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Changing Face of Women's Representation in Hindi Cinema

Guest Article

Image Credits - Indian Cultural Forum

Remember those movie scenes where the camera dolled in and dolled out over an actress's body? Those famous Bollywood songs from 'Tip Tip Barsa Paani' to any ‘Honey Singh' songs romanticise objectification through the lyrics and camera shots. Whenever a blockbuster film releases such problematic portrayals are normalised without the audience realising how actresses are subjected to male gaze. As we sit in the theatre admiring scripts that lack structure and substance, we fail to see what impact these scenes have had on the audience’s minds. In this regard, famous scholar and filmmaker, Laura Mulvey in her Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) introduced the concept of feminist film theory–the ‘male gaze’. According to Mulvey, it is deeply rooted in the heterosexual male audience’s scopophilia. Mulvey refers to scopophilia as "the sexual pleasure derived from looking at other people's bodies as objects in an erotic manner, without being seen either by those on screen or by others as masses in the audience.'' This facilitates the voyeuristic processes of objectification, especially of female characters on-screen. Mulvey analysed Hollywood, however, let us look at this problem of 'to-be-looked-at-ness' through women’s portrayal in the Hindi film industry in the past and present.

History Of Women’s Representation in Bollywood

In the early 1900s, women were usually forbidden to act in films and plays. So much that the very first heroine of Indian cinema was also performed by a man. The father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, gave Anna Sulanke, a male actor, the female part of Taramati in the first-ever Indian film, Raja Harishchandra (1913). However, later on, Dadasaheb found not just one but two female actresses for his second film, Mohini Bhasmasur. He found a single mother Durgabai Kamat and her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale. While Durgabai created history by becoming the first female actress in Indian cinema, her daughter became the first female child artist in the industry. Durgabai's first-ever movie role and the first female role played by a woman. As a widow and single mother, Durgabai was looked down upon, and irrespective of that she decided to become an actor. She took this decision even though she was promptly disowned by her Brahmin community. She had a living to earn for her daughter and joined a travelling theatre company, because of which her daughter and she lived a nomadic life. Little did she know that she was not only creating history but also paving the way for so many women in Indian cinema. Hindi cinema, one of the most vital parts of the Indian film industry as a whole, has always been a replica of the misery that women faced in real life. It became the breeding ground for stereotypical notions of ‘gendering’ and misrepresenting women’s personalities. Reducing them to mere ‘objects’ satisfying either the hero’s lust or holding the moral responsibility to fix their broken self. The scripts, mostly written by men, portray women as either 'suitable bride' or 'vamp'. The latter is mostly judged by the writer and spectator’s gaze throughout the movie’s plot, either for being independent or for making bold sexual choices in her life.

These problematic portrayals are often sanctioned through religion and mythology-based plots and references in the films. Films based on such plots portray women as the epitome of obedience and chastity, as pure as the holy river ‘Ganga’. Apart from religion, nationalism also led the rhetoric in Hindi cinema specially during the pre-independence period. Films like Aurat by producers like Mehboob Khan, followed by Mother India 1956 portrayed women such as ‘Radha’. The epitome of a ‘morally righteous woman’ ordained as Mother of the Indian nation, till date idolised by the audience. This "ideal Bharatiya naari" (ideal Indian woman) persona slowly started the compartmentalization of women’s role in the popular culture of Hindi cinema. Simultaneously, confining them to either the domestic spaces as ‘Sanskari bahus’(Cultured Daughter-in laws), abla naari dutiful mothers, and as ‘modern’ woman, who was judged and villainized throughout the movie as a ‘vamp’ like ‘Maya’ in Shri 420 and others. Take any Nirumpama Roy role and you will find the heroine worshipping her husband like God as if that is the sole purpose of her life. They are depicted as if they hold no aspirations of their own. Even if they do then the hero becomes the ‘messiah’, liberating them from their misery. Bollywood has this history of depicting women as Sati-Savitris with immensely sacrificial love for lovers, and children, especially sons.

Impact of Globalization on Paradigms of Hindi Cinema

At the end of the 20th century, globalisation changed the discourse in Hindi films. The non-resident Indians became the centre of most of the movies of the 1990s and early 2000s. The Indian Diaspora is the largest in the world with almost 35 million Indians around the world living in countries like the US, UAE, Malaysia, and many others. Thus, cinematic portrayals had now started representing complex forms of Indian identities of Indians living all over the world. Some Indians being Indian at heart and not by lifestyle or Indian by lifestyle and not by their residence changed the cinematic discourse of how families, relationships, and ideas of free choice were looked at. This difference was clearly visible, especially in how NRI women and Resident Indian women were shown in the films. Movies like DDLJ fascinated the audiences with female characters' intersectionality afflicted on them by both their gender and NRI status and using the NRI daughter, Simran to exemplify a nostalgic and traditional view of women in the Indian culture. It's always a tussle for Simran throughout. The movie earned great viewership and revenue, but on a sociological level, it complicated the NRI woman’s role, who continues to feel caught between two seemingly incongruent worlds. Always figuring out to retain her ‘Indianness’ yet trying to fit into the culture of a foreign land.

What started in the ‘50s as dance videos in the middle of the movie, where an outsider girl steals the spotlight by dancing solo for a male audience, has grown into a full-fledged profession. After Globalization, we saw more of these item songs in hindi films. They started to commercialise the female body, attracting the audience to the theatre through these item songs. Starting from the iconic actress Helen who reigned the item number from as early as the 50s to Malaika Arora in the 90s. Many feminists have rethought, critiqued, and questioned such portrayals. However, through such songs in the hindi films, ‘item girl’ took all the objectification that came her way, only to subvert the very idea itself and gain agency over her own sexuality. She isn’t really dancing for the hero or the villain, but for the camera. She belongs to everyone, yet not anyone in particular. She is everyone’s dream, everyone’s desire, and therefore can become nobody’s reality.

However, the fact that most famous item songs are from flop movies, devoid of proper plot or storyline, yet all the item songs are hits, further supports this undeniable argument that the item songs are only added to bring audiences to the theatres.

Transcendence of the Female Characters - From ‘Margins’ to ‘Centre’

Throughout Bollywood's history women have struggled for transcending from the margins to the centre of the narrative. Even after many problematic portrayals as discussed above, it is also important to acknowledge that Hindi Cinema is making progress in rectifying the damage done to women’s representation in the films. With an Indian touch in terms of plot, the movies started taking a more progressive and critical stance instead of normalizing issues like rape, domestic abuse, child marriage, dowry, etc. With new-wave films and others with women-centric themes like Chak De India (2007) (though Shahrukh as Kabir Khan, the team coach steals the limelight of the women-centric plot), Kahaani (2012), English Vinglish (2012), Queen (2013), Revolver Rani (2014), Mardaani (2014), Pink (2016), Neerja (2016) and others in the recent times. These movies subvert the status quo, with women as not the bearers, but the ‘makers of the meaning’.

The recent Hindi films portray heroines like Rani (Kangana Ranaut in Queen 2013), who retain their identity while exploring the world to its fullest and relishing new experiences. Prove the transforming narrative of self-worth and a life-long experience of 'liberation' relearnt through tragic experiences in life. These characters show how they ‘can live even happier lives, when not in a man’s cocoon’. Unlike the old ‘sorry’ figures of misery and sympathy, these women cater to our attention to their fresh and innocent experiences and their relationship with people from different nationalities, gender identities, and races. It is even more interesting to see in movies like Piku, how women can be the pillar of their families, especially when their parents are ageing. Without leaving them behind, they can choose to live on their own terms, holding autonomy and independence to choose for themselves and their own sexuality along with being there for their loved ones, and that’s not always supposed to be their romantic partner.

Image Credits - Pinterest

The best part of these recent films is how they show possibilities of not indulging in coerced judgments of the heroine’s character or her life choices. They prevent bringing in another “man” as a lover in the plot. This depicts how ‘marriage’ or ‘romantic love’ is not the final desire of a woman, nor the only goal to be accomplished in her life. With movies like ‘Thappad(2020)’ that deal with the issue of domestic violence through a serious plot, there are others like ‘Darlings (2022)’ that deal with the same theme in a dark comic genre. Movies like ‘Gangubai’ (2022) have shown how serious issues related to societal prejudices against women on the basis of their occupations, can be dealt with the representation of characters that take charge of their own actions and deal with their problems on a communal level by leading them ahead. However, concern rises regarding movies like ‘Kabir Singh’ being glorified and valorized by the audience. With extremely toxic heroes and misogynistic instances, movies like these show submissive heroines, who have no say in their lives and are repeatedly treated like an “object” that can be discarded away by their so-called ‘lover’ or ‘family’. Such movies romanticise eve-teasing to show the romantic sequel between the hero and heroine in order to just get the plot started. The ending of these films always show a union of the heroine with the toxic hero portrayed.

What is the Core of this Problem?

India is the largest producer of films in the world. In 2019, Hindi Cinema represented 44% of the box office revenue followed by Tamil and Telugu cinema. However, the lack of quality content and women in film-making both on and off-screen roles is one of the reasons why women are being misrepresented or underrepresented. As per a 2017 report by the Geena Davis Institute, only one in ten directors in Bollywood are women. Other statistics reveal that the screen time for females was a mere 31.5 percent, against the 68.5 percent received by male actors. Due to the disparity in the number of men when compared to women in vital off-screen processes such as script-writing, film-making, and direction, female characters in Bollywood have been presented through the eyes of a predominantly male perspective, resulting in the age-old stereotypes and gender biases in films.

In a country where actors transcend their roles by being idolised by their audience, the responsibility falls on them too to rid the movie industry away from such misconceptions and misrepresentation. Even the viewers have to be held accountable for the content they choose to watch. Due to their unique content-sharing capabilities, now OTT platforms are attracting a wider audience. Still, Caste and class privileges are clearly visible in terms of who gets to represent through their power to shape the story, and hence the narrative. Women's stories are not being portrayed through their lens, a woman's perspective. Both the sociological lens and cinematic lens need severe changes. They are more than what we see through the camera lens. Unlike the camera lens that reduces their identities to ‘mere objects’ whether through item songs at times or through scripts that show them having no identity of their own. However, it's still a question of whether even after adequate representation of women in the industry, the commercialization of their identities wouldn't be a threat.


By Stuti (Guest Writer)

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