India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
December 26, 2017

Bending The Gender: The Portrayal Of Women In Films

Text by Udita Jhunjhunwala

Although our heroines have come into their own in contemporary cinema, many films — even today — are made from the point of view of a male gaze. We analyse the changing portrayal of women in the movies

In her book Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation author Carolyn Cocca asks, ‘If we never see a women portrayed as a leader, a mentor, a professional; if we see women…only as…interested in their own looks and in romance, in need of rescue, and emotional, and if we never see women as heroes, what happens to our imagination for ourselves and our world? After more than a 100 years since the birth of the Indian film industry, these are questions that apply as much to Hindi cinema as to Hollywood.

Certainly, the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema has come a long way from the early days when men played women’s roles and the profession was completely taboo for women. Today, while pay parity is still far from reality, women occupy spaces within the industry both behind and in front of the camera. Yet, the Hindi film industry and its stories remain male-dominated. The power of a male star continues to determine a movie’s journey; stories are written with male actors in mind and often amended to ensure greater box-office traction.

A 2014 study, ‘Gender Bias Without Borders: An Investigation of Female Characters in Popular Films’, which was conducted across 11 countries, assessed that the lowest percentages of female characters on screen were found in movies from India (24.9 per cent) and USA/UK (23.6 per cent). This, compared to higher percentages of 37.1 per cent in Brazil and 35.9 per cent in South Korea. Having said that, it would be fair to say, the industry has come a long way. From the stereotypical representations of mother, wife and sister with idealistic qualities inspired by characters from Hindu mythology and a mother-figure fixation, or vamps, women in Hindi cinema are no longer solely painted in black and white.

Over the years, one can single out films that broke the mould — Arth (1982), Fire (1996), Daman (2001), Lajja (2001), 7 Khoon Maaf (2011) and Queen (2013), to name a few. Even in 2017, the subtextual themes are similar. In this year’s Secret Superstar, for example, a young girl breaks the shackles of patriarchy and uses technology to rebel and chase her dreams. The Aamir Khan starrer Dangal spotlighted how the right attitude and nurturing can level out the playing field for both genders, while Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) subverted and pushed notions of women’s desires and aspirations in modern times.

Battling patriarchy is a common theme. This reflects primarily in offbeat films and those that are occupying the middle ground such as Nil Battey Sannata (2015), Parched (2015), Margarita With A Straw (2014) and Tumhari Sulu (2017). Where once women aspired to the fulfilment of family roles (Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!, 1994) or sought validation within society (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 1998), today female characters are written with complexity, reflecting contemporary preoccupations.

With a handful of female directors and screenwriters, the Hindi film industry is largely viewed from the male gaze and driven by box-office returns, which are pegged on hero worship. Besides Kangana Ranaut, Deepika Padukone, Vidya Balan and Alia Bhatt, no other female actor is seen as able enough to command an ‘opening’ solely on her own star power.

A recent study conducted by IBM and two Indian educational institutes titled ‘Analyzing Gender Stereotyping in Bollywood Movies’ observed occupation distribution of males and females in Hindi cinema. It should come as no surprise, however, that while male characters were playing lawyers, doctors and gangsters, among others, female characters were teachers, secretaries and students. In the last few years, though, we have seen a widening of this space too, with female characters playing detectives, boxers, cable TV operators, politicians, journalists, marketing managers, gangsters, bank robbers and secret service agents. The same study also found that since 2000, the percentage of female-centric movies has seen a rise, from a low of 6.9 per cent in 1995-2000 to 11.9 per cent in 2015-’17.

In an industry that produces more than 200 films a year, it is still possible to earmark those featuring women in positions that influence the narrative and capture the zeitgeist. But these films often struggle to find favour with audiences, unless nudged along by controversy married with strong content, as in the case of Lipstick Under My Burkha. Biopics with a top star headlining can be a shoo-in, as Mary Kom (2014) was, but more often than not, the male-dominated audience prefers films championed by Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan.

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which tackled the unconventional story of a woman walking out on her husband and refusing to return till he built her a private toilet, was one of 2017’s biggest hits. The film starred Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar. But according to sources, the initial script that was based on the true story of a woman’s protest was amended to present Kumar as the hero.

This kind of grandstanding is endemic in the Hindi film industry, and female-led stories, where the women are capable of fixing their own problems, find few backers. And even the most successful women film-makers in the Hindi film industry, such as Farah Khan and Zoya Akhtar, tend to make films with a male gaze. Examine the characters in Hindi movies closely — where are the action heroines, and the women who stand by their actions without weeping buckets of regret? As the millennials begin to turn inwards towards the small screen, seeking edgy content that walks alongside international productions, it will be interesting to see if content created for streaming services succeeds where Hindi cinema has fallen short and bridges the gaping gender gap.

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