Over the past two decades, many Bollywood films that have been hailed as women empowerment movies. But are these movies actually giving us powerful female protagonists, or just a reiteration of gender roles through male protagonists? To what extent are they really empowering? Let us take a look:
1. Chak De India (2007)
Chak De India, a very successful film about the Indian women’s hockey team finally winning the World Cup, continues to live in the memories of many Indians. The team captain Vidya Sharma (Vidya Malvade) battles with family pressure to fit into the traditional role of a daughter in law and have a child. Komal Chautala (Chitrashi Rawat), from rural Haryana, has to pretend to faint so that her family lets her play for the national team. Preeti Sabarwal (Sagarika Ghatge) dates the Vice-captain of the Indian cricket team but in the end, refuses to marry him because he does not take her career in hockey seriously.
But why is the most compelling storyline given to coach Kabir (Shah Rukh Khan)? The movie plot begins with him losing the world cup final, and subsequently religious prejudice makes him infamous as a Muslim who threw the game because his loyalty lies with Pakistan. The movie is about him coaching the women’s team that wins the World Cup and finally regaining his lost reputation. The movie makes us feel like he essentially builds the victory. Without his effort the team is shown to be no better than a bunch of catfighting girls.
Before the final match, he is the one who boldly approaches Preeti and Komal about their personal animosity which can cost them the game. Not only does no one else in the team feel the need to do so, but they are also shown encouraging the competition by comparing the number of goals made by the two players. If you’re still not convinced, Coach Kabir, right before Vidya makes the winning goal save, signals her (by blinking his eyes across the field, is that even real?), telling her that it is going to be a straight shot, giving him credit for the momentous goal save.
The movie is about him coaching the women’s team that wins the World Cup and finally regaining his lost reputation. The movie makes us feel like he essentially builds the victory. Without his effort the team is shown to be no better than a bunch of catfighting girls.
The team captain, Vidya, is hardly a vocal leader. Is it a coincidence that the most vocal woman, Bindiya (Shilpa Shukla), is seen taking the lead, only to manipulate other players against Khan? She is shown to be jealous of Vidya’s captaincy and even ‘tries to seduce’ the ‘decent’ coach to gain his favor. Of course, the vocal woman wants to be a leader and is ‘morally loose’ and sexually available. The film also has a touch of homophobic humor. Khan decides not to interfere in a fight between a group of men and the team, until a man is about to hit a woman at the back with a cricket bat.
Khan accuses the man of cowardice and questions his masculinity, mocking him by saying ‘hamari hockey mein chakke nahi hote!” (There are no sixes in hockey!, sixes in hindi being an offensive term for gay men.) Balbir Kaur (Tanya Abrol) is reduced to the stereotype of the short-tempered Sikh woman. To its credit, the film does show the discrimination faced by North-east Indians. In the beginning Mary Ralte (Kimi Laldawla) from Mizoram and Molly Zimik (Masochon Chon Chon Zimik), from Manipur are assumed to be foreigners in their own country. Later, a group of men sexually harass them.
However, the 2 team members from the Northeast and the 2 from Jharkhand are as sidelined in the movie as their states are in Indian national news. We do not get their back stories, hardly see them talk during the movie and the camera rarely focuses on them during the matches. Again, you can choose to see this as a coincidence if you want.
2. Dangal (2016)
This movie gives us two real sportswomen, Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babita Kumari (Sanya Malhotra), but needless to say, it is the story of how Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) trains both his daughters to realise his unfulfilled dream. Even when Geeta leaves the house, his character is of prime importance to the storyline. Without his guidance and discipline Geeta begins to lose all her matches. Dissatisfied with the method of the commonwealth coach, Mahavir begins to train Gita in secrecy.
During her matches, he gives her advice contradictory to Pramod’s. A great share of credit for Gita’s victory is definitely given to Mahavir, in fact, during the last moments of her final match, before she wins a gold, it is her father’s advice that she recalls. However, it is important to note that the movie is based on an account given by Mahavir Singh Phogat, focus on him may be to a certain extent natural.
What does not seem natural though, is that the movie was more successful than Mary Kom, another true story about a boxer, a truly woman centric film. Mary Kom grossed ₹1.04 billion (US$15 million) at the box-office while Dangal earned more on its first weekend alone. Before you immediately argue that Dangal was a better movie let me point out that Mary Kom was made on a 18 crore budget while Dangal was made on 70 crore budget. May be the real problem is that the big bucks of Bollywood are just not going to women centric movies!
Also read: A Feminist Reading Of Dangal
3. Toilet — Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Padman (2018)
The government’s Swacch Bharat advertisements created was perfect for Akshay Kumar’s Toilet and Padman.
Toilet—Ek Prem Katha, is a landmark movie, because first of all, it’s a mainstream movie with the word “toilet” in the title. It is about a courageous woman, Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) who takes the decision to leave her husband until he can get a toilet constructed in the house. Even though the demand for a toilet is Jaya’s, the journey to build one is Keshav’s. If we go back to the beginning of the movie, before the issue of the toilet is addressed and the prem katha unfolds, it’s the same old story, of Akshay Kumar wanting to get married and eventually finding Jaya, falling in love, following her like the typical lovelorn Romeo-stalker.
Jaya initially repeatedly refuses his advances, but Keshav (and the film) don’t take refusal seriously. I would have also appreciated a healthier romance in the film. Also, even though the movie focuses on Akshay Kumar, Jaya’s character is powerful and vocal, she says she wouldn’t have married Keshav had she known there was no toilet in the house. She also insists that she shouldn’t have to change her habit of using a toilet since childhood.
The most remarkable thing about Padman is perhaps that so much of it is based on a true story.
I agree that Arunachalam Muruganantham’s (on whom Akshay Kumar’s character is based) journey of spending years devising a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine without social support is remarkable. His character certainly deserves the limelight it gets in Padman. But I would like to draw your attention to Period. End of Sentence., a 2018 Academy Award winning, documentary short film that shows women learning how to use the same sanitary-napkin producing machine, sell their produce and break the taboos surrounding menstruation while interacting with their community. This part of reality, of women coming together and successfully running the project finds no space in a popular movie like Padman. Its space is only in an academic documentary.
These aren’t the only movies where the theme concerns women but the main characters aren’t women. In the popular movie Pink (2016) Amitabh Bachchan overshadows the three women he represents in court and in Mission Mangal, Akshay Kumar, once again overshadows all the women in his team as they work to reach Mars. There is no doubt that these films contribute to the feminist cause. But is it not possible to have successful films without famous men acting in them?
Featured Image Source: Daily Pioneer