What do you remember most from that scene? The red dupatta that flutters in the wind, and very strategically lands on Tina’s (Rani Mukherji’s) hands or that Rahul running after the train as it leaves the station? Of all the things the scene is loved and remembered for, not one person perhaps recalls it as the one where Anjali gives up her academic career — and by extension any hope of professional prospects — only because a boy she had a crush on didn’t love her back.
In real life, this would be next to impossible. After all, we have nagging parents who would book us back on the next train out to a college, and won’t let us return without a degree. But degrees and jobs have rarely been the concerns of Bollywood women characters.
Prop Or Plot Point?
“Up until the last decade, most Bollywood women characters didn’t have any professional aspirations,” says Gujarat-based sociologist Gaurang Jani. “They were in the films as props — to add to the beauty of the huge and decadent sets, or as plot points — to inspire the heroes to embark on a journey of love or revenge, depending upon the script.” But things have changed now, or at least that is what new-age male film-makers who make “content-driven” cinema would like us to believe.
They write up sassy and rebellious women characters for us (remember Tanu played by Kangana Ranaut in ‘Tanu Weds Manu’) who are absolute fireballs (Sara Ali Khan as Mukku in ‘Kedarnath’, and Taapsee Pannu as Rumi in ‘Manmarziyaan’) and want us to think that they are progressive film-makers for depicting such strong female roles on screen.
And to some extent, they do convince us. And why not? These women characters are far removed from Madhuri Dixit’s sanskari portrayal of Nisha in ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’ and Rekha’s Chandni, drowning in the moral guilt of being the “other woman” in ‘Silsila’. But, there is one similarity among them all even now: None of them have any professional aspirations or personal life goals.
Except for a few oddball films that have beautiful depictions of women and their lives, women characters in Hindi films are often shown as a passive person, with no personal wishes. In ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ what did Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) do exactly to maintain her fabulous globe-trotting lifestyle? It is hard to tell. In more recent Netflix films like ‘Indoo Ki Jawani’, what were the goals of the character played by Kiara Advani, apart from hooking up with a Tinder date? That is also not clear. In ‘Ginny Weds Sunny’, what Yami Gautam’s character does, except for shoo-ing away marriage proposals, is a hard guess. The list of such women characters is quite long even today.
Why Don’t We See Women Characters in Their Work Set-Up?
Mainstream film-makers have now become more deft in portraying women characters, even though their primary job of being used as ornaments still remains true to a great extent.
“Most film-makers now give jobs to their women characters. Deepika Padukone’s character Naina in ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’ was a doctor, and she is shown to be a very studious sort too. But was she ever shown in her workspace? No, god forbid audiences actually have to see a scene that demonstrates her to be smart. She has her glasses on her, that she will do, ”adds Jani, voice dripping with sarcasm.
Irrespective of what professions these characters do on screen, they are rarely shown in their workspaces. Even when an actress is playing the role of a doctor, or an event planner, in the film we mostly see her in social set-ups — at parties and beautiful locales — because even now, film-makers do not feel the need to make these three-dimensional characters, as those who have a life beyond their relationships, says the sociologist.
The fact that women have been shown and continues to be depicted in such a manner is problematic to say the least.
The Audience Impact
The fact that women have been shown and continues to be depicted in such a manner is problematic to say the least. Mumbai-based psychologist Natasha Mehta says humans do not have filters to sieve through visual cues. So they immediately latch on to what they see. If they see something repeatedly or over a period of time, they tend to draw their idea of reality from such visual cues. That is why films are such a valuable as well as dangerous medium, because it has the capacity to impact our mood, our thoughts and even change the wiring of our brains.
“For instance, if you notice, most men nurture very unreal expectations about how women should look like at home, or while they are working. Many of them expect their wives to be decked up, or be more presentable, because over the years, they have seen women on screen who do not break a sweat even when they are running away from goons, or cooking, cleaning and doing household chores ,” she points out.
For many Indians, the expectation of what a prospective partner should be like has also been molded by Bollywood. There, too, the problematic portrayal of women plays a huge part in what women think is socially acceptable in a prospective beau.
“Not just young girls, but grown women don’t have the first clue that talks about finances, childbirth and compatibility are crucial before marriage. And they mistake marriage for wedding because for years, that’s where Bollywood films end — with the union of the hero and heroine, after three lehenga changes, and two item songs. Hence, many young brides, even today, walk into marriages with strange expectations which have no parity with real life,” adds Mehta.
Debjani Halder, an assistant professor of film studies at RV University, Bengaluru, says things are becoming more tricky because mainstream Bollywood directors set their films in very real spaces. They make their women characters seem very real, but then they build them up with such synthetic traits. These women characters make us believe that a woman who can sass-talk, have snappy comebacks and take really lousy decisions recklessly are actually empowered, says Halder, a documentary film-maker, film historian and curator.
The ability to make decisions (even lousy ones) and the freedom to talk about what they feel are obviously aspects of becoming empowered. But just that isn’t women’s empowerment. There are obviously many nuances involved, but those are not often caught by the male gaze of Bollywood films.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism