Bollywood has had a chequered history when it comes to portraying feminism and women in films. Women on the silver screen have either surrendered to the male dominance or merely taken upon the chauvinist role of men.
For example, in the Anil Kapoor film Ghar Ho To Aisa (1990), the woman protagonist was depicted as a male-hater who founded a “women empowerment organisation” and manipulated women into breaking from their own families.
It may have been championed as a great film in its era, but in hindsight, Khoon Bhari Maang is one of the worst examples of Bollywood feminism. The film shows Rekha in a typical chauvinist role – one where she went all out in avenging herself and made sure each and every person in the family of her enemy (a violent husband) ended up dead. In contrast, a comedy headlined by Rekha, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khoobsurat (1980), gave Rekha’s character the much-needed impetuous so she could embrace and celebrate her own personality.
Of course, we had the likes of Smita Patil’s Bhumika (1977) and Mirch Masala (1987), Shabana Azmi’s Arth (1982), Tabu’s Astitva (2000), and the likes. Though the importance of these films cannot be overlooked, the era and audience for these films was not receptive to the idea, and they were relegated as “parallel cinema”, meant for intellectuals, not the masses.
Over past few years, Hindi films have realised that feminism need not be about demonising the men in the equation. The problem of women oppression is about patriarchy and patriarchal set up.
It was Vidya Balan’s Kahaani, directed by Sujoy Ghosh, that first made sure that the woman embraced her feminity and did not simply put on the machismo in order to prove her power and worth. Vidya’s Vidya Bagchi did not shy away from pregnancy and the physical limitations that come with it, in order to emerge the hero in the movie.
In 2012 film, English Vinglish, Sridevi’s Shashi Godbole is sweet and not bitter in her demeanour. Her fight is not with those who disrespect her – her own husband and kids — but with their behaviour. She wages a battle to reaffirm her own identity and dignity.
Kangana Ranaut emerged as a heroine with Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014). The film, centered around Kangana’s character Rani, does not judge her. Rani, too, tries everything in the book once she goes on her solo honeymoon, but ensures she does not lose her own identity on her path to finding freedom and independence – both financial and emotional.
The arc of Swara Bhaskar’s character Anarkali in Avinash Das’s directorial debut Anarkali of Aarah (2017) looks like the female version of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man, especially in the climax scene. However, there was one major point that the film ensured to highlight – Anarkali says it loud and clear that a woman’s consent is of utmost importance, be it a wife, a friend, or a sex worker. With that particular scene, the film defied all patriarchal definitions of woman and good woman. Also, in most of the film, Swara’s character does not bow down to the criticism and rejection that is reserved for her as a Bhojpuri singer and dancer.
Taapsee Pannu’s Thappad (2020) is also one that establishes the real issue that needs to be fought, in order to get women on an equal platform. After stepping out and deciding to fight after her ‘good husband’ slapped her, Taapsee’s Amrita makes sure she is not on the wrong foot, just to look aggressive. In fact, her character makes it a point to underline the fact that she is not fighting to prove anything anyone, but to simply be comfortable with herself and respect herself.
To put it in a nutshell, mainstream Bollywood films are increasingly realising that the fight is against patriarchy, not men.
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