How do you envision a heroine? How are you introduced to the female protagonist in a movie? A beautiful woman with flawless skin putting on makeup in front of the mirror, donning the choicest attire, and gawking at her own reflection. She struts and shops and returns home to be somebody’s daughter, wife, sister, or mother. The best role she plays is being a family member.
The 90s saw the silver screen scattered with depictions of beautiful women with slim waistlines and heavy eyebrows. The only idea young girls possessed of growing up was marrying into a joint family and playing the role of a dutiful wife. But where were the women in this narrative? Where were the working, independent heroines who took their own decisions?
The liberated heroines of the ‘70s and ‘80s
The ’70s and ’80s saw the emergence of the angry young women in Indian Cinema. Shabana Azmi, Smitha Patil, and Deepti Naval portrayed some strong female characters who had an opinion and were not afraid to voice it. They battled infidelity, sexual harassment, marginalisation, and the systemic oppression directed at them. They fought but did not seek refuge in their patriarchs. Shyam Benegal’s Mandi portrays the glamour and beauty of Azmi as the madam of the brothel. She is unapologetically tantalising and asserts her status.
The construction of working women in this decade challenged the stereotypes, but the representation was inadequate. Abhimaan in 1973 surfaced as a poignant social commentary. The casual discussions of how a woman earning more wealth or fame affects the psychology of the husband are carefully presented in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s classic. Hema Malini playing the Taangewali in Sholay caught everyone’s attention. Her bright attire and distinct accent became a staple with Bollywood enthusiasts. Her liberated posture and unabashed demeanor were also a reply to the patriarchs who believed that women could not sustain families financially. Her light conversations revealed a business plan of luring more customers which was precisely accurate.
Vidya Sinha in Chhoti Si Baat is your next-door-working-woman. Clad in beautiful sarees and donning an infectious smile, she plays the role of a working woman effortlessly. The movie showcased office romance, a threat for which women were shut behind the domestic boundary for decades. While a few examples show how women’s representation changed, the majority of movies swore by the old formula of stating women in the house. Her only role is serving the man and helping him accomplish his goal. Movies like Don, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Amar Akbar Anthony, and Golmaal used female characters to supplement their male characters’ goals.
A woman is to be looked at
Laura Mulvey in her famous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ states ‘In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed.’ This state of a woman being looked at is maintained by constructing her as a sexual object, a fetish that is to be consumed through the lens. The ‘90s understood the commercial need for a woman to be displayed as a product and the movies fulfilled it surreptitiously.
The most famous movies like DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Raja Hindustani, Andaz Apna Apna, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Virasat, etc. either depict daughters of millionaires who do not need to work a day or women dependent on their husbands. Biwi No. 1 showcases the other woman played by Sushmita Sen as a model, a woman with a career. She is shamed and ridiculed for not knowing how to manage a home, rear children, or fast at Karvachauth. The obvious climax then is the man returning to the dutiful housewife.
The binary of good woman and bad woman is more pronounced in this decade. The social fear that the working woman is a seductress and woos the husband from the housewife is almost celebrated. The working woman is portrayed as the villain who has the financial agency to reject the revered tenets of patriarchy. She is feared and portrayed as a warning sign. Her depiction is a message for society to carefully choose the profession of their women.
The new woman
The new millennial brought with it the expectations to construct a ‘New Woman’, the woman who is educated, smart, and a global citizen. She was no more ‘Ghar ki Lakshmi,’ but a worldly-wise woman. The lens of the man shifted from the boundaries of home and heroines were now more associated with public space, but the apparent gap in them being a part of the workforce persisted.
While female protagonists were still objectified, their depiction was sanitised. This era also witnessed more women behind the camera. Many accomplished directors like Farah Khan, Zoya Akhtar, Deepa Mehta, Meera Nair, Gauri Shinde, Reema Kagti, etc. entered the scene and we saw women telling women stories.
Movies like Rang De Basanti, Swades, Munna Bhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Lakshya, Kahaani, and The Dirty Picture showed strong women, but were they working or just supporting characters in the hero’s story? In Rang De Basanti women are just sub-notes in the margins. They are love interests, on the move to fulfill their grandfather’s, father’s, or husband’s wishes. While Madhavan wears the uniform, Soha Ali Khan waits in anticipation and blushes and weeps.
There also were glimpses of movies that celebrated the careers of its women characters. Movies like Lage Raho Munna Bhai where Vidya Balan is a renowned Radio Jockey. The movie revolves around her profession and the plots are connected to her workplace. A remarkable movie in this stride is Citylights, while the movie revolves around Rajkumar’s profession, a crucial character is Rakhi. Rakhi, the hero’s wife decides to work at a dance bar to help the family financially and her absence from the home is very carefully treated in the movie.
The veiled boundaries
Partha Chatterjee, a renowned scholar remarked that the women who transgress domestic boundaries are caught in another set of veiled boundaries. They have rules that they must follow if they must be a part of the workforce. The depiction of working women in Bollywood limits the representation of these unmarked rules. The women must not loiter, smoke, or drink in public spaces. They must be resilient but not too much. Their passion must not disrupt the balance of the home and their arrogance must not uproot the patriarch at the office.
In a few recent Bollywood hits, we see a strained relationship with these boundaries. Many women-centric movies like Chhapaak, Panga, and Gunjan Saxena hit the screens and were appreciated but their representations were exceptional. Careers of women in Gangubai, Badhaai Do, and Doctor G were apparent but not normalised.
Most women in Bollywood movies are either madams, models, doctors, teachers, or pursuing some mystery careers. A few examples of women engineers are Katrina Kaif in Bharat and Vidya Balan (and others) in Mission Mangal. There are many more who are employed as a cop, spies, or law enforcement officers. Most of these women have broken relationships with their spouses or are overburdened and on the brink of a meltdown. A remarkable movie in this space is Mardaani 2 which tries to balance both worlds beautifully.
Normalising the working woman
Female labor participation is 37% according to a recent statistical analysis conducted by the Indian government. Half of the population is lagging in contributing to the economy of the nation. This must be treated with all seriousness and all media must be aware of its representation of working women. If heroines are shown studying and pursuing successful careers, many young girls would grow to aspire to become self-dependent women.
The depiction of working women is not just a feminist call, but the society’s need to give space to the women who have to balance their homes and offices. This is a huge space still waiting to be represented. The careers do not have to be as glamorous as Alia Bhatt in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani. The film shows Rani in a career she was supposedly good at, but did not demand anything from her other than decking up and showing up to work. Jaya Bachchan on the other hand, painted as a negative character, gave up everything to build a business of sweets. If she were the man of the house, her character would have been celebrated and normalised.
The need is not for movies like Ki and Ka that exaggeratedly reverse the gender roles. The space requires representation of mothers packing their lunches with their husbands and children, or daughters gearing to compete with everybody for the most coveted seat in the office. The need of the hour is to normalise the fact that women work to fend for their families, for their dreams, and not just for sarees, beauty parlors, and cosmetics.
- Mulvey, L.(1975).Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Screen, 16, 6-18