Representation of Women in Bollywood

(source: Pinterest)

Ah! The good old question of women and how the film industry has treated them, on and off the silver screen for close to a century. From shoving female leads into ‘refrigerators’ (causing harm to a minor character for the character development of the lead) to the manic pixie dream girl syndrome, women in cinema have been subjected to it all.

Women, The Object

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.” 

(source: Goodreads)

Highlighting how women are objectified in popular culture, this quote by John Berger describes the plight of women in the Indian film industry to a T. Women are often treated as rewards for a man’s fight well fought or for winning a moral tussle. A few faces that the objectification of women in Bollywood takes are; item songs in which women are represented as objects of desire (item songs are a major contributor to India’s rape culture), damsels in distress, fridging the female leads, and the hero’s love interest whose sole job is to mother him into choosing the “right” path in life. This shameless objectification and belittlement stands witness to the fact that at the end of the day, all perspectives are tinted by the male gaze. Trying to uproot these deeply engrained weeds of patriarchy is like moving a mountain. 

Here is a breakdown of the portrayal of the “Indian woman” in Bollywood, era by era. 

The start of Indian Cinema

he first full-length Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913) had an all-male cast, as no woman ever came to audition for the female roles. Back then the involvement of women in the performing arts was frowned upon. The introduction of women into the Indian film industry started in the same year with Dadasaheb Phalke’s Mohini Bhasmasur.

(Kamlabai Gokhale, the lead in Mohini Bhasmasur)

Such films, produced till the 1950s were either based on nationalist propaganda or mythological tales and occasionally represented women as passive characters.

The 1950s-70s era is often considered the Golden Age of Bollywood that gave us some “timeless” characters.. women of this ‘golden era’ were often the loving mother, wife, or partner whose sole role was to guide the hero and support him through thick and thin- a breathing walking cane, if you will. These “timeless” characters were timid Indian women who emphasized the importance of traditions and familial values even in the face of oppression from their own families. 

An exception worth mentioning here is the movie, “Mother India“, which introduced the formidable Radha, who single-handedly braved all the atrocities of life and won the audiences’ hearts by the end of the film. Many of the themes in this film didn’t age well, but Radha’s character development is one for the books.


    (source: imdb)                                                                                                           (source: pintres)

The love interest

Bollywood started leaning more towards the “love story” narrative in the 80s and 90s, with which the perception of women shifted as well. This was the era where more often than not, women either played the damsel in distress who was a liability to the hero’s win or the well-educated “bahu” who had given up her ambition to fulfil her “wifely duties”. The decision to become a homemaker is not wrong and is often an individual one. It is the generalization of the“women can only be homemakers” notion that takes place through bollywood movies that I have a problem with. 

This era also witnessed the introduction of the “vamps“. These women were portrayed as seductresses who adorned western clothes and schemed endlessly to lure men  off the path of virtue. Ironically, vamps were also headstrong and independent women who enjoyed a great deal of verbal freedom in films, something the female leads were starved of. 

This period gave us movies like Hum Sath Sath Hain, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Biwi No.1, Dil Wale Dhulaniya Le Jayenge, and Raja Hindustani. Labelled  as timeless classics, these films were fraught with problems like gender stereotypes, the “make-over” trope, the “over-controlling wife” trope, physical and verbal abuse, etc at their very core.

The fact that there is a dialogue on how the girls and ladies cooking and feeding everyone at home is what makes it a real and happy home, in Hum Sath Sath Hai is downright disappointing. Another bone of contention in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is that, Rahul falls in love with his college friend Anjali only after she ditches her track pants and jackets for a more “feminine” look in a saree and long hair. EIther women fitthe moulds of sanskaar defined by men, or they are evil succubus.

A step closer to real on reel

In the past decade or two, the reel portrayal of women has evolved in small ways.we have had great movies like Veer-Zaara, Saat Khoon Maaf, Jane Tu… Ya Jane Na, Wake Up Sid, Karthik calling Karthik, and Love Aaj Kal to name  a few, where women were shown as independent individuals who were capable of making their own decisions. Even though flawed, these female characters smashed the stereotype of the perfect mother and obedient wife. In the past decade, Bollywood gave us gold like Kahaani, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Raazi, Begum Jaan, Dangal, Thappad, Chhapaak, Lust Stories, Lipstick Under My Burkha, English-Vinglish, and Queen. These films celebrated women, their desires and choices, and gave them the stories and screen time that they deserved. 

Here is my bone of contention-t why is it that only female-centric films portray women in a realistic light? Why can’t the practice of on-screen equality be adopted unanimously by the Indian film industry, by women and men alike? 

With women coming up  in the technicalities of filmmaking like writing, direction and production, the landscape seems to be changing. We must realize the sheer magnitude of Bollywood , and the effect that skewed on-screen portrayals have on the masses. Bollywood has millions of viewers worldwide with the Indian film industry being valued at over 18,000 crore rupees in 2019. The fact that in the same year Kabir Singh earned a wooping 275.96 crore rupees in the sixth week of its release itself worries me about my future as a woman. If the glorification of physical and emotional abuse faced by Preeti in Kabir Singh does not qualify as downright derogatory and toxic in the 21st century,  I don’t know what does. 

The boundaries between the reel and the real world are blurred as the happenings of one are often mirrored in the other. Thus, maybe a positive change on the silver screen could lead to a better life for women off screen. Maybe the portrayal of gender equality on screen could help in making it a reality for me offscreen. 


The Portrayal of Women In Bollywood: A Tale of Misogyny

Representation of Women and Identity in Bollywood Films

Women Leads in Bollywood Movies: How Female Leading Roles Have Evolved | VOGUE India

Shruti Reddy

FY B.Sc.

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