By Shivani Misra

Cinema is one of the strongest means to strike an emotional connect and therefore, its importance is undoubtedly immense in the process of social change. Further, social change is a complex phenomenon. It is gradual and unstructured and media is one its best reflections. Media representations reflect on society’s perceptions. Thus, in an age where we are caught up in the intricate issues of policy debates and changing mindsets in reference to women’s safety it seems interesting to see the evolution of the roles that female leads in bollywood have undertaken.

The manner in which women are depicted in mainstream Indian cinema is a combination of a lot of factors. It is a notion based on the director’s beliefs, attitudes and values, combined with what the director thinks viewers want to see. What viewers want to watch is something that conforms to their beliefs, attitudes and values, which come from the social framework within which they live, which is the same social framework in which directors, live. The characterization of women in Bollywood sees no greys. Female lead roles may broadly be differentiated between the heroines and the vamps. The heroines or leading ladies of bollywood were essentially as roles that conform to all social morals and values. The leading ladies have been seen as the epitome of virtue that society posses and were always ready to sacrifice their happiness for their families. This image was contrasted by that of the vamp who was seen as a sinner and lacked all moral values. This is a very clear contrast. The heroine could do no wrong and whatever she said spoke of her virtue. This image sat highly exaggerated and stirred reactions of sympathy. The woman of bollywood was submissive amidst the patriarchal milieu of the plot. Films like “Dahej” (1950), “Devi” (1970), “Biwi ho to Aisi” (1988), “Pati Parmeshwar” (1988) depicted women as passive, submissive wives as perfect figures and martyrs for their own families. In such a situation, the character is isolated from reality. The female character is most commonly seen struggling to balance her roles as a dutiful mother and wife. Her personal aspirations and desires find no mention in the plot.

However, this was not always the case. As early as the 1960’s, some film directors of Hindi-language films attempted to challenge some of the stereotypes of women at the time. It is noted that in the period 1957 to 1966, a new generation of young film makers came of age, and modern and progressive ideas in the social and economic arenas filtered into film where secular themes on urban living and women’s rights were explored. Women were constructed as more dominant and powerful, and not in their stereotypical roles as submissive and dutiful mothers and wives. The exploration of women’s status and social roles became favourite themes of “New Wave” directors. These slight deviations from the way the story line was construed in Indian cinema mark a beginning of a new form of cinema that broke societal expectations.  Although the movement faded in the early 1970s, it nonetheless affected the way future films were constructed.

There are many other examples of gender bias on screen and they are not limited to a particular era of films. For example: in war movies across time, women have been relegated to lovers who keep waiting endlessly for men fighting war. In more recent movies like Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai (2000), Aishwarya Rai is a rape victim who finds sympathy and love in Anil Kapoor, who shelters her after the incident. As she falls in love with his, she tries to combine multiple roles of a girlfriend, wife and mother to his kids to win his love. In Vivaah (2006), Amrita Rao is a young, docile, submissive, suppressed but ideal girl chosen by Shahid Kapoor for marriage. The reason for his choice is the ideal qualities that she possesses. The hero’s magnanimity is depicted in the end as he willingly accepts her after a tragic accident that takes place just before marriage

However, contemporary Cinema is advancing with a shift in the focus of its subject matter. Examples of this are many, more recently Chak De India had more to offer than to audiences that filled up theatres in anticipation for the next big Shahrukh Khan movie.  The sportswomen in the movie are shown to negotiate these conflicts and not be morally upright by choosing family over career. They are not super-women; they are just normal beings who are able to decide their priorities. Films like No one killed Jessica and Kahani depict strong women who take centre stage with their bold characters.

Reaction to the emotional atyachaar

Parallel cinema evolved as a reaction to the emotionally overbearing commercial movies that dominated the market. This class of cinema appeared to be more realistic in its approach. It sought to generate some kind of insight into Indian life by capturing the experiences and contradictions of a society in transition by focusing on small segments of Indian reality but explore their complex layers of meaning. This class of cinema had a more pragmatic and identifiable portrayal of women. It also aimed to confront social stigmas and realities that persisted.  For example, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964), a film based upon Tagore’s novel Nashtanir (The Broken Nest, 1901), is a subtle and thoughtful film that guides us through a male dominated world from the eyes of a woman. Ray subverts the idea of domestic bliss and the home as a warm and intimate sanctuary by portraying Charulata as imprisoned within the home and her conventionalised role as a wife.

Parallel cinema has aimed to over throw notions of patriarchy that have penetrated deep into our social and cultural identity. Here, it’s is pertinent to mention two films of the same director that stirred up a lot of opposition. Director Deepa Mehta, was seen taking a non conformist stand in her 1996 release, Fire. The movie narrates the story of two women who by chance are daughters-in-law of the same household, in heterosexual marriages. However, their marriage equations with their spouses are unequal and a lack of the love, affection and space they look for in their marriages, drives them towards each other. They find the comfort and space they always lacked in their heterosexual marital relations, in the love relationship that ensues between them. The whole idea of women being portrayed as making this choice angered political parties, religious groups and religious fanatics, who went about threatening to kill the director, smashing and destroying the theatres and cinema houses that dared to screen the film. The film was banned from screening in the city of Mumbai. A decade later, Deepa Mehta again chose to talk about the under addressed issue of the condition of widows in the movie Water. Religious factions destroyed the sets of the movie and the films crew was driven out from the holy city of Varanasi even before the shooting could be completed. Water is a period film set in the 1940’s in the pre-independence era when

Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement was the biggest social phenomenon in British colonial India.

During this period widow remarriage was not common. Widows were considered unlucky and a curse on society. They were sent from the homes of their in-laws and parents to special widow homes. The treatment of one such child widow who is sent to a widow house in the small town of Varanasi on the banks of the River Ganges is the essence of the story. This child widow learns the hardships of widowhood as she observes another widow in her early twenties who is also confined in the widow home. The fact that religion was actively involved in creating the situation that the two women struggled against was enough to mobilize the masses against the movie.

Contemporary directors like Madhur Bhandakar are associated with cinema that showcases gritty realism. The depiction of women in his films has been critically acclaimed. Most of his movies are known strong and independent women in the lead and a realistic storyline that has reference to instances present in society. Movies like Fashion, Corporate, and Page 3 depict women in roles that are share a lot of similarities. Madhur Bhandakar’s films are characterized by strong female protagonists who, despite facing lots of difficulties in life, turn out to be very successful and fearless women in their lives.

The impact

In India, the television and film industry has evolved from its initial limitations of serving a patriarchal society. Indian media has been bold in cases to break away from societal stereotypes and create an environment conducive for expression of the problems that society faces. However, this has not always been easy. Issues of sexuality have been deemed to be indecent. Shekhar Kapoor’s film, the Bandit queen based on the life of Phoolan Devi faced opposition. The story of the famous dacoits life ran into trouble as the Delhi High Court banned it for its obscenity. This was however overruled by the Supreme Court which gave it an ‘adult’ certification. Cinema based media has been most active in entertaining people. One of the most striking features of cinema is that it plays a very significant role in shaping the perceptions people have about society and also about themselves. Behavioural responses to situations that are projected via cinema are generally seen as acceptable. Cinema based media provides people, especially younger generations an ideal state of things, and therefore people start emulating all that is projected. Thus, an analysis of its content is essential.

Shivani Misra: She is pursuing law from IP University, Delhi. She is deeply interested in human rights and education for children. She believes that a sensitized youth can eradicate any problem that the society faces. She can be reached at shivanimisra1011@gmail.com

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind