Indian Cinema: Celebrating Feminism

An important distinction that needs to be made is that a woman ‘oriented' film is not necessarily a feminist film but practically every feminist film is necessarily a film about women. A women oriented film revolves around women characters but when it is interpreted as a ‘feminist' text it may not necessarily hold up while a feminist film can be cited as an example of ‘feminist' work of art.

Indian Cinema: Celebrating Feminism Indian Cinema: Celebrating Feminism Source : Press


Mainstream Indian cinema is formulaic and cyclical. One successful film, not necessarily good, leads to a wave of films made in the same fashion. All the variables are thrown at the ‘entertainment' starved masses to see what sticks and when it sticks well, a formula is born-story, characters, structure, dance numbers, style, dialogues etc become constant and are manipulated to derive ‘The Formula'.


In the yesteryears, formulas deduced in this manner used to last decades, but the penetration of popular English language content across platforms has afforded the patrons to be discerning in their judgment thus significantly shortening the lifespan of the ‘formula' which is fortunately losing its credibility even among the shell-shocked established producers who are yet to recover from the star-studded disasters (box-office bombs) casting discouraging shadows over the stacks of formulaic scripts.


The last five years in mainstream cinema have been dominated by a certain kind of films. We have seen quite a few biopics (biographical pictures) and films inspired from real incidents, many of national importance and there are a plethora of period films lined up to release in the next couple of years. 


What writers and filmmakers have been and still are hunting for is a ‘Hero's journey' which is not the stuff of dreams but grounded in reality. Masses not only want to escape; they want to be inspired, they want a message and they want to hope. They want wholesome entertainment like 3 Idiots, Dangal, Baahubali, PK, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Secret Superstar etc.


Films centered on indigenous sporting figures and social issues have also been popular among the masses. One consistent theme across such a diverse range of subjects that our filmmakers have explored is the celebration of national identity and culture and restoration of national pride.


Many ‘women oriented' films and some feminist films have also been made in the same period, either they have been very popular or they have been swept under the carpet. Those which are ‘soft' do better commercially than those which are hard-hitting are more critically acclaimed. 


An important distinction that needs to be made is that a woman ‘oriented' film is not necessarily a feminist film but practically every feminist film is necessarily a film about women. A women oriented film revolves around women characters but when it is interpreted as a ‘feminist' text it may not necessarily hold up while a feminist film can be cited as an example of ‘feminist' work of art. Even if they are problematic and depart from the basic definitions of feminism, women oriented films are not necessarily to be rejected by the academia.


Women oriented films are on the periphery of what is considered ‘palatable' by the masses. They spark a conversation that paves the way for the hard-hitting films, that may appear ‘radical' in light of the prevailing socio-cultural context and will be vulnerable to outright castigation or even protests in the absence of the women oriented films which serve as a preparatory towards making strides in the penetration of feminist movement at the interiors, at the roots of the nation.


Let's look at some of the popular women oriented and feminist films from Indian cinema chronologically:


Mother India (1957): Mother India is a classic film and a path-breaker. It is considered to be one of Nargis Dutt's most impressive and iconic performances. Nargis as Radha is a poor villager who stood as the epitome of justice and a motherly figure for the whole of India.


Bhumika (1977): Smita Patil starrer film depicts the existential crisis that comes with fame in the journey of a child artist who goes on to become a successful actress.


Mirch Masala (1987): Directed by Ketan Mehta, Mirch Masala tells the story of Sonbai played by Smitha Patil who chooses to say no to a powerful authority, the subedar played by Naseeruddin Shah, in order to save her from his evil eyes. It is an exceptional story of women empowerment during a difficult period.


Bandit Queen (1994): One of India's most internationally acclaimed films; Bandit Queen is based on the life of Indian dacoit, Phoolan Devi which was portrayed by Seema Biswas.


Arth (1982): Mahesh Bhatt directed film explores the theme of the emancipation of women. Pooja Malhotra played by Shabana Azmi is married to a film director who is having an extra-marital affair with an actress. Pooja slowly comes to terms with it and becomes an independent, working woman.


Damini (1993): Meenakshi Sheshadri plays Damini who is married into a well-off family. Damini is upstanding and fights for the injustice that her brother-in-law metes out towards the maid.


Mrityudand (1997): It is about a village belle, Ketki's, who has to deal with sexism and male-chauvinism. Madhuri Dixit plays the brave woman who struggles to restore the dignity of women in society.


Lajja (2001): Lajja is a thought-provoking film that shows the injustice meted out toward women in Indian society.


Chandni Bar (2001): Madhur Bhandarkar's acclaimed film is a realistic take on the life of women caught in the web of the underworld, prostitution, dance bars, and crime. 


Chak De! India (2007): Popular film starring Shah Rukh Khan follows the journey of India's women hockey team.


Marry Kom (2014): Priyanka Chopra starrer is the biopic of India's boxing champion Mary Kom. What makes it is special because is the hardships that she had to face initially and then the comeback she makes post her marriage against all odds.


Queen (2014): Queen is one of the most celebrated feminist in India. It is a courageous story of Rani, played by Kangana Ranaut who gets the news from her to be groom just a day before the wedding that he is no more interested in marrying her. Rani is broken but she decides to go on her honeymoon all by herself. In her journey, she has the experiences of her lifetime which changes her as a person.


Parched (2016): Leena Yadav directed Radhika Apte and Surveen Chawla starrer is a feminist film in the style of Ridley Scott's 1990 classic Thelma & Louise which follows women in a small town in Rajasthan standing up for themselves and fighting for their survival and dignity, eventually coming on top.


Honorable mentions: English Vinglish, Kahaani, Pink, Mom, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Raazi, Stree, Lust Stories, Bulbul Can Sing, Dear Zindagi, Poorna and Neerja among others.


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