Cinema is no different because it reflects life, albeit in different ways, some entertaining, some dark and depressing.
Traditions linger, and this too is mirrored in our films. But as women step out of their homes to work and earn, or earn even at home, our cinema reflects these changes in the women in them. In the 21st century, this change has been socially and culturally significant and cinematically visible.
The most recent example that takes serious pot shots at the patriarchal marginalisation of an ordinary woman, though she is a self-respecting earning person, is English Vinglish.
The film shows how the protagonist, Shashi Godbole (Sridevi) earns through her indigenous business of laddoos. In the US, she gets a big ego-boost when her English teacher calls her an entrepreneur. But back home, she is made the butt of jokes because she cannot speak English fluently. Her husband has the gumption to tell her to give up her laddoo business and she stares back at him and asks “why?”
Should we credit the woman director Gauri Shinde for this insight into an upwardly mobile, urban Indian family? Not really, if one looks back at Shoojit Sircar’s critically acclaimed film Vicky Donor, produced by John Abraham.
Ashima Roy, with whom the sperm-donating hero Vicky Arora falls in love, is a no-nonsense, stiff-upper-lipped bank officer who is not easily taken in by the naïve flirting of the young man. She submits subsequently, but cannot accept the truth of his being a prolific sperm donor till she can be convinced of the welfare-motive behind sperm donation!
Visual imageries have changed. Perceptions have dramatically altered. Newspaper headlines, TV grabs, ad campaigns and Bollywood — virtually every media platform has been feeding to create a very progressive and modern face of India’s women workers. The reality, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much.
In Yash Chopra’s directorial swan song Jab Tak Hai Jaan, which pairs Shahrukh Khan and Katrina Kaif for the first time on the big screen, Anushka Sharma plays a character named Akira, who is a 21-year-old journalist working for Discovery Channel and is fiercely ambitious in her chosen profession.
Not since V Shantaram’s Admi and Amar Jyoti, or JBH Wadia’s Hunterwali series and melodramas of the ‘40s and ‘50s have there been so many strong roles for women to play on the big screen as there are today and in the past decade. The journey has been long and it has been an uphill climb.
From Radha in Mother India who was forced to take up the financial responsibility of looking after her boys, to Sonbai in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Massala who worked in a chilli factory but did not balk at slapping the subedar when he tried to get fresh with her, to the Page 3 journalist in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3, the beautiful tongewalli in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay , the single-mother doctor in Paa , working women in Indian mainstream cinema have come a long way.
And thankfully, the gender of the filmmaker or the star portraying the woman does not make a difference.