Feminism and Bollywood still don’t mix, despite recent women-focused films

Laya Maheshwari says although several mainstream films claim to celebrate women’s agency or address the problems they face, the actual storylines show they are nowhere close to tackling the misogyny in Indian society

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 8:54pm

Marketing agencies promoting a product know that sex sells. In today’s world of social-media campaigns and viral hashtags, Bollywood firms have found another effective tactic: feminism sells – or at least a sanitised and glamorous version of it.

Cinema is akin to a religion in India, which makes more films annually than any other country. In terms of soft power and cultural influence, Bollywood has always been a major participant in the public sphere. Something that would be deemed taboo for discussion in conservative Indian society can be broached by way of the silver screen.

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Thus, it gave many people hope when several mainstream Bollywood films appeared to be highlighting the misogyny so prevalent in India. Examples include the romantic comedy Befikre (Carefree), which aimed to portray new-age love and more proactive female characters; courtroom drama Pink, which revolved around sexual assault and the misunderstandings around consent; and wrestling drama Dangal, which claimed to address the problem of female feticide and the unequal treatment of daughters vis-à-vis sons. The marketing for these films played up their lofty aspirations, leading some to believe the country’s biggest stars were going to act as supporters of feminism.

Watch: The official trailer of Pink

However, the films themselves told a different story, with only lip service paid to female empowerment. Lifting the position of women in society and saving them from numerous vices were seen as necessary and urgent tasks – that could only be accomplished by men. The biggest culprit in this trend is Dangal, now one of the most successful Bollywood films of all time. Pretending to be a biography of two award-winning female wrestlers, it instead serves as a hagiographic portrait of their father. Their success is supposedly a result of his hard work and talent; when one ignores his advice, her career goes into free fall.

Watch: The official trailer of Dangal

Such thematic elements are depressing as well as dangerous. They reinforce notions long cherished in a patriarchal environment: that women can’t be trusted to make decisions for their own good. This view sees female empowerment as progress that men should be proud of bringing about. It presents stories with female faces but male voices.

What is the way out? It is worth noting that the behind-the-scenes talent on these films is almost entirely male. Thus, Bollywood studios need to scout out more female talent. This would not just lead to more authentic narratives but also ensure these stories become more genuine advocates for women’s causes.

Laya Maheshwari is an Indian journalist and essayist who writes about culture and politics. He tweets at @lazygarfield