Towards a Feminist Cinema or What Bollywood can reveal about us?

By Kartikey Tripathi 

Tanuja Trivedi (Kangana Ranaut) from Tanu Weds Manu, Geet (Kareena Kapoor) from Jab We Met, Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) from Manmarziyaan or Bitti Sharma (Kriti Sanon) from Bareilly ki Barfi: they all have many things in common. They are all strong leading ladies from box office hits with fiercely independent attitudes and no career ambitions. But they were well received by the audience and critics alike.

We don’t know whether Tanuja has a life other than deciding between two men. But we do see how endearingly daring and brazen she is for a girl from the small town of Kanpur. Similarly, we don’t know if Geet really has anything on her mind other than her lover, Anshuman. When she is jilted by Anshuman, she starts to work as a teacher in Shimla, in what comes across as the most depressing moment in her life. The bubbly Geet is then subdued into a working woman, whose spirit is visibly shattered. But is she depressed because she has a failed love life or that she has to work for a living? We will never know. Rumi and Bitti seem interchangeable in many ways: they both are balancing between two lovers and liberated in a way that can scandalise the sensibilities of many patriarchal households. But their careers are never a point of discussion in the narrative. Infact, we don’t even know whether Rumi wants to have a career.


A neoliberal politics would often celebrate the sexualisation and objectification of women as ‘freedom’. Perhaps, this infusion of neoliberal and consumerist fervour is what we see in Indian cinema of today. Neoliberalism teaches us that we can always change ourselves and focus on individual development, instead of indulging in collectivised action. All it takes for women to be truly free in India is to have a fiercely independent attitude like Tanuja or Rumi. Smoking, drinking and sex are all tethered to their independence on-screen. But this only stands as a ruse to evade any kind of collectivisation against patriarchal structures. You want public spaces to be safe? Be bold like Geet. You want a way out of restrictive parental authority? Challenge them like Tanuja. But it is always about how you can change and not how society needs to be restructured.


When we look at the trajectory of the feminist movement, we find that the lives of womxn have undergone a significant change over a short period of time. But why is the idea of a working woman still so radical or unpleasurable for our cinema? Although there have been many movies with working womxn, we mustn’t shy away from asking tough questions about projected realities of the loves and lives of womxn in some movies. Has the world around us adapted to the rapidly changing space that womxn occupy? Or can such narratives be read as actively subverting and twisting feminist politcs to lure in fianncially independent female audiences?

 A few answers can be found in Indian cinema. Last year around June, the movie Kabir Singh was making headlines for its box office success despite receiving a massive snub from various film critics. Several feminist groups had called the movie out for its glorification of abuse and violence. However, the opinion of the public remained divided and some claimed that the critics were reading too much into the film. For them, the movie portrays a flawed character who makes mistakes and suffers from mental health issues. 

 Finding a common ground between these diverging points of view does not interest me. I am, however, interested in how films can help us understand a particular point of time in history.

Bombay cinema (popularly/disparagingly known as Bollywood) has been producing films from the beginning of the twentieth century. Up until the 1930s, a sizable number of Parsees and Anglo-Indians worked as actors, directors and producers in Bombay cinema. The industry also started attracting court musicians and courtesans such as tawaifs from various princely states. 

Tawaifs, who were trained and gifted singers and dancers, brought with them the melodies of Hindustani Classical Music and the feisty Kathak dance sequences. Fatma Begum from the princely Sachin state in Gujarat became the first woman to direct a feature film in Bombay cinema. 

There were major shifts in the texture of cinema produced in Bombay post-independence. An influx of post-partition refugees from Sindhi/Punjabi refugees in Mumbai changed the dynamics of film production. The Urdu heavy film industry slowly adapted to a bastardised Hindi mixed Punjabi over the decades.

 There was a strong current of patriotism and steely determination of characters on-screen (case in point: Mother India). India was being constructed as a nation for its audience. At around the same time, the tawaifs were unceremoniously given the boot by the industry. The association of sex work with tawaifs was enough to write their contributions to cinema out of popular history. There was a sanitisation of the industry. Kissing on-screen, which was not taboo before 1947, suddenly disappeared.

 Inspired by Nehru’s five-year plans for India’s development, the silver screens were dominated with fairy-tale romance in the '50s and '60s. The musical matured into a popular form of producing magic on film. Many scholars believe that such escapist cinema helped viewers to dissociate from the widespread hunger and poverty in India.

 Through the '70s and '80s, Bombay cinema shifted away from rural settings and became more urbanised. There was also a surge in action films with heavily masculine plotlines. Perhaps a retaliation to the increasing presence of women in the workplace, which was threatening years of male domination. 

Another landmark shift in the industry happened in 1991 when India was on the verge of bankruptcy significant economic reforms were made. 'Structural adjustments' were made to India’s economy so that India can qualify for loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (read: neo-colonialism). India was now globalising, and a new form of cinema emerged. 

 The new cinema was a motley of tradition and modernity. There were many movies on NRIs and the new cosmopolitan Indian citizen around this time. Filmmakers were grappling with incorporating feminism into cinema. The fearless and feisty NRI Simran (Kajol) from DDLJ was only able to unite with her love only after her father allowed her to do so. The sassy and confident NRI Poo (Kareena Kapoor) from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham becomes a domesticated daughter-in-law. A consumerist fervour of having branded/international clothes, cars and calories was introduced into cinema.


From this brief dive into the trajectory of Bombay cinema, one can see how films evolve with the changing political and economic landscape. It is the female characters that seem to embody Indian-ness. Women on-screen became the silent carriers of tradition in a society where feudal and patriarchal authority was being challenged by the Indian state. From the chaste and pure middle-class/upper-caste housewife to sexually liberated and urban single women, one can see how attitudes are shifting around female sexuality. But she still finds it hard to leave a mark in the masculine workplace.  

 The outrage over Kabir Singh indicates that stories about servile women would not be easily digested by Indians in a post #metoo world. But we need to ask more nuanced questions from every movie whether it is Student of The Year 2 or Article 15 about the who gets represented and how. Why can’t women be madly in love with a man and with their careers too? Why do most male leads have upper-caste surnames? Why was it that during Chatur’s (Omi Vaidya) speech (laced with rape jokes) in 3 Idiots that cinema halls drowned in laughter?

Stuart Hall in his essay ‘Cultural Diversity and Diaspora’ (1990) said that cinema has the power to “constitute us as new kinds of subjects”. Instead of viewing cinema as a kind of a mirror which shows society as/is, cinema then becomes a space where we discover new emerging subjectivities. Therefore, instead of viewing Bollywood as a mirror of what is going on in society, one should look at Bollywood cinema as a fertile ground of contestation between rival ideologies and identities. Mainstream Bollywood cinema constructs an Indian citizen on-screen. Looking at the cinema through a feminist lens reveals that stories of upper-caste Hindu males still hold the centre stage. While leading ladies of blockbusters (sexually liberated and largely upper-caste) are still being written by men and for men. 

Which brings us back to the eternal question: is the director the sole author of a film? From this analysis, we can see that films are products of the social milieu. Although directors and writers might have their original ideas, they are still working within set conventions and catering to tastes of the audience in a particular moment. A blockbuster/hit movie is created by striking the right chord with the audience at the right time.

To answer the question posed earlier in this essay about society adapting to empowered womxn, it looks like directors and film producers in mainstream Indian cinema seem to have incorporated ingredients of a feminist liberation into their narratives. But they don’t offer a feminist resolution. This, perhaps, reflects the ambivalence with which feminist sensibilities are viewed in India: always contesting against the feudal casteist state. And the only secure narrative resolution that mainstream Bombay cinema finds is in a circuitous building up of feminist potential and then denying the possibility of true liberation.

This is also informed by complex industry relations. Screenplays for mainstream cinema are often written by cishet men, which creates a psychological universe centred around male desire. Although now more womxn are involved in writing and film production, there is still a dearth of scripts about experiences of working womxn. Some would say that it can be a subjective choice to leave out careers ambitions. But such scripts are falling back into erecting womxn as subjects around their liberated sexualities instead of the usual caregiving roles. Their sexual frankness can be confused by many as independence, but it lacks context and location.

I can also argue in favour of such movies by saying they create a female citizen on-screen whose subjecthood/respectability isn’t threatened by sexual liberation. While female viewers might identify with these subjects, the brazen lack of respect for traditional patriarchal institutions in such movies plays out differently in our lives. For example, Bitti Mishra from Bareilly ki Barfi is seen fearlessly accessing public space and going around a small town with her boyfriend, while working, rather unenthusiastically, at the state electricity board.  One can say that it is a healthy father-daughter relationship, but how often does this happen? How many upper-caste womxn from small towns are allowed such freedoms without either being married off/disowned by their families or facing sexist slurs and threats of violence? Simultaneously, such movies erase the experiences of lower caste womxn, who have to enter into the workforce just to survive. Ironically, the fearless Bitti Sharma finds herself a nice Brahmin boy to marry. Love may be blind, but it desires marriage in the same caste. While these stories might provide imaginary relief from patriarchal subjugation, they are pipedreams that almost mock lived experiences of womxn.

 The industry also mimics caste patriarchy in the most vicious ways. While it is obvious that the industry is populated by upper castes, certain casting decisions also unconsciously reveal Brahmanical constructs. Hindu subjects make up the majority of the storylines, but hegemonic Hindu practices like Sanskritised wedding rituals still dominate. The idea of a saat-phera, kanya-daan and even sangeet ceremonies stem from a Brahmanical/North Indian understanding of Hinduism. This has simultaneously erased subaltern Hindu wedding customs, which have traditionally challenged Brahmanical authority.

Even innocent casting (caste-ing?) decisions like a much older established actor against a young newcomer actress can provide an insight to caste patriarchy. Babasaheb Ambedkar explained the sustenance of caste through caste endogamy, i.e., the practice of marrying within one’s caste. This was dependent on having equal numbers of sexually available males and females within a caste group. Ambedkar argues that castes maintain their exclusivity by controlling “surplus women”. These were the women who were widows and could have threatened existing caste structures by re-marrying outside caste. So they were disposed of either through sati or through banishment to a life of denial and begging.

Interestingly, male widowers weren’t subjected to these tortures. However, to retain caste numbers the institutionalisation of child marriage began. Underage girls were married off to widowers so that the number of sexually available women doesn’t reduce for other men. Seeing an almost sixty-year-old romancing barely marriageable age womxn can be understood vis-a-vis erstwhile institutionalised child marriage. It, in turn, upholds the place of men, whose sexual desires are never brought to question. At the same time, older actresses are either desexualised as mothers/mothers-in-law (banishment) or sometimes have just been kicked out of the industry (sati). 

 This also calls to question the category of “women-centric” films. Many bold and progressive films have been produced under this category, but they are just a subset of mainstream cinema. Have you ever heard of the category male-centric films? That’s because cinema, at this stage, is structured to deny a female subjectivity without placing it in opposition to men. This is also why Bombay cinema is deeply heteronormative. While there are many movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha, Piku and Soni that are championing complex portrayals of women on-screen, they do not find mass appeal or are reduced to a category.

Now, more than ever, we should also be aware of exploitation and appropriation of the experiences of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi womxn on-screen. The use of rape scenes without the consent of Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen is exploitation of her experience. Certain scenes from the acclaimed series ‘Paatal Lok’ narrate the rape of Dalitbahujan womxn. These scenes not only deny agency to Dalit womxn, but they also exploit their experiences and keep them out of the monetary gain made by their portrayal. They are nothing but new ways to reproduce and justify caste patriarchy through savarna saviours.

Kabir Singh’s success and mass-appeal should be worrying for those who think that India has made major strides in alleviating gender disparities. Even though a lot of us derive pleasure from watching mainstream Bollywood cinema, we still must not stop ourselves from critically engaging with it. Or perhaps, we need to better understand what we find pleasurable in mainstream Bollywood and start from there.


Author's note:

I would like to give due credit to Sohini Chattopadhyay’s fantastic piece on Live Mint for the same. Here’s the link: