One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

Almost a century has elapsed since the inception of Indian cinema; however, the status of women continues to remain elusive.  We have traversed a long path in virtually every aspect of filmmaking and the journey has been linear for almost everything.  Perhaps the statement which best summarises the debate surrounding the status of women is,  "things have changed..." The ellipsis will be filled depending on which end of the spectrum one belongs. From where I see, Indian cinema, when it comes to the representation of woman, is "regressively progressive", or "progressively regressive".

Almost every genre in mainstream cinema has reflected a change in the underlying dynamics for women. There has been a change in the way a woman's role is being approached, but the changes are generally more akin to the phrase mentioned above.

While on one hand, the quintessential liberated urban woman is being celebrated, on the other hand, she ultimately has to either modify her modernity to conveniently suit the tradition or face ostracism. A movie like Cocktail simultaneously applauds the liberated female (Deepika Padukone as Veronica), who chooses to stay true to the flavour of the land she has inhabited, and  also lays bare the double standards, whereby the liberated woman is ultimately rejected for the girl (Diana Penty as Meera) who stays close to her roots across shores!

The archetypal masala movies make us wonder whether there’s always something worse coming up. While today women are offered more screen space in these misogynistic movies (Sonakshi Sinha in Rowdy Rathore, Dabangg and R...Rajkumar), they continue to be portrayed as cardboard characters, and reinforce the myths of damsel in distress and femme fatale.

The spy movies apparently have improved the status of women, by allotting them equal roles as spy or assistant, an improvement over their sheer objectification in the past; but many of these female characters just end up being collateral damage. For instance, Agent Vinod and Hero-Love story of a spy. Surprisingly Ek Tha Tiger is more optimistic about their fate.

The female desire today is receiving more recognition and respect, even though male chauvinism continues. While Aiyya sounded like a mockery of the female desire, Ishqiya and Ramleela were more balanced in their approach, though in the latter, the male protagonist hogged the limelight. This year’s release B.A. Pass on the other hand is a very unapologetic presentation of female passion.

Adultery also continues to be the domain of men in Indian cinema and even today they are graciously pardoned by their loving wives. The wives take the detour of dating another guy for the sole motive of bringing their philandering husbands back on the “right” track; for instance, Thank U, Shaadi No.1, Masti and Grand Masti. Strangely, Karan Johar’s hotch-potch Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna is more gender equal with respect to adultery! And surprisingly, they gross a huge amount. Case in point, Grand Masti is a part of the hundred crore club. Astitiva (2000) and Arth (1982) prove to be exceptions to the rule by examining the underlying complexities of the phenomenon. In fact, interestingly, the female protagonist played by Shabana Azmi in Arth, takes the bolder step of turning the tables on her husband and leaves him for good. And the 21st century woman, the so-called “educated, liberated, independent” woman believes that her adherence to traditional belief triumphs her self-respect.

In contrast, women centric movies seem to be a mixed bag. While Kahaani, The Dirty Picture, Fashion and Heroine celebrate the unabashed liberated woman, these women reinforce stereotypes rather than breaking free from their clutches. Movies like English Vinglish and That Girl in Yellow Boots on the other hand, propagate the belief that the problem is too complex to provide any simple answers.

However, there is some ray of optimism with respect to the genre of romance, which while predominantly heterosexual in its approach, is indeed exploring various dimensions. Here, women have a greater say in relationships (Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu); age differences in courtship are being explored in both ways (Cheeni Kum, Wake Up Sid, Dil Chahta Hai); single motherhood is respected (Paa); and romance in old age is being explored in non-stereotypical ways (Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi, Baghban and The Lunchbox). And perhaps, it is ultimately this genre that is going to redeem Bollywood.

The problem thus, with Indian cinema is that it is straddling between tradition and modernity. With the new wave of feminism and globalisation, gender dynamics have changed at the home and the workplace. What we are witnessing today is a tug of war between the reformist zeal and the status quo conformists, and who shall win the battle shall ultimately be determined by us.

Khushboo Balani


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