Indian Movies and Portrayal of Women
I enjoy watching a good movie in my free time. It gives me immense satisfaction to watch a meaningful movie that has a strong story line and equally powerful performances by lead actors that give full justice to their roles. However, I always feel disappointed that women are still called actress in Indian Film Industry.
I find it hard to digest the fact that in the majority of the movies, women are still shown as a glam-dolls or item-girls to pull, entertain and titillate the male audience. It is simply unacceptable, demeaning and disrespectful to the entire womanhood. It invariably leaves a bitter taste in my mouth while leaving the cinema hall, even after watching an otherwise wonderful movie.
How many of you share my experiences? Many do, I am pretty sure. Not just because I am a sincere and active supporter of the women empowerment and safety, but even as an audience of the Indian cinema, this biased and derogatory portrayal of the female characters in the movies makes me shudder in absolute disgust.
I decided to dedicate this post to this overlooked yet extremely telling issue that exposes the mindset of our society regarding women. Besides discussing the portrayal of women in Indian films, we will focus on how it affects society and its highly vulnerable younger population. We will also review some welcome changes happening in this area in recent times.
The portrayal of women in the older era of Indian cinema
Let’s start where it all began. The Indian film industry is one of the oldest in the world and has a glorious history of more than a hundred years to its credit. From the silent movies and talkies in black and white in the first half of the twentieth century to the VFX-powered entertainers of today, the industry has gone through a steady process of evolution over the period of time.
Many things have changed. The technology, storylines, techniques of cinematography, art of directing a movie – every aspect of filmmaking has seen enormous changes. However, there is one thing that has always been very reluctant and slow to change – it is the portrayal of women in these movies.
In those initial days, acting in films was taboo for women and hence, even the roles of the female characters were performed by male actors. This slowly changed and women started acting in films and appeared in significant roles. However, barring a few honorable exceptions, those female characters were often second fiddle to the main male characters in those movies.
It was in the year 1957 that the first ever lead role was played by a woman in an Indian film named Mother India. Although the next few decades did see a few great performances by female lead actors like Nutan (Sujata, Bandini), Madhubala (Anarkali), Meena Kumari (Paakiza, Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam), etc. – these were very rare and few. Majority of the movies were written for the popular heroes of those times. The stories were based either on mythological or historical incidences or on the social conditions and issues of that period – including oppression of women. Ironically, they overlooked the oppression of women in their own male-dominated industry.
Male-dominance in the movies in 80s & 90s
Around the 80s, the deep-seated patriarchal mindset of the society started reflecting in the movies big time and the Indian cinema seems to be almost completely taken over by male-centric movies. The films before that period at least had some social message or a meaningful story. However, the films in the period of the 80s and later were made just for mindless entertainment.
These films were single-handedly dominated by male leads. These heroes were pictures of goodness and the saviors of society. The females in those movies were turned to mere showpieces whose only role was to look pretty, sing romantic songs while dancing around with their heroes. These female characters were either the main leads in the movie or a sister of the hero or a helpless mother whose only life purpose was to avenge the villain with the help of her sons.
This pathetic portrayal of women clearly stems from the patriarchal conditioning of Indian society. Male is the dominant force in the family – be it a father or any other older male – who has the near-absolute and unquestionable power to run all the family matters. Females in the family were dependent on this ‘super-man’, who often took major decisions of their lives without their consent. No wonder Indian movies reflected this absolute male dominance when they created movies based on strong male characters while the female characters merely served as fillers in the plot.
However, in the same period, there were some great women-centric films like Arth, Manthan, Bandit Queen, Mirch Masala, Astitva, Lamhe, etc. that have exceptional performances of actors like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Sima Biswas, Tabu, and Late Sridevi. Those were honorable exceptions and stand apart from the crowd of the meaningless and gender-biased lot.
Effects of the wrong portrayal of women in the films on society
Human society is made of individuals – male and female. These individuals are human beings like you and me with sensitive minds that absorb all the information bombarded on it from the surroundings. The impressionable minds of kids and young people are even more vulnerable to this effect.
They often tend to forget the difference between reel life and real life. The glamorous, larger than life image of their favorite movie star often blinds them to reality. They try to copy their screen idols without thinking about the rightness or social consequences of their actions.
In many movies, the hero chases, teases and harasses the heroine to win her love. This is his style of romance and part of his ‘macho’ image and the female is often shown to fall for the hero who publicly teases and harasses her in the name of love.
Such misleading depictions can have serious consequences. After watching such movies, young boys think that it is OK and acceptable to harass a girl publicly or alone, to get her attention and love. In real life, this is a plain eve-teasing and can attract legal action which the youngsters are failed to understand.
An Indian man was captured in Australia in 2015 for stalking and harassing a female. On investigation, it was concluded that his behavior was heavily inspired by Bollywood movies.
Females in movies often act like a helpless victim and look for the hero to rescue them from the clutches of the villain. They often portrayed either stupid or jobless or behind a successful man for money. This portrayal let the youngsters think that women are second to men as they do not have any physical, mental or financial power in society.
Also, the females are shown to have unrealistic flawless complexions and size zero figures. Young girls often compare themselves to these screen beauties and develop inferiority complex about their very much fine yet ordinary looks and physique. They forget that the real secret behind the beauty of those film stars is layers of make-up and smart editing with visual effects.
Is the picture changing in recent times?
There have been some incredible movies in Bollywood in the past few years that are majorly women-centric with a strong female character playing the main lead. These films revolve around that female character and the male counterparts are the secondary features. Some of these movies even have a strong message in them.
These films don’t show women as weak and helpless as was the norm in the past many decades. On the contrary, they portray them as strong, independent and courageous individuals who are ready to go to any length to fight for their justice. To me, these are the real role models that the young girls and boys should have in their minds. This is the image of the Indian woman that these gen-next kids and youngsters should be shown so that they can respect themselves and the women in their own lives.
These roles have been played by some of the most versatile and talented lots of the younger generation who don’t need a male beside them to make a movie successful. All they need is a good script and a sensitive director and they have the power to turn it into pure gold. Their talent speaks for itself and their intense and sensitive portrayal of their roles is more than enough to prove their acting prowess and their commitment towards their work.
Just as their characters in the films, these females are bold, independent and adventurous and are not afraid to take the enormous challenge of carrying a film single-handedly on their shoulder. The audience loves their work, and they have earned the power to pull the audience just on their names.
What is more refreshing is that women are not restricted to acting but are venturing into other vital aspects of filmmaking such as directing and producing movies!
Yes, I am talking about actresses like Priyanka Chopra, Kangana Ranaut, Deepika Padukone, Vidya Balan, Alia Bhat, Anushka Sharma, etc. who have given us gems like Mary Com, Queen, Manikarnika, Piku, Kahaani, Highway, Raazi, NH10, to name just a few.
In conclusion, the winds of change cannot be missed as the mindset of the society, in general, is on the verge of a major shift. The days when women were portrayed in our movies as hapless victims and submissive weaklings, ready to dance on the dictates of their male ‘saviors’ will be over soon. We are surely witnessing the dawn of a promising new era that shows women in a positive light. Something we all women of the present generation and the generations to come will be truly proud of.