By Mythily Nair
Artwork by @embars_store
Cinema in the last decade has been shaped manifold by various factors. The advent of the internet, a broader, more diverse pan-Indian audience base as well as a more democratised way to critique film has made filmmakers grip the edge of their seats, as tried-and-tested methods failed to generate the same kind of revenues they did 20, or maybe 30 years ago. Alongside these very necessary evolutionary steps, we’ve seen the rise of a slew of female-centric films, catapulting them into the mainstream, to be absorbed by an eager audience who graciously accepted them. Films with female protagonists were formerly often side-lined to the Indian Indie film scene, for their more hatke nature of addressing various “women-centric problems”, think of Shabana Azmi in Deepa Mehta’s Water, and the ire she still earns for it today.
Thankfully, as it became accepted that females can be the main character, this was no longer the scene in the 2010’s, with films like Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Queen, and Imtiaz Ali’s Highway being amongst the few that manage to earn both critical and commercial acclaim. But does that mean Bollywood has finally mastered the method of making Female-Centric Cinema? Unfortunately, no. We might be clearing the South Asian Bechdel Test (on a good day), but Bollywood is still a far cry from producing a single female character that any of us can identify with, let alone perceive as ideals or (dare I go so far?) actual, ‘heroines’. Moreover, on the bad days, “key” female characters wind up getting used as little more than uni-dimensional props being used to hold up trite, obsolete, and destructive narratives around class, caste, marital status, and religion.
Trials and tribulations of 2010’s Bollywood
When one takes a brief look at some of the popular examples of “feminist”/ ”female-centric” films that have graced the Hindi Film Industry in the last 10 years, one of the seminal films that come to mind is the Sonam Kapoor 2010 film, Aisha. Sonam Kapoor, Ira Dubey, Amrita Puri and Abhay Deol lit the torch of the start of an era of female-centric films but was so poorly executed that it risked the flame going out almost before it had a chance to take light. The (mis)adventures of the titular, upper class Delhi-based protagonist (played by Kapoor) as she tries to matchmake everyone in her life ended up being a relatively superficial portrayal, projecting patriarchal, heterosexual notions of love and paired with an unchallenging reinforcement of class structures that almost bordered on parody. I can’t help but wonder what this film was supposed to tell us about love that we weren’t going to hear from Aunty With The Chappals On. Spoiler alert - not much.
Throughout the movie, we consistently see these class divisions being continually reinforced, with Aisha marrying a banker who is rich, upper class and upper caste, just like her, and Amrita Puri’s character Shefali marrying her childhood sweetheart, someone who works for Aisha’s father after the mind-boggling revelation that money isn’t everything.
Are these the kind of happily-ever-afters we’re looking for, ones that further secure notions of class as being primary to finding love? Again, I’m not sure.
We’ve seen this often - attempts at divorcing class and caste struggles from female narratives - like as though one can exist while we suppress the other. In reality though, as we’ve seen everywhere from the Hathras case to the consequences of the pandemic, both these factors play a defining role in our interactions and relations with both individuals and society at large.
A more recent travesty that comes to mind when one recalls female-centric films is the multi-starrer Veere Di Wedding, which featured an ensemble cast of Kareena Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar and Shikha Talsania. While the film made money in theatres, whether or not it truly added any weight to feminist rhetoric in media, or redefined how feminism is pitched in motion pictures, is up for debate. Largely portraying various interpretations of caricatured feminists, the film fails to communicate the varying intersectionalities of these individual women, each carrying a different burden - an unwanted marriage, divorce stigma, and broken families. Why is there a need for intersectional representation, you may ask? Simply because otherwise, we fall into a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of established tropes. While Veere Di Wedding was praised for its realistic and necessary portrayal of female sexuality (recall Swara Bhaskar’s infamous masturbation scene which left the aunties shell shocked), it gets weighed down beneath the burden of unnecessary sex jokes and plenty of foul language. Ultimately, its inability to have a proper substance of actual emotion or “patriarchy smashing” sequences leaving the feminist film watcher with much to be desired.
What does regional cinema do better then, really?
For myself, having been exposed to women-centric cinema from the Southern film industries allows me to elucidate on them more, and appreciate the contributions they bring to feminist film narratives. Particularly with the new wave of directors and actors post 2000’s/2010, more and more films work harder to flesh out female characters, regardless of how small their role in the film is. More than just female-centric films, there have been instances in cinema ranging across different audiences or budget films from the South, from indie films to sleeper hits, to giant blockbusters like the Baahubali series, where female characters are given due complexity, with vibrant personalities and pivotal storylines that actively shape the arc of the film.
While there are many films from the South that illustrate various different intersections of women from a caste, labour, and marital standpoints, a blossoming set of female characters taking centre stage in this region are protagonists highlighting the plights of motherhood. A unique standpoint and one seldom explored, Indian culture across states elevate the position of mothers to such a pedestal that the heights from which they fall are detrimental. But films like 36 Vayadhanile (Tamil)/How Old Are You (Malayalam), Mahanati (Telugu), and Baahubali 2 (especially) highlight the pivotal, complex roles mothers carry out alongside other responsibilities, whether as government officers, actors, or as queens of large kingdoms.
Films like 36V/HOAY especially highlight the quandaries of an everyday middle-class woman, as the storyline follows a disillusioned mother and government employee and who has lost her zest for life, and the journey she undertakes to reclaim her self-worth. Storylines like these are prime examples of films that now rely on a matricentric form of feminism, one that empowers a mother figure to catalyse her fiery potential and seize opportunities to make distinct change in her community without being shackled by familial expectations formerly imposed on her, while maintaining her role as a career woman and an individual.
Not all hope is lost
Full Disclaimer: there are a great many wonderful films I have not included in this list. Some notable entrants include Khadamma (2011), Helen (2019), Irudhi Suttru (2016), Take Off (2017) and Biriyani (2020). Secondly, I have not included any Kannada films as I humbly admit I haven’t seen enough. Due to my own bias’ and limitations (paucity of time and language barriers), there are many sub-sects of cinema I have yet to explore, but it brings me hope that there is so much more out there which exposes more depth and realistic female characters to a growing number of people.
And even still, while travesties may be still produced, we cannot say that Bollywood hasn’t grown as an industry over the last decade or two. Films like Piku, Queen, English Vinglish are just a few examples of cinema that illustrate the many hats a woman dons, breathing life into characters much like the brave, strong, eclectic women we encounter every day. Whether it be Piku’s determination to balance life as an independent career woman alongside her filial responsibilities, or Shashi’s desire to educate herself in the language she felt handicapped by to prove her own ability to take on the world, or Rani’s newfound freedom at the loss of a poor arranged marriage, we know that we need cinematic universes set where real women - old, young, married, unmarried - exist in their truest forms. We also look forward to films coming up, such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, the tale of Bombay’s most powerful madam from Kamathipura (a famous red light district), or the Saina Nehwal biopic titled Saina, a sports drama about India’s top badminton player. This highlights the way we are now narrating the stories of women from all different walks of life, further improving both representation and our understanding of women, on the big screen and reflecting the gendered political issues we are tackling today.
About the author:
Mythily is a student at IIM Indore with an interest in South Asian media, culture and education. Having grown up abroad, she often juxtaposes her experiences of a multicultural upbringing and college life in India. Find her on her Instagram @singacutie and LinkedIn.