secondary characters in someone else’s narratives.
THE NEXT CHAPTER…
Saying that, some actresses demanded more than just being a helper in the hero’s journey, and demanded better - better roles, better pay, better recognition – just better. The industry is still controlled by men but a new generation of women – in front of the camera and behind it – are adamant on calling out sexism. Their wishes although began coming true when they proved that they were a powerful driving force that could single-handedly run a show and give blockbusters. The trend that began with Vidya Balan playing the bold beauty Silk Smitha in The Dirty Picture and making it beyond a super hit film, was followed by so many female-led movies with women in strong character roles being the solo leads and killing it at the charts be it Queen, Piku, Mardaani, Kahaani, NH10, Highway, Mary Kom and fortunately many more such names that redefined what being an actress in Hindi Cinema is.
Actresses began speaking up on the gender-disparity in the industry, the bias of favoring men, being paid less and given less important roles. Priyanka Chopra and Anushka Sharma went to the extent of taking up production- there was no stopping. It went even more crazier when in an ensemble cast that had Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor, Deepika Padukone was paid more than either of them, hereby breaking all norms!
Growing up I always wondered why Bollywood made many girls like me feel that our only job was to dress well and stay silent, like a side character in my own film of life. What if the character of the dutiful wife silently dealing with tortures gained the strength to speak up for herself? What if women in the movies gave their career more importance than getting married? What if we saw less competition between female characters where they tore each other down and more women standing up for women? What if men were called the ‘Male Madhuri Dixit’ when they gave blockbuster hits one after another? The list of what ifs that arise are endless on how a change in stance would change the entire scenario. Yet, we can’t solely hold cinema responsible for society itself triumphed in imposing these impressions back then however the lens with which we choose to display female characters also shaped the perception of several viewers and has had wide-reaching effects on our society, so we cannot neglect our responsibility to change the age-old tradition.
That’s why when I watch a Piku, where a working woman takes all responsibility of her parent or a Thappad where a housewife holds her ground against any disrespect inflicted on her by a man, the industry’s growth truly makes me want to applaud every woman and ally in the industry that could change this narrative. Yes, the society is changing indeed but bringing the change in cinema when it would rather be easier to go ahead with the same old tales is a bold move. It’s heartwarming to finally see a much-required shift where women are portraying strong female leads, taking up space, voicing their opinions with movements like #MeToo and that every girl watching can look up-to and find something to take from. I can’t wait for heroes to be the next ‘male Deepika Padukone’ when they give six blockbusters in a row or the new ‘male Alia Bhatt’ when they play a completely new and distinctive role in each of their films!