Of late, Indian cinema has been finding itself at a rather interesting crossroads of sorts. Juxtaposed between having to hold a mirror to the society and produce mass entertainers that fill the coffers, Indian filmmakers are trying to find a balance through their female leads. But with a long list of factors to take care of, where truthful portrayal and cinematic quality is not a priority, they are resorting to a strategy which can be best described as ‘token feminism’.
Now before you roll your eyes and think ‘One more of those angry women dissing ‘Kabir Singh’, no, this article is the complete opposite. Not that I don’t have a problem with Kabir Singh but the Sandeep Reddy Vanga directorial was unambiguous in its character as a testosterone-fuelled, misogynistic film. Worse harm is done by films masquerading as ‘woke’ expressions of female empowerment but which ultimately deepen the ‘damsel in distress’ trope.
This is something that we have been seeing on screen for ages. What makes it more striking is the willingness of newbie directors and young heroes to accede the fair share of spotlight to the women but the difficulty that the established heroes across industries have in doing the same.
Let’s start from the ‘baap’ of all movie industries in India - Bollywood. The biggest grossers of 2019 share a subtle but disturbing pattern. In the Salman Khan-starrer ‘Bharat’, Katrina Kaif plays this no-nonsense, educated, independent supervisor who makes men tremble. Till the hero enters. After that, she transforms into the obedient partner who sacrifices her job to take care of Khan’s mother while he is away. With occasional bursts of weeping thrown in.
‘Mission Mangal’, riding high on patriotism and female empowerment, failed to realise that having more women on screen did not mean reel equality. Brilliant scientists that they are, the ladies still needed Akshay Kumar to motivate and inspire them, pull them out of impossible situations as well as sell the idea of a homegrown rocket to the powers-to-be.
In the latest blockbuster ‘Dream Girl’, Ayushmann Khurrana shows that he can do a woman’s job better than women themselves. But there is not much to complain about Nusrat Bharucha’s part in the movie; she doesn’t have any!
Down south, Sandalwood continued the trend of problematic portrayal of women with films like ‘The Villain’, ‘Fortuner’ and ‘Daughter of Parvathamma’. In ‘The Villain’, Amy Jackson,
daughter of a tough cop, decides to take on an international don who nearly kills her father. Quite expectedly, the street smart, gun-toting woman ends up falling in love with the don
himself. In ‘Daughter of Parvathamma’, successful investigative officer Hariprriya falls for a guy because he ‘seems kind’. This one act has decided his character in her eyes forever.
In ‘Fortuner’, a smart, independent Sonu Gowda stays on in her relationship, despite being tricked by her freeloading husband. And staying true to the patriarchal concept of ‘women will always be women’, she suspects him of having an affair when he starts a business with another woman. Because no lady would enter into a partnership just for trivial things like career, respect and financial stability right?
There are many other films in the list but these starred Sudeep, Shivarajkumar and Diganth; stars with a massive fan following in the state.
Despite giving hits such as ‘Uyare’ and ‘June’, Malayalam industry also churned out ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Love Action Drama’, with names like Mohanlal, Prithviraj and Nivin Pauly in the star cast.
In ‘Lucifer’, a raging, powerful Manju Warrier still needed Mohanlal to help her tackle her own husband, who also abused her daughter. A lying, jobless Nivin Pauly still manages to woo Nayanthara, a practical, modern and independent businesswoman, because he is ‘kind and will take care of her’ (this is becoming stale even in writing).
The Tamil and Malayalam industries have been doing quite well when it comes to these parameters but we guess peer pressure was too much to ignore. One of Kollywood’s biggest hits in recent times was ‘Viswasam’, starring Ajith and Nayanthara. Nayanthara is a city-bred, super-smart, ambitious doctor who falls in love with country bumpkin Ajith because... well,
because he can fight goons and is a kind man (sigh!). She gives up her dreams of studying abroad to bear his child, has a misunderstanding, goes back to build her business empire, can’t keep her child safe despite having an army of attendants at her command, needs Ajith’s help, realises her mistake and goes back to him. Easy peasy!
Anita Udeep’s ‘90 ML’ was supposed to break the mould but the film equates feminism with drinking and smoking; acts which are supposed to be liberating because you can’t break the rules while sober, we guess.
The sleazefest, while encouraging women to have fun, also reinforces all prejudices that society might have about ‘feminists’.
From the Telugu film industry, always a poster boy for gender-insensitive cinema, we have the likes of ‘Saaho’ and ‘Dear Comrade’ (these films are multi-language releases but putting them in the Telugu bracket because of the stars).
Vijay Devarakonda and Prabhas are some of the biggest names in the entire Indian film industry so when their female counterparts, be it state-level cricketers or crime fighters, seem to always need their help to sort out problems, it sets the tone for what young men (and women) in the audience will absorb, expect and act on.
The list is endless; one wonders when our filmmakers will realise that a woman would prefer to turn her back on an abusive relationship, that she doesn’t need to sport tattoos or mouth profanity to be ‘modern’, that she can wear a sari and yet kill that boardroom meeting, that she can wear heels and makeup and still stand up for her own rights, that she doesn’t need to ‘man up’ to face the world — sometimes being a woman is enough.