Defying, confronting and challenging patriarchy
March 17, 2017

Visual imagery has changed. Perceptions have dramatically altered. Newspaper headlines, TV grabs, ad campaigns and Bollywood – virtually every media platform has been working to create a very progressive and modern face of India’s women which are mostly cosmetic or spiced up to add the needed glamour. But has reality changed? Unfortunately, it hasn’t, says Shoma A. Chatterji

The portrayal of women in Bollywood has changed dramatically in some ways and radically in other ways in recent times. And Pink is perhaps the culmination of this. However, it is interesting to note that not a single poster of the movie features only the three girls around whom the story revolves – they are charged with a crime they either did not commit or perpetrated in self-defence. Most posters carry prominent images of Amitabh Bachchan, who has a major role in the film.

Indian women, urban or rural, educated or uneducated, married, divorced, single, deserted or widowed, are going through a state of financial and social flux so far as their working lives are concerned, irrespective of their occupation. A housewife who does not earn is not considered a ‘working’ woman though she is working 24×7 just fulfilling her duties as wife and mother. Do our films reflect this patriarchal belief? They did, till around a decade ago. But not anymore.

English Vinglish Poster

The cart began rolling with English-Vinglish. The film takes pot-shots at the patriarchal marginalisation of a housewife though she is a self-respecting earning woman, simply because she cannot converse fluently in English. Shashi Godbole (Sridevi) earns a comfortable income through her home-based business making laddus. In the US, she gets an ego-boost when her English teacher calls her an “entrepreneur.” But back home, she is made the butt of jokes by her husband and daughter. Her husband has the gumption to tell her to give up her laddu business and she stares back at him and asks “Why?”

Shoojit Sircar’s wonderful film Vicky Donor produced jointly with John Abraham throws up a different example of the modern, urban woman. Ashima Roy (Yami Gautam), who the sperm-donating hero Vicky Arora (Ayushmann Khurrana) falls in love with, is a no-nonsense, stiff-upper-lipped bank officer who is not easily taken in by the naïve flirting of the young man. She submits subsequently, but cannot accept the truth of her husband being a prolific sperm donor till she is convinced of the welfare-motive behind it.

Sharat Katariya’s Dum Lagake Haisha places the size-zero concept of a heroine on its head. The film is about a mismatched marriage between Prem Prakash Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana) who owns a cassette shop in Haryana and the highly educated Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar), who holds a very good job but is really fat. The marriage arranged by their parents but against Prem’s wishes results in bad blood between the couple. He makes no bones about his disappointment with his wife and shares this with his friends. But Sandhya refuses go on a crash diet or join a gym. She is happy the way she is and is in no mood to please her husband. In the end, the husband learns to accept her as she is and the film ends on a happy but not a patriarchal note.

Meera (Anushka Sharma) in NH10 defines the sheer power of being a woman, bringing out the strength inherent in a high-powered corporate executive forced by circumstances to resort to violence – the only window of escape to survival. But every time she seeks escape, the route is filled with more villains than the ones that went before. She invents and improvises her own arms and exacts her revenge, to walk back, tired and sad and beaten because she could not save her husband and did not ever want to resort to violence.

Take also films like Parched, Akira, Badlapur and perhaps Talaash. What they have in common is that, apart from the fact that they all feature sex workers, they are sex workers with a difference. Unlike Nagesh Kukunoor’s Lakshmi, they do not look for sympathy. Each woman is very strong, lives life on her own terms and does not try to curry emotional favour or seek martyrdom. Realism, in the shape of characterisation, script, dialogue and narrative define the sex workers in these films. There is no attempt to veil the harshness of the subject or the underlying brutality of the narrative with surface romanticism or cinematographic glamour. Strangely, the characters hardly find a place either in the reviews of these films or in terms of the sociological impact of their characterisations.

Place these against three films with ‘bold’ women who are not half as bold as their stories spell out. The theatres a couple of years ago virtually soaked in celluloid tales revolving around ‘bold’ women. Gulab Gang, Highway and Queen were slick, well-made, informative and socially relevant. But were they truly aimed at creating mass awareness about issues around us? Are these filmmakers shocked by the atrocities against women in public domain with justice dragging its feet? Or, are they ready-made, cleverly structured packages riding piggy back on the subject of women?

Gulab Gang, produced by Anubhav Sinha and directed by Shoumik Sen, was more song-and-dance than true grit, distorting the authentic picture of the woman who founded the movement and the women who are carrying it ahead. Highway, directed by Imtiaz Ali, falls back on a cheap gimmick in an otherwise unpredictable story, with the box office in mind. In Queen, Kangana Ranaut delivers a power-packed performance that offers brilliant entertainment value, but the film fails to do away with its brazenly commercial packaging, including a Paris setting for additional box office value. And sorry, there is no woman-oriented agenda involved.

Contemporary Bollywood cinema as a medium of mass appeal which inspires, influences and motivates the audience, also has another use for the image of the woman within its framework – this sometimes peeps out and offers the potential to defy, confront and challenge patriarchy.

January – March 2017