FILM ESSAY
No Sexism is Benign: The Changing Role of Women in Hindi Cinema
Saumya Baijal

Sridevi in English Vinglish (Image © Eros International) 

Sridevi in English Vinglish (Image © Eros International) 

Cinemas are changing, as is popular Hindi cinema. In craft, stories, characters, durations. It is also changing in scale. The industry is becoming a little more organized and a tad more permeable. Popular films are becoming slightly braver, touching socio-political issues, whether fleetingly or with depth. There is grit, experimentation, protagonist shifts. And the audience is powerful. More aware than ever before. Questioning, demanding, rejecting, anticipating different films, with myriad perspectives- a narrative at a time.

And the women? No story is complete without a woman in a pivotal role. The ‘lead’ if you will. Or the ‘supporter’. But who is she? Has her definition changed? Or are they just cosmetic, costumed changes? 

Many will argue that it has. And share a list of films of the recent past that appear to have. But within them sometimes, there is a dialogue or a character that annuls the few steps we take to break the sexist outlines in which our female characters have always been trapped. Or there are several films that set us back, with each dialogue, into the chasm of sexism, that women are crawling, struggling to break out of- not because they can’t- but because the shards and chains of patriarchy are so deep, violent and aggressive all around us.

Depictions of women in popular hindi cinema of the 90's could well be divided. We pedestalised our women. The model wife, daughter, mother- aka devis or devi avataars. Women, who abided, served, selflessly. The ‘ma’ that did everything unyieldingly for her sons. Who were ‘right’ in every sense of the word. The wives, who put the needs of their husbands before all else. Who were ill-treated, suffered but remained ‘devoted’. Who were thwarted but never raised their voices. Barring ‘Khoon bhari maang’, these were largely women who were submissive, non-confrontational, silent sufferers, perfectly molded to the definitions patriarchy led out for them. So a Simran in ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge’ has never disobeyed her father, waits for the man she loves to rescue her, and abides by his choices entirely, submissively and without any confrontation.

Aruna Irani 

Aruna Irani 

Or there were the women we slammed. The ones we loved to hate. Who epitomized evil. As those with low moral standards- the vamps, the crafting mums-in-law (played by Aruna Irani, Rohini Hattangadi- exemplified by Lalita Pawar a generation earlier), the scheming sisters-in-law, the ones with questionable ambitions! Why, wanting to get rich is, one, a questionable ambition for a woman, and secondly a man’s domain! Remember Karz? 

Have these compartments changed? Cocktail- Homi Adajania’s celebrated hit, where he presented Deepika Padukone’s Veronica as a rich, comfortable-in-her-sexual-desires-independent photographer. She smoked, she drank. She was unabashed in her choices. Warm yet fierce. Affectionate and possessive. And as almost everything written for Cocktail suggests- a woman with a heart of gold. Yet, it is the caring-worshipping-non-smoking-non-drinking, salwar-kameez clad, doing-your-laundry woman that our male protagonist chooses over this fiercely independent Veronica. Why? Because it panders to our notions of what an ‘ideal’ woman should be, fed by patriarchal definitions for years? Did the film not succumb to a stereotype it tried to defy? 

And what of the desires of a woman? There are hardly any references in commercial cinema that celebrate the woman’s desire. Desire for ambition and for sexual satisfaction. Piku, with Amitabh Bachchan’s Bengali father, is a rare exception that comfortably refers to her daughter’s autonomy and independence economically, socially and sexually. Else, most films, and women characters in films are either indicated to have sex to satiate the man’s needs, or to ‘use’ their sexuality for success- encouraging audiences to be increasingly judgmental of the woman’s ‘character’ or ‘victimization’. Priyanka Chopra’s breakdown in ‘Fashion’ when she finds herself next to a black man she doesn’t know (another deep stereotype) cements this thought process. Ambition isn’t a man’s domain alone. Nil Battey Sannatta showcases the ambition and earnest efforts of a woman caught in a lower middle class, insistent and consciously working towards a better future for her daughter, struggling, failing but failing better every time until the end.

Who placed the ‘izzat’, the honour of a woman, in her vagina?

Our society is deeply infected by and reflects rape culture. Who placed the ‘izzat’, the honour of a woman, in her vagina? There have been a few exceptions, where films have taken a more sensible and sensitive view of rape survivors and of rape itself. Gulzar’s Ghar, is one such example. However, the villain’s epitome of villainy came as he attempted to rape or molest a woman. But what of the woman is this context? She is a means, still, to indicate a man’s villainy. Or a victim, that awaits justice or safety, meted out to her again by a man, lifting his standards in society as a veritable hero- who stands for the bechaari ladki, incapable of ‘saving’ herself.  The (in)famous ‘balatkaar’ speech in 3 Idiots uses rape flippantly attempting humor. Sexism, women body shaming is immense fodder for humor in popular films. But then that’s another story. 

Are the ‘item’ songs items in films? Or they subconsciously name the ‘elements’ of the songs- the ‘items’ women? How are they different from the songs and dances of yesteryears? There has arguably been no better dancer than Helen across films. Her moves have been sensual, exotic and electric. Never vulgar. A lot is to do with the way songs of desire were written those days. ‘Aao na. gale lagao na, lagi bujha do na, o jaane jaan’ is as erotic as it can be. Yet it celebrates desire. Today the lyrics are ‘gatka le saiyyan alcohol se’ that reduces the woman to an object- to be leered and jeered at. While Helen’s ‘aa jaan-e-jaan’ also showed active jeering at her- the man was indicated to be an animal, trapped in a cage, as the woman attempted to tempt him in performance. The male dancers keep a huge distance. The camera movements do not accentuate the already comparatively subtle choreography. However, today, camera movements take the control away from the woman shown in these songs. The camera travels across her body, blatantly projecting every inch of it as the camera sees fit. The angles are such that eyes only fall on sections of the woman’s body as willed by those behind the camera. The choreography, with the other dancers being men- positioned at places threateningly close to the woman’s body, adds to the diminishing sense of personal space. What does this do? One, the female form and bodies are shaped, clothed and moved to appeal to the male gaze. Not only does that propel further objectification, but also adds fuel to the assumption that the female body and gender exists to appease the male. Secondly, it projects an unequal body image- with the man viewing expecting his partner to ape the same looks, the woman watching hoping for such a body, and the children viewing- accepting these as standards of beauty.

The Dirty Picture (Image © ALT Entertainment/Balaji Motion Pictures) 

The Dirty Picture (Image © ALT Entertainment/Balaji Motion Pictures) 

The Dirty Picture could have been a film that turned objectification on its head. But sadly succumbed to it. It was Vidya Balan’s turn as Silk that rendered the film some dignity and the character its human side. However, the film, its brazen camera angles and insensitivity reduced the film to an innuendo filled no soul commercial caper.

Zohra Sehgal, one of the finest actors to have graced the stage and screen in her inimitable manner once said, "You see me now when I am old and ugly, in fact you should have seen me earlier — when I was young and ugly!" It only reminds me of the forced, single-minded standards of beauty reinforced by our films. The need is to expand that definition, that encourages acceptance and celebration of different sizes, shapes and truths of bodies of women.

Look a the abuses we use in our popular lexicon. ‘Behen****’, ‘Ma*******’, Ch****’- all to indicate the man’s inadequacies, fallacies, ‘wrongs’. But who is the sufferer in these abuses? The woman. While Udta Punjab tries to break certain stereotypes, succumbing to a few others, that’s a different matter- the abuses, and the inadvertent ‘mard toh sab suinyaan lagake tight hain, toh ab ladies ko hi kuch karna padega’ indicates the sexism again. 

Being able to choose the direction of one’s life is one of the greatest forms of liberation. Several recent films boast of celebrating women’s choices today. Let us look at English Vinglish closely- the film deep dives into the life of a typical middle class woman made to feel inadequate everyday. Sridevi’s turn as Shashi is super. Everything in the film indicates empowerment, celebrates her need to break out of a mold she is trapped in, just until the end. She choses to return to the same life (after making a point of course), not reading the English newspaper when she can and had the chance. Why? And what impact does that have on depictions of women?  Similarly, Shefali Shah’s turn as the wealthy wife to Anil Kapoor’s indifferent and often terse husband, in Dil Dhadakne Do, indicates her willingness to stay in the marriage despite apparent lack of respect. The crucial change thankfully being Priyanka Chopra’s vocal effort in stepping out of her marriage- despite all sorts of patriarchal pressures around her not to. Dil Dhadakne Do calls out the rampant sexism across socio-political-economic classes within India, highlights the need for equality across genders within the generation and beyond.  In Band Baja Baraat, Anushka Sharma’s Shruti choses to be a wedding planner, does everything needed to make it big, but chooses marriage, at the cost of her successful business partnership (with a man she loves), to a man she doesn’t love for her ‘safe, secure future’ and her ‘mummy papa’. Her choice of portraying the sacrificial wrestler in Sultan, cements patriarchy. An unwelcome change after her turn in NH10 and the free-thinking Farah in Dil Dhadakne Do.

Mardaani, that made 2014 a landmark year in roles written for women, along with Queen and Highway, the film was a great example of a strong liberated woman tracking down the sex trade mafia. The only glaring discrepancy was the title. Mardaani translates into ‘like a man’. The film was about a strong woman. Why must her strength, audacity and courage make her like-a-man? 

Tanu weds Manu returns took several backward steps when it came to sexism. Its definitions of feminism were flawed. It is not feminism to be married and chose to flirt unceremoniously with other men, knowing of their affections for you. Neither is it feminism to be flippant about mental illness and get your husband admitted in an asylum. These assumptions along with several sexist dialogues, threaten to add further confusion to the already ill-understood definition of feminism in a patriarchal India.

Violence is not merely physical. It is emotional and social. Oppression and the inability to articulate beliefs, unable to lead the life you wish to lead,  are all forms of violence. In this context, in Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 , the free thinking, strong, articulate Smrutika meets a very bloody end, when she confronts the man she loves. Debates, retorts and fights have often resulted in violence towards women in popular cinema. Raman Raghav 2.0 inadvertently showcases that as well. Similarly, the inability of women characters to take certain decisions in their lives that would threaten male dominance, are symbols of violence and oppression of the gender.

Oppression and the inability to articulate beliefs, unable to lead the life you wish to lead, are all forms of violence.

But is it fair to say that nothing has changed? No. There are changes- even if they are slow. For every Sultan, there is a Piku, that has different generations celebrating the woman’s ability to make choices for her life. For every Happy New Year, there is an Angry Indian Goddesses, a film that has feisty, real women- celebrating their imperfections, inadequacies and realities- and their ability to fight. For every 3 Idiots, there is a Highway, that breaches the topic of sexual abuse and the raw power of love. For every English Vinglish there is The Lunchbox, that celebrates the ability of a woman to chose to opt out of a marriage that is bereft of love and respect. For every Tanu weds Manu returns, there is a Nil Battey Sannatta- that validates the desire of ambition of women. 

More and more filmmakers are becoming aware of what women think, and who we are. A lot of women are entering the industry and changing it, a word, a dialogue and a film at a time. Audiences are becoming steadily more and more articulate and are being able to spot the ‘benign’ sexism. But filmmakers, lyricists must understand that no sexism is benign. Maybe that will help change intents. 


Saumya Baijal, is a writer, theatre artiste, advertising professional and a student of Kathak. She writes passionately on popular hindi cinema. As a feminist, most of her writing (fiction and research based) reflects that innate belief that women and men must both be entitled to freedom and the same opportunities. Her poetries, essays and articles have been carried across Jankipul.com, The Equator Line, The Silhouette Magazine, Paperless Postcards, Writer's Asylum amongst several others.