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Women and Indian Cinema—A Tale of Representation


The Indian cinematic industry has been among the nation’s most popular source of entertainment, spanning decades of performances since its inception in the 1930s. Despite the masses flocking to the theatres and blockbusters making it big, a majority of the films released have something in common—men are portrayed with characters that meet the society’s definition of masculinity while female roles are reduced to misogynistic ideals. As a result, the lack of equality both on and off-screen has raised questions on gender stereotyping, the quality of media being viewed by the public, and the misinterpretation of a balanced society.

Several films enforce their views on the perfect woman, often through supporting characters—they play love interests or indulge in careers that seem ‘nurturing’, coming off as frail and submissive beings with very little room for thought and argument. Besides being a far cry from reality, such films create an inaccurate impression of the capabilities and interests of women and thus indirectly plant the seeds of inequality in the minds of people.

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Adjectives used to describe males(left) and females(right) in Bollywood movies. (Credits: Analyzing Gender Stereotyping in Bollywood Movies )

The evolution of women in the Bollywood industry can be observed through the viewer’s gaze. Influenced by factors such as politics, economic structure, and culture, the perception of women by film enthusiasts and the like have helped define boundaries both on-screen and behind the scenes. 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”, adding to his analysis on the representation of women across media while bringing up the concept of the ‘male gaze’. Keeping in mind the unrealistic ideals displayed in several films, and the lack of women representation behind movies, it does not come as a surprise that the Indian film industry is often looked upon as a male-dominated environment.

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 per cent, against the 68.5 per cent received by male actors. Due to the disparity in the number of men when compared to women in key off-screen processes such as script-writing, film-making, and direction, female characters in Bollywood have been presented through the eyes of a largely male perspective, resulting in the age-old stereotypes and gender biases that prevail in films.

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Percentage of screen-on time for males and females over the years. (Credits: Analyzing Gender Stereotyping in Bollywood Movies)

Being an easily accessible form of entertainment, cinema has become the most popular mode of leisure and entertainment. The Indian film industry has an extended viewership across the globe with approximately 3.6 billion people swarming the big-screens. In a country where actors transcend their profession and become heroes that are idolised and adored, a part of the responsibility falls on them to rid the movie industry of such misconceptions and misrepresentation.

Kabir Singh, one of the highest-grossing movies of 2019, was scrutinised for the way it portrayed an abusive relationship as a form of love, and showcased the main lead, played by Shahid Kapoor, as an entitled man-child who treats his lover like his property. Singh is the epitome of toxic masculinity, yet, is forgiven and wins his lady back in the end. The box-office success of such an unapologetic glorification of misogyny shows how there is still a long way to go. Most Bollywood romances throughout the ages have solely been an expression of male desire with women having no agency of their own. For instance, stalking is glorified in innumerable songs with the hero relentlessly pursuing the object of his desire until the woman being pursued gives in to his unpleasant advances. Bollywood item songs frequently showcase scantily-clad women dancing to lewd lyrics and men ogling the star of the song. These songs are also a part of the problem and promote the dangerous idea that catcalling and sexual harassment of women is acceptable. A few Bollywood films have attempted to tackle the topic of feminism, however, with the primary goal for a film being a monetary success, faux-feministic movies have begun to enter the picture.

However, changing times have brought into the limelight several successes directed by women—Gully Boy by Zoya Akhtar, Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Earth, and the popular film English Vinglish by Gauri Shinde, are a few of the many pieces that are slowly bringing in a much-needed change to the industry, through representation of women from all walks of life. Pink, starring Tapsee Pannu and Amitabh Bachchan, was a progressive and empowering film that dealt with the topic of the consent of women. Lipstick Under My Burkha, directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, ran into several issues with the Central Board of Film Certification which raised questions on the double standards of the film body’s decisions, taking into account that the same board regularly approves of movies containing derogatory jokes about women. Actresses such as Priyanka Chopra and Anushka Sharma are producing and backing movies with women in empowering roles,  and Kangana Ranaut with Queen and Vidya Balan with Kahaani are synonymous with strong female leads in movies.

Although great strides have been recently taken to portray relatable women from different walks of life, they are accompanied by certain caveats. Mission Mangal showcased the hard work and dedication of the women scientists of ISRO to make India’s Mars mission successful. Despite having a stellar female cast, the movie was promoted with Akshay Kumar in a lead role, which speaks a lot about the audience’s attitude towards women-centric films. Patriarchy is deeply ingrained in the very roots of Indian society and its mindset, which in turn is reflected in its films. Cinema is mostly seen as a form of escapism and hence caters to the larger male audience. Cinema is business-driven and filmmakers don’t want to stray away from the established stereotypes to give pathbreaking roles to women. It, thus, also falls on the viewers to break this vicious cycle of supply and demand by making progressive movies successful.

In its eighty-year history, Bollywood has seen female leads take on many forms—from the sacrificing mother or a pleading damsel in distress to a woman in charge of her own destiny. The change is slow and much delayed, but the representation of empowered women onscreen is steadily increasing. Testimony to this is the success of films such as Tumhari Sulu, NH10, Neerja, Parched, among others that prove that actresses can be trusted to carry an entire film on their shoulders. Yet, there is much work to be done and there should be greater empathy and sensibility towards showcasing real women and the problems they face.

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