Updated: Oct 29
Image Credit: The Print
Unveiling the complexities of violent female lead in Bollywood
The act of violence, notably physical such as murder assault, especially enacted by men is a recurring theme in various forms of pop culture. From the early era of Bollywood, the violent heroic figure has been quite a common and acceptable idea of the protagonist. Whether it be the valiant ferocious Verma brothers of Deewar (1975) or the ferit molester Deepak of Benaam Badshah (1991), these beloved icons have forever captured the hearts of the Indian masses, impeccably validating their every instance of forceful aggressive behavior's. Paradoxically on one hand where Bollywood has always celebrated its male lead, the same acceptance is not extended to their female leads because when the same act of violence is carried out by the leading lady it fails to get the parallel degree of recognition and appreciation leading to a flop in the box office. Revati (2005) never meets the required collection to be even a mediocre movie in the Hindi cinema, reason for the same might be the daring act of the producer to show a fearless frenzied female lead unafraid to live her life on her ‘very own’ terms. This leads us to the primary question which serves as the focus of this article.
The Ablanaari: Decoding the Enigma of the (Mostly) Helpless Woman
Radiating fragility, sensitivity, and tenderness, ‘she’ personifies innocence while nurturing with a gentle elegance. An embodiment of tranquility and refinement, she harmoniously encapsulates societal ideals, reminiscent of the enchanting realm of Bollywood cinemas. Society clings to the traditional gender norms (enshrined with the role of caregiver, nurturer, homemaker) assigned women centuries ago, constraining the idea of a tenacious assertive woman. More often than not The Samaj (society) has created the notion that the very term ‘woman’ conveys a sense of delicacy and vulnerability. It grasps the idea of fragility or susceptibility emphasizing the fundamental demand for protection and support of these delicate ladies. Films are consistently known for being the mirror of societal realities and trends. These become the basis for sanctioning those ideas from the Golden era of Hindi cinema till date which paints the canvas of the Abhinetri as infinity of helplessness. Bollywood inculcates the society's approved appearance of femininity to its female leads by portraying her as a nurturing docile shy homemaker. Either she would be a girl who is too scared to go to college alone and requires male assistance at every juncture or a mother waiting for her sons to free her from the misery (Karan Arjun ;1995).
There are movies that depict situations where a female character remains in an abusive relationship despite enduring ongoing mistreatment, both verbally and physically. Surprisingly, instead of speaking out or defending herself, she expresses a desire to continue her life with the abuser, often with the hope of changing his behaviour over time. This trope is actively supporting Jyoti from Benaam Badshah who was victimized by hero's act of brutal violent rape but rather than filling a case against the culprit tried to find the goodness of his inner soul. The same man is later projected as the saviour and hero in the eyes of both Jyoti and the audience. In this and likewise in many other cases the male saviour (even in the slightest sense) is always seen to be the hero,white masculine protection, and the victim who is need need of this saving is more often than not a woman meanwhile ignoring the atrocities adjourned by the victims of male violence.
Image Credit: Times of Indi
The Violent women on Screen
Violence and Bollywood movies had been inextricable for decades. When entered the arena of cinematic storytelling it quickly slips from the memory of the audience that this could have potentially been reflected in a more differing sense. In the 1990s blockbuster HUM AAPKE HAI KAUN a side character Ajit slaps his wife Bindu in front of an Audience after learning her acts to create misunderstandings in the family, The audience perceive it as disciplinary action making Ajit the hero and Bindu the culprit. Because often these cinemas narrate our definition of violence, the victims, the villain, the saviour and the need.
The paradox that is deeply rooted in Bollywood is that whenever a woman takes up the violent methods or transforms herself into an aggressive character it's always triggered by the need to take vengeance against a wrongdoing more often than not this retributive violence is male triggered. More often than not these violent Abhinetri initially was the ideal sanskari elegant docile lady when confronted with the absence or unavailability, or even the tragic demise of the male protagonist, was compelled to re-engage in the act of arming herself with weaponry, all in the pursuit of exacting retribution and vindication. The only reason why Namrita in Phool Bane Angarey (1991) became an inspector from the ideal sanskari Bahu was to extract revenge and justice for her husband. The examples do not stop here it goes on from ek Hassina thi (2004) to Maatr (2017) and many others were women picked up weapons to get the much-required justice over some personal grave crime never in any of the above-mentioned films the female lead acquires the reputation of the protagonist who employs forceful actions as a means to safeguard the world.
The Dilemma for the New Narrative
Recently from the previous decade (late 2000s) the Indian Filmmakers have tried to give the violent woman of Bollywood a new narrative. Instead of the bad character buildup of the aggressive Abhinetris of pre 2000s (Namrita in Phool Bane Angarey) they give to the audience Strong Assertive Violent Female characters who from the initial stages of the movie takes a liking towards the savage ways and means, Sonakshi Sinha in Akira (2016) as the female lead initially in the movie from her childhood not only practised self defence and martial arts but also had the trait of being the saviour of the people which she continues even in her adult life ….. sacrificing and fighting for the greater good of the society. Same can be said for Naam Shabana (2017) where Shabana the strong and determined women becomes an undercover agent and showcases her intelligence and fighting skills in a mile dominated world , Gulaab Gang (2014) where group of Fierce women led by Rajjo fights against social injustice being reigned upon their folks and Bandit Queen which chronicles the life of Phoolan devi, who rises above abuse and exploitation establishing herself as a fierce bandit leader seeking justice for the tortured folks.
But the dilemma of these movies and filmmakers is the lack of enthusiasm by the audience to these women in action which becomes quite evident through below the average box office collection. Even after having a well written plot these movies as compared to the male centric counterpart made on the same plot earns way less. For instance, as can be seen when we compare two movies with their protagonist being a Police inspector had a huge difference in their box office collection, the determining factor being the gender of these officers. Mardaani which came out in 2014 and Dabangg of 2010 were both centred around the life of Indian police officers but even then, the former had a collection of 57 crore Indian Rupees which doesn't even account to the one-fourth of the latter's earning of 221.14 crore Indian Rupees. The overwhelming factor here is that the office collection is contrasting the rotten tomatoes rating which clearly scored Mardaani higher than Dabangg. But Senior Inspector Shivani Shivaji Rao was less appealing to the audience as compared to Senior Inspector Chulbul Pandey because of her identity as a SHE. This lack of appreciation lies in the perpetuation of societal stereotypes who tend to label assertive women as aggressive and unfeminine. This perception infiltrates the collective consciousness, affecting the way audiences interpret and respond to such characters. This leads to the entanglement of female leads to the web of these societal perceptions which in turn lead to the hindrance in the recognition of their merits.
The underrepresentation of forceful female leads in Hindi Cinema can be attributed to a number of factors ranging from Society's resistance to deviate from traditionally established gender roles and norms to the stereotypical perception of Woman. What is needed to remember here is that by the portrayal of forceful female leads in the Indian Cinema we are not encouraging the enforcement of violence itself, rather it's an initiative to narrate different and diverse characters of woman and pave the way to challenge the notion that strength and violence are exclusively masculine narratives.
By: Salvi Rani
Salvi Rani is a First-year student majoring in Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. She has keen interest in social and political issues especially concerning Gendered affairs.