From doting daughters to downtrodden widows, Bollywood is infamous for casting actresses in one-dimensional roles. Women are usually shown as superficial characters without any depth or nuance. They are often an accessory to accentuate the ‘hero’, and besides being a selfless lover, a voluptuous vamp or a god-like mother, they have no space left for any individuality. Their personality and potential are defined by the men around them.
Female characters that are more nuanced
Even as we inch into more nuanced female characters in Bollywood, the realistic portrayal of women is few and far. More often than not, OTT platforms stay more true to them than the big screens. There is a serious dearth of films that showcase women completely untethered from a man. Financially independent, single by choice yet flourishing and happy with herself women are rare in films.
In Dear Zindagi, Alia Bhatt’s character is successful at her work, yet unsatisfied. Through the course of the film, she mends her abandonment issues, takes therapy and learns to be happy with herself. She realises that successful relationships take time, effort as well as a clear sense of the self. We see her break a multitude of stereotypes ranging from destigmatising mental health to validating multiple romantic partners and not settling for anything less than what she deserves.
In Queen, although Raani (Kangana Ranaut) is not financially independent, she goes on the journey to explore herself after her fiancé shatters her ‘happily every after’ dream. Dipping her toes in unknown territories, trying to figure out a world beyond the walls of her house and engaging with different cultural ways of living, she finds her true self.
When it comes to mother characters, we see them caricatured into pastel coloured sarees, disheveled looks, home cooked meals and a broom in hand. The epitome of a mother in our heads is defined by the services she provides. Bollywood is prone to show two extremes when it comes to portraying mothers – either a working, neglectful mother or the one selfless and enamored with her children. The third and probably the most authentic type is often overlooked – the one with flaws, likes, dislikes, wishes, passion, financial & sexual needs.
Nil Battey Sannata brings us Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), a house help who wants her daughter to study well and become an IAS officer. She takes the unconventional road and enrolls herself into her school. While her purpose differed in the beginning, later, she realises her own desire to study and continues to complete her education. She made sure her daughter is comfortable with the idea and pursued her dream to be someone more than what she was expected to become.
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In Kapoor and Sons, Sunita (Ratna Pathak) is a mother who is loud and outspoken, picking favourites between her sons, while dealing with a cheating husband and dwindling finances. She made mistakes, was wronged by others, and has still survived. She builds her business from scratch and acknowledges her misgivings in her own ways while making peace with her husband’s betrayal and death. Instead of making her a flawless, altruistic mother, the movie shows her gradual transition into a more self-fulfilled person.
A woman without her husband is a travesty for Indian society and films alike. She loses her financial and social support, as well as the status of an emotional and sexual being. The only emotion she is ‘allowed’ to showcase is grief. While a young widow becomes prey to all the men in the movie, the older widow becomes a burden on the family.
As far as divorced females are concerned, no empathy exists for them on screen. Their role changes to that of an anti-heroine, homewrecker or a defective destitute. A remarkable role in recent times of a widow is that of Supriya Pathak as Amma in Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. A lady in her greying age witnesses her family playing petty political games while she grieves her husband’s loss. Left with an ancestral house, a bank loan and a divided family which offers support begrudgingly, Amma doesn’t break. Instead of being a burden to an unwilling family, she begins a music school to pay for her expenses and has a fresh start in her older age.
Thappad also showcased the real and ugly side of divorces. Instead of living in a marriage without self-respect, taken for granted, Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) decides to walk out when her husband slaps her at a party. It breaks the long-standing narrative of Indian marriages where women are hailed for surviving broken and abusive homes.
Cinema needs to stop glorifying women forsaking their happiness and safety for a pretense of social image and the ‘happiness’ of the family. While a notable divorcee woman narrative is hard to find in Bollywood, a couple who opts to part ways mutually without any rifts is also only scarcely represented.
Bollywood is notorious for depicting wives and girlfriends as nothing but an instrument for the male character’s growth and personality shifts. A good wife is a kind-hearted silent caregiver, often bearing the brunt of a disinterested or abusive husband or his insulting family. A bad wife is anyone who is candid, takes her stand and has goals that don’t align with the hero.
Girlfriends are portrayed as gold-diggers, bossing the boyfriend and hindering his familial and friendly bonds. If she isn’t busy doing the aforementioned, she’ll be the ‘wife-material’. Tumhari Sulu makes us meet an outgoing lady, Sulu (Vidya Balan), a wife and mother. She wants to work but fails to get a job due to her lack of education. She lands a job as a Radio Jockey and is ecstatic. While her family and husband move their support to and fro, she stands her ground and continues to do the work she enjoys.
Obedient, childlike angels without the sense of worldly affairs is how daughters and sisters are stereotyped in most Bollywood films. A father, brother or a love interest dictates their life and behaviour. The usual grind paints them as naïve and misguided by outsiders only to be set straight by a male authoritarian figure.
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Piku redefined the role of a daughter and gave us a taste of a more nuanced reality. Piku (Deepika Padukone) is a strong-willed, career-driven woman, financially independent and unafraid of calling sex what it is to her – a need. At the same time, she takes care of her rather exasperating, hypochondriac father and manages the household. She is practical and impossible to be manipulated by the men around her. Piku shows us what an empowered woman truly looks like, with all her imperfections and magnificence.
Another wonderful character is Priyanka Chopra as Ayesha in Dil Dhadakne Do. Although she sacrifices a lot for the sake of the ‘family image’, her role is explored beyond her relationship with them. She succumbs to her parent’s pressure and marries a man she cannot relate to, but she moves on, builds a business on her own and decides to end her loveless marriage despite backlash from everyone around her.
As is evident, Bollywood has a long way to go to get rid of its sexist tropes when it comes to representing women. Instead of pseudo-feminist films glorifying inequality and toxicity (ahem, Veere Di Wedding), the need is to shift the perspective more relatably. Vilifying the modern woman or hiding her behind centuries of patriarchy needs to end. Women in real life do not live in binaries of good or evil and so must not female characters on screen.
It is high time to leverage the big screen’s immense impact and make space for women on screen who make mistakes, learn, defy, break down, thrive and embrace it all just they way we all do.
Urvashi is a writer, poet and mental health counselor. You may connect with her on Medium
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India