Grittier roles for women show a Bollywood in transition

WATCH: Growing number of films where women are more than damsels in distress or eye candy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 4:09pm

After decades of male domination, Bollywood has seen a recent wave of hit movies starring Indian women in tough, smart leading roles. In the bigger picture, it suggests the gender tide may finally be turning.

Indian movie-goers are used to watching glamorous, often scantily clad women on screen, almost always playing damsels in distress or women torn between family duty and following their hearts.

But a series of gritty leading roles for women, including a boxing champion and a detective, is marking a cinematic shift from outdated stereotypes to a more accurate reflection of modern India.

"The good-guy, bad-guy formula is no longer working, and we are exploring real stories," actress Huma Qureshi says. "We are opening up to new experiences, which is reflective of society. The writing is improving and actors are willing to take more chances."

Qureshi co-starred with Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya, a story about two strong women who refuse to play by the rules.

It was one of more than a dozen women-centric Bollywood movies released last year that saw actresses, not their male counterparts, plastered on promotional billboards nationwide.

Piku, NH10 and Tanu Weds Manu Returns have been among that genre of popular movies this year, and two more are in the pipeline: action thriller Jazbaa, starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and Bajirao Mastani, a romantic period drama featuring Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra in leading roles.

Chopra played world champion boxer Mary Kom in a biopic last year, and Kangana Ranaut's character took off on a solo honeymoon to Europe after being dumped by her fiancée in Queen.

Ranaut wowed audiences with her double role in Tanu Weds Manu Returns earlier this year, and Padukone received plaudits playing a hard-working architect who arranges a road trip for her ailing father in Piku.

As we see stronger women emerging in all fields, we are also willing to accept a film with a woman lead
Sujoy Ghosh, filmmaker

Hindi movies have long been made and marketed on the brand value and star power of the male hero, played by actors such as Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.

But filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh says Indian cinema-goers now increasingly care more about the depth of the plot rather than how many products the star's face adorns, leading to a greater variety of roles for actresses.

"The audience has become more accepting of good content, and as we see stronger women emerging in all fields, we are also willing to accept a film with a woman lead," says Ghosh, who cast Vidya Balan as a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in the 2012 thriller Kahaani.

Vikas Bahl credits the success of his film Queen, which was budgeted at 170 million rupees (US$2.6 million) but actually cost around four times that, to the strength of the story.

"With Queen I thought: 'If I want to watch a film about a girl who gets dumped and wants to go on her honeymoon alone, then so will others'. It is nice to see big actors in interesting roles," Bahl says.

Film critic Anupama Chopra believes it's a golden period for Bollywood actresses.

"We are seeing a generation of very strong women actors [including] Priyanka Chopra and Anushka Sharma who are looking to do something more than just be a clothes horse," she says.

But it seems there is still some way to go before directors start receiving the same size of budget for a movie starring Padukone or Ranaut as they would for the likes of Amitabh Bachchan or Khan.

For a film with a female protagonist to get the go-ahead, the budget must be kept low to lessen the risks and increase the possibility of profits, says producer Dia Mirza.

Mirza, who produced Bobby Jasoos last year about a female detective, suggests backers are wary of women-centric films because Indian movie-goers are largely male.

"They seek a certain masculinity in cinema, which is why commercial potboilers portray male protagonists in a certain way," she says.

"Then a well-known entity is needed to generate audience interest but after that the story and content become crucial."