Even in the year 2021, patriarchy still screamed dominance in the form of institutionalised power, societal norms, politics, dictums, and glorification in popular culture. But in retrospect, though the absolute dominance of this power structure remained, there have been some promising changes in some spheres. Cinema is one such space.
In 2021, we saw some strong, self-driven, motivated women on screen, making the representation of women on screen slightly better than compared to before. We saw a few diverse female characters and it is indeed a step in the right direction to have more stories of women be told on the larger pop culture canvas. Here are seven inspiring female characters we watched and loved on screen in 2021:
1. Vidya Vincent in Sherni
Director: Amit Masurkar
Cast: Vidya Balan, Vijay Raaz, Niraj Kaabi, Bijendra Kala, Bharat Saxena
Sherni, directed by Amit Masurkar, has its premise in the dense jungle of Madhya Pradesh. It is a story about a tigress on the prowl and Forest Officer Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan) negotiating the life of the tigress and the politics of a piece of land made hostile by trophy hunters, greedy politicians and men.
The story has an ecofeminist perspective, and also depicts the conflicts of a working woman in power, in a patriarchal workplace which is essentially a boy’s club. Vidya Vincent is a woman with a stoic exterior filled with frustration that never explodes. Her struggle with the new posting in search of the tigress alongside narcissistic, Panglossian men is used in the story to create a sense of environmental empathy.
Through a narrative of conservation that is barely showcased in commercial mainstream cinema, a divisional forest officer trying to escape her frustration in a rotten, gendered system is perhaps a common narrative, but Sherni is far from just that. Sherni keeps the narrative grounded to untangling the struggle of the local communities, State apathy, preservation of ecology and the perils of being a woman in a man’s world. Captured by Rakesh Haridas’s camera and backed by sound designer Anish John’s immersive build up, the film gives an experience of the terrain, the people, and Vidya’s escalating conflicts.
2. Sandhya in Pagglait
Director: Umesh Bist
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Ashutosh Rana, Sheeba Chaddha, Raghubir Yadav
Pagglait focuses on the aftermath of losing a family member, and depicts the outburst of multidimensional emotions, the changes in the understanding of relationships, circumstances and human behaviour, with a pinch of humour. That spotlight is on the young widow Sandhya, after the death of Astik, her husband, and the elder son of his family. The couple had been married only for five months and she was still in the process of getting to know her husband. The film chronicles her journey through grief into self love and liberation.
Sandhya is an English topper, educated and quite unmoved with the demise of her husband in conventional ways. She is a widow who smuggles chips and Pepsi to calm herself down amidst the joint family who expects her to grieve in certain conservative, traditional, gendered ways. Her self discovery and zest for life after the death of her husband is unlike any other mainstream widow character we have seen of late on screen.
The movie has many socio-cultural fillers that make a subtle commentary on day-to-day problems like inherent islamophobia, superstition and hypocrisy without overdoing it. Sandhya can see these things in her so-called progressive family but she does not try to change them. This story concentrates on her loss, her experience of love, her dreams and grief.
3. Prerna in Skater Girl
Director: Manjari Makinjany
Cast: Rachel Gupta, Amrit Maghera, Shafin Patel
Language: Hindi, English
The directorial debut of Manjari Makinjany, Skater Girl encapsulates how skateboarding is freedom and self discovery. This is a story of an oppressed caste teenager Prerna, who doesn’t go to school because she cannot afford the uniform. Still relevant in 2021 where the pandemic made many girls drop their education and work under smoking chimneys, Prerna is ambitious, eager to learn, and curious.
The story showcases all the aspects of regressive double standards, caste oppression, patriarchy and how social location and intersectionality double up the marginalisation faced by young women. Skater Girl is a story of innocence on the skate board, carrying dreams in unkempt hair without any hesitation while talking to the wind. This story makes you feel Prerna’s flight to freedom, and you will wish the same for more for girls you know or you don’t in this country.
4. The unnamed female lead in The Great Indian Kitchen
Director: Joe Baby
Cast: Nimisha Sajayan, Suraj Venjaramoodu
Joe Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen is critically loved and generated relevant questions among Indian audiences. The movie’s story is about a cheerful newly-wed couple people are very familiar with, that in the movie they don’t have names. The characters are unnamed people who resemble the audience’s life and routine.
The screenplay has repeated scenes of the female lead cleaning, cooking and serving. The director tries to portray the monotonous distress for female subjugation and household unpaid slavery. Starting with a typical arranged marriage, the movie showcases unfair gender roles, and how the woman tackles them to assert her personhood.
You can’t look away while watching this movie even if you want to. It generates frustration, anger and distress by critiquing the oppression women are subjected to by morality, religion, and patriarchy. The Great Indian Kitchen is a must-watch, to understand things you never questioned about the life you live and Nimisha Sajayan as the lead is a woman on screen we cannot ever forget.
5. Sara in Sara’s
Director: Jude Anthony Joseph
Cast: Anna Ben, Sunny Wayne
Sara’s is a story about Sara(Anna Ben), who is an associate director in the film industry. The story concentrates on women’s abortion rights and exercise of bodily autonomy. Sara has from childhood, been very undecided about becoming a mother. She wants to direct her own film and when the opportunity arrives, she discovers that she is pregnant. The movie serves as a narrative to introspect the sacrifices a woman has to make to fit into the gender roles that are decided for her.
Not only motherhood but also the struggle of being a woman in the film industry is showcased by a subplot in the film. Sara communicates her desire to not have children to Jeevan as they fall in love and marry. But after marriage, the pressure for kids drives them apart and Sara being the woman, bears the brunt of judgment.
Kudos for the script and narrative that never changes focus from the topic. The movie explains in a very light-hearted way that there are so many options for women to find happiness with or without a kid. Sara is definitely a strong, unforgettable character.
6. Sunanda in Photo-Prem
Director: Gaytri Patil, Aditya Rathi
Cast: Neena Kulkarni, Vikas Hande, Sameer Dharmadhikar
Photo-prem turns the potentially dark theme of death to something personal that puts a smile on the face. Death and smile can not be used together usually, but Photo-prem does this with the story of a housewife Sunanda(Neena Kulkarni) who is photophobic. She makes excuses for her own child’s wedding because she hates to get photographed. At the funeral of her obnoxious husband’s colleague’s wife, she realises that she doesn’t have commemorative photos to hang in her own house after her death.
Her inhibitions prevent her to go to the studio, and on the other hand, she develops morbid obsession. Her internal monologues, asking help from the neighbour’s kids will make you chuckle. A single photograph can be a medium for self-empowerment, asserts this movie.
With Neena Kulkarni’s demeanour and acting prowess, she makes Sunanda memorable and emphatic. The story doesn’t scream feminism but its subtle nuance gives a window to a woman’s discovery of self-love and assertion.
7. Rashmi in Rashmi Rocket
Director: Akarsh Khurana
Cast: Tapsee Pannu, Priyanshu Painyuli, Abhishekh Banerjee, Supriya Pathak
Rashmi Rocket is the first movie in India that addresses gender testing, a test that is prevalent from the 1950s to distinguish biological males and females. Gender testing arguably provides a level field to men and women, but the practice is still stuck in rigid binaries of gender.
Rashmi( Tapsee Pannu) starts as a tough, fierce individual and athlete who rides motorcycles. The sports movie turning into a courtroom drama is sometimes exhausting, albeit, this movie does discuss a topic that is relevant. A beautiful stubborn mother-daughter bond is showcased, and the understated masculinity of a husband is quite a break from the clichés of how relationships are caricatured on screen. Rashmi Rocket is a brave attempt and Rashmi is certainly a character we would remember from 2021.
Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to the list are welcome in the comments section