Reflecting the changing face of the Indian woman
May 12, 2017

In the last couple of years, something is changing, though quietly, about the portrayal of women in mainstream Indian films, aka Bollywood or Hindi films. That these films have proven to be successful in the box office too is perhaps a barometer of how society is adjusting to the emerging woman. Wonder of wonders, she is not portrayed as cut-outs of purported social values but as a flesh-and-blood person who also explores her sexuality and even can be unapologetic about it. Ranjita Biswas takes a close look

Women as protagonists in films is gaining ground. It’s not that women-centric movies were not made before. Going as far back as Mother India, films have been made, though in a minuscule number, to portray women winning against odds, often shown as standing against patriarchal norms. However, it’s perhaps only recently that films are also talking of women who talk / think of sex, a somewhat taboo subject and swept under the carpet as it’s thought to hurt sensibilities of a conservative society. The latter would rather see the heroine / protagonist in the image it has chosen to perceive – as ‘good’ women who can fight goons if necessary but not step beyond that.

Hence, it’s a relief to come across real characters – like a woman who does not balk at admitting being physically intimate with her boyfriend as in Pink or village women exploring hidden desire in a brutally suppressive village in Rajasthan, as portrayed in Parched. These films draw attention to another aspect of women empowerment: trying to ensure their own space in a society that ignores or tries to impose its own attitude towards female sexuality, whether in the urban spectrum (Pink) or in the rural one (Parched). It’s refreshing to find that even in a patriarchal society they find scope to go beyond ‘victimhood’.

Parched-film still
Village women exploring hidden desire in a brutally suppressive village in Rajasthan, as portrayed in Parched.

Take, for example, the three friends in Pink – modern working women living in metros on their own who we routinely come across in Indian cities today. Minal Minal (Taapsee Pannu), Falak (Kirti Kulhari), and Andrea (Tariang) are from different corners of the country coming to Delhi for jobs. They are independent women, have their own opinions, and problems too, as to be expected in conflict of Northern India’s male idea of machismo. Their nightmare starts with stalking and molestation as Minal ‘dares’ to resist a man with political connections, who tries to sexually abuse her. The film emphasises the message, universally accepted in case of sexual harassment today, ‘No’ means No. Even if the person is the woman’s partner or companion. As the girl’s defence lawyer (played by Amitabh Bachchan) says in the film, “‘No’ is an entire sentence in itself.”

While it’s quite path-breaking for a Bollywood film to talk so openly about sexual behaviour, it’s even more revolutionary to come across a response to a question like ‘are you a virgin?’ in the court and the girl admitting that she and her boyfriend had indeed physical relations because they ‘liked’ each other. Isn’t it natural after all for two adults in an intimate relation? How many films have been so frank with a woman character saying that?

It’s perhaps one of the worst-kept secrets that young Indian women and men ‘have sex’ if they are together but the emphasis on virginity always portrays / portrayed her in films as pure as morning dew till ‘she gets married’ to ‘sleep’ with her husband / lover. If she does gives in to desire, see what happens as a consequence (remember the song Roop tera mastana from Aradhana?). That a film puts up today’s reality without much romantic frills, and the audience accepts it as a matter of fact rather than castigating the woman as a harlot, displays a maturity and pragmatism rarely observed in earlier films. Women themselves have said in interviews that “it’s our story”. Once again, to repeat a cliché, films reflect contemporary society.

Cut to rural Rajasthan from urban Delhi, to the setting of Parched, directed by Leena Yadav. In the brutal, suppressive village milieu three friends, Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Lajjo (Radhika Apte) and Bijli (Surveen Chawla) manage to have their own space and learn to deal with their exploited situation with a lot of humour. That Bijli is a village fair dancer-cum-sex-worker does not deter the other two from bonding. They share their personal agonies, sexual fantasies and explore the mystery of their own desire too. A scene where Rani (who is widowed early) and Lajjo (brutalised by an impotent husband) explore each other’s body in an expression of suppressed desire reminds one of such a scene in Fire that offended people in some states even leading to its screening. Then there is the scene where the three women jump into a lake to swim, abandoning their inhibitions to enjoy some ‘me time’ which comes out as bold and beautiful.

In Angry Indian Goddesses, when four old friends meet in Goa to attend the wedding of one of them, there is a kind of abandon that is easily relatable by women cronies, away from the confines of home, talking about everything under the sun, including sex. They are equally unself-conscious while enjoying a ‘female gaze’ on a bare-bodied hunk from next door. There is even a lesbian wedding on the cards. Subjects way off the usual Bollywood path.

In super hit Queen, where Kangana Ranaut’s timid Rani of conservative Rajouri Garden of Delhi morphs into an assertive woman going on her own ‘honeymoon’ in Paris (without the husband who ditched her), she is hugely influenced by Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Hayden) who openly talks about physical relations. After the initial shock, quite natural for her upbringing, Rani accepts her as she is and has a ball. Think of the heroine’s friends in older Hindi films in the mould of goody goody girls. Sexual innuendo and the inviting look were confined to the vamp while the heroine fluttered her eyelashes to show interest in the man wooing her.

The fact is, the image of the woman is changing silently in popular media, though you would not think so going by the endless saas-bahu intrigues that dominate the small screen. She exists side by side with item-number churning heroines whose inviting gyrations is only grist for the voyeuristic eye. In a way, these unnecessary episodes in mainstream commercial cinema only add to the already embedded image of the woman as a sexual object. The success, and recognition, of films like Pink, Parched and others offer a ray of hope and makes us believe that there is subtle change in the age-old attitude towards women, even if it is confined to a section of society.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata.)

January – March 2017