Text by Saheli Sen Gupta
The success of India’s maiden mission to Mars was rightly credited to the women scientists behind it. The media celebrated them, social media applauded them, and we all cheered along.
But when Bollywood decided to make a movie on this historic event, it added a sad – yet predictable – patriarchal twist to the story. Even before its release, movie posters Mission Mangal (2019) put Akshay Kumar’s Rakesh Dhawan in the spotlight.
The film itself portrayed project director Rakesh as the one who enables and ‘inspires’ the women to seize their opportunity and claim equality. As film critic Baradwaj Rangan writes, “He’s like an IT team lead who hogs the limelight but also knows he’s nothing without the team.”
Despite the film distorting the reality, Mission Mangal garnered Rs 290.02 crore at the box office. We were, sadly, not surprised.
And this was just one film. If we continue to list all the regressive, sexist, and patriarchal movies and characters Bollywood gave us in 2019, it would be a long list. In fact, the industry has mostly had very problematic and stereotypical portrayals of women on screen. From the damsels in distress to the supportive partners blind to their men’s faults, from using abuse as a tool to express ‘love’ to normalising sexual harassment as ‘flirting’, Bollywood’s list of transgressions is endless.
Rise in Powerful Women Characters
But, hey – there have been good things too. Over the years, filmmakers have also managed to portray strong and independent women, who have careers, speak their minds, are in control of their lives, and need no men.
This decade itself, we saw women in Piku, Raazi, Queen, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Angry Indian Goddesses, Pink, English Vinglish, etc, taking back the narrative, breaking stereotypes, and challenging patriarchy.
Most importantly, the women characters in these movies were more than just a mother, daughter, girlfriend, wife, sister – more than what society labels her to be.
2019 also saw a lesbian romance in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Also, a rise in biopics in recent years have resulted in some strong women-centric stories as well – Raazi, Mary Kom, Dirty Picture, Neerja, Saandh ki Aankh. And, they fared pretty well at the box office too.
More Legendary Women on Screen in 2020
With the new year, new expectations and new promises arise. And 2020 holds a lot of promise when it comes to women-centric movies in Bollywood, especially biopics.
For example, Chhapaak is releasing on January 10, 2020. Starring Deepika Padukone in the lead role, the movie is based on the life of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. Then, we will see Janhvi Kapoor in Gunjan Saxena, based on IAF pilot Gunjan Saxena who was the first Indian woman airforce pilot in combat along with Srividya Rajan.
In May 2020, Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi will be released, based on Indian writer and math genius Shakuntala Devi, who was known as the "human computer".
"Shakuntala Devi was truly someone who embraced her individuality, had a strong feminist voice and braved many a naysayer to reach the pinnacle of success. But what truly fascinates me is that you wouldn't normally associate a fun person with math... and she completely turns that perception on its head," Vidya Balan said in an interview.
Other women-centric movies we are looking forward to in 2020 are Kangana Ranaut-starrer Thalaivi (based on the life of J. Jayalalithaa, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu), Alia Bhatt-starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi (about a brothel owner and matriarch), and Parineeti Chopra-starrer Saina (a biopic on badminton star and Olympic medallist Saina Nehwal).
Stronger Women – Not Just in Lead
However, the number of women-centric movies is still quite low, compared to the hordes of romcoms, action thrillers, and drama movies that will be released in 2020.
While we cannot really judge how the women in these other movies will be, history hasn’t been kind to non-lead women characters. Sometimes, even if a movie is supposed to be around a women-related topic, the story revolves around the male characters and is shot from the male perspective. For example, Good Newzz, which revolved around IVF and pregnancy, was almost entirely about the men.
Also, Bollywood’s template of the modern Indian woman – loud, spewing abuses, drinking alcohol ‘like a man’ and smoking – needs to evolve.
Making women-centric movies is clearly not the one-stop solution to this problem. We also need strong female characters in supporting roles, men who are not ‘woke’ for the sake of being woke, truly feminist men, men who are not called ‘girly’ for expressing themselves, realistic-looking Indian women characters, more sensitivity when it comes to handling issues like sexual assault, domestic violence, etc, and of course, more women on screen.
As we usher in a new year and a new decade, here’s looking at Bollywood for modern, empowered, and strong women characters reflecting the Indian women of today. After all, art imitates life.