Feminism seen through Indian cinema

By Adelaide Lodder:
At first glance, Indian cinema is exciting, dramatic and colourful. I hoped to sink my teeth into the flair of Bollywood and find out what makes it so appealing, as it is, after all, considered one of India’s greatest exports for Western viewing. All I knew was that Bollywood was wild, sometimes weird and very provocative. Women, in my perspective, were painted as beautiful, stick thin and obviously dressed to fulfil a man’s expectations. This laid a foundation to what I thought India was going to be like in real life but boy, was I shocked. I quickly learned that Indian cinema is an industry far more homogenized by powerful and progressive women who are re-shaping the stereotypes of Indian cinema that were predominantly controlled by the ‘visible male gaze’ for so many years.

To aid my investigation I was guided by Associate Professor at Amity’s School of Communication, Gauri D Chakraborty. She is an advocate of equal rights for all and encourages her students to branch out of everyday norms. She is passionate about women’s rights and it puts her right in line with many other progressive women making a stand in India’s economy. When I spoke with her students, they admired her for many of her qualities but one significant quality stood out among the rest. She practices what she preaches not only in her workplace but in her home space as well. She considers herself an equal partner in her marriage and her husband shares the role of cooking, cleaning and paying bills without any gender barriers. This is a rarity in Indian families and many would consider this as a defiance against conventional Indian households.

My discussion with Gauri began with Bollywood as she says it is the first thing Westerners know about India. Unfortunately, most of the takeaway messages from Bollywood extravaganzas are fabrications or hyped nonsense. Gauri believes that Bollywood and the cinema it represents is consumed by millions of Indians with relatively ‘nuanced Indian-ness’, or in other terms, superficial ideas of Indian life. Women characters and their womanhood have been vastly unexplored in Bollywood and in Indian cinema in general until only the last couple of years.  Whilst Gauri concluded that Bollywood is completely superficial she said it has thrown some interesting developments into the mix. Such developments include highlighting the woman’s point of view and the ‘mother’ of the family coming through as the supreme leader of the family dynamics, having more of a say than the father figure at times.

It can be argued that India is very much a country in development and Indian cinema represents this and the changes that are currently occurring in India. One of the biggest catalysts to hit Indian cinema has been globalization. The economy and emergence of wealthy middle-class families has led to the rise of feminism and women starting to become major players in every profession, at every level. The year of 2012 marked a significant year for women in Indian cinema. Finally, they were being recognized and credited for carrying a box office success at the movies. The presence of foreign actresses and their ‘global’ or unique look and attitude can also be the cause for re-establishing new representations and delivering new narratives in Indian cinema. It has only been in the last three years that women have also stepped up to the task of producing movies for Indian cinema. Despite these small steps forward, I discovered that there is still major stigma attached to women in Indian cinema. Women cannot be present in a movie without being thought of as an object to be desired or the ‘teary eyed, always helpless’ woman who needs a man to save her. Gauri argues that this is largely due to Indian cinema being a “patriarchal protégé” that has, for years, placed the woman character and her personality as unimportant and uninteresting for the movies.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or otherwise known in English as You Only Live Once (YOLO) is an Indian film released in 2011 that features three young Indian ‘lads’, as we would describe them in Australia, who decide to take a trip overseas to essentially ‘find themselves’ and grow into the men they should become to suit the demands of their families and society. Along the way they meet an American-Indian named ‘Laila’ who becomes the female lead. Laila is represented as a ‘person’, not an object and is the symbol of a female beyond the politics of sex and gender. Her character is appealing because she is interesting, intelligent, strong-willed and has more guts then her male counterparts. Gauri sums this up perfectly when she told me that “this movie is not about the physical makeup but rather the mental makeup of the woman”. She is a free spirit and scandalously has no last name, which in India usually defines what caste you belong to. Laila is completely happy being by herself and content in her own skin. She truly breaks all stereotypes and regular norms of a traditional Indian woman. It is a movie that highlights to the Indian community that women can be independent and don’t need a man to survive.

YOLO was directed and produced by Zoya Akhtar and her depiction of ‘Laila’ started a wave of similar movements in the world of Indian cinema to capture the womanhood of Indian women. As Gauri told me, it reflects the engagement with ‘real spaces’ and perspectives of women from a liberated space to a more ‘sheltered’ space. English Vinglish is another hit 2012 movie directed by a comparably powerful woman, Gauri Shinde. It depicts a typical Indian housewife who is very much sheltered from the world. She finds self-respect by voyaging to America for a wedding and learning English, eventually proving her family wrong about her position in life as ‘just a simple housewife with simple duties’. This movie elevates the role of an ‘average’ housewife and shows that women can be emancipated from their husbands and survive without them.

Female directors like Zoya Akhtar and Gauri Shinde challenges the traditional role of women and their womanhood and provide fresh perspectives. They are leading the way to a country that embraces women as equals and not placed on the back benches as they have for so long.

In just about every movie that Gauri spoke to me about, the story line takes them to a foreign land to getaway and find answers. Gauri claims that this is because the West is seen as a positive space for liberation and allows for the director to skip over a lot of other things in the movie. It seems to be the case that directors simply feel the need to take their characters outside of India because India is seen as a place that is not liberated.

Films are not only about the reflections and inspirations of directors and writers, but about the fabrications and constructions they bring to people’s lives also. The fabrication of women and their woman-hood in Bollywood, and Indian cinema in general, was territory greatly unexplored until only recently and the space is continuing to grow. India is progressing to a stage where women are validated and self-identified and as Gauri so gracefully puts it: “This discourse leads to a new argument for third wave feminism in India” and I couldn’t agree more.

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Gauri Chakrabortty showing us the production studio at Amity University.

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 Gauri speaking about women in Indian cinema. Book: Mother Maiden Mistress: Women in Hindi Cinema.

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Embodying the empowerment of feminism in India.

 

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