If there’s anything that "Mother India" (1957), Supriya from "Kaabil" (2017), or Kabir Singh’s Preethi (2019) all have in similar is the common denominator of suffering, accepting, and normalizing pain for the greater good of society. For most of the part, in our popular culture be it Bollywood or a prime time news headline, the perception towards processing women’s issues and achievements have been closely associated by amplifying the trauma and struggles faced by the woman through a sadomasochistic viewpoint. Here are four reasons how Bollywood and so-called progressive portrayals of women are turning problematic:
1. Performative aggressive assaults to be avenged for
Time and again, many of the mainstream films have tried to create women “empowering” films by immediately disempowering them, to begin with. These films go to extreme lengths to purposely create an exaggerated power imbalance between the two genders to showcase the goodwill and vulnerability of the heroine leading to casual inclusion of triggering violence against women right from molesting to assault with no warning whatsoever.
Case in point, the 2017 films "Maatr" starring Raveena Tandon and "Mom" starring Sridevi had an eerily similar plot which went to the extent of sacrificing their own daughters’ characters to benefit the good-hearted nature of these mothers and fuel their anger. With films like these, one might notice how these prologues are rushed and lazily written to create a rigid black and white scenario, leaving the audience dumped with a plot filled with sentiments, hence, treating such sensitive topics merely as a “thrilling” story to explore.
2. Disposable Female Characters
Vaidehi Parashurami’s role as Akruti Dave in Simmba (2018) is a prime example of recklessly using the female character and ending her character by getting her brutally assaulted by the goons thereby making her virtuous and honorable. What’s more bizarre and horrifying is when you as a viewer realize the true intention of this grotesque sacrifice is just to provide a decent purpose to the corrupt cop character that Ranveer Singh portrays. This usually happens when the female character is solely in existence to provide our narcissistic hero with a better intention.
Films such as "Ek Tha Villain", "Ghajini", "Kaabil" go out of their way to establish the male protagonist’s character which is heavily cemented around the horrendous sexual and life-threatening violence committed against such female characters. This conveniently results in a plotline where everything is centered around the male protagonist and his righteous machismo, the revenge that HE wants to take with no effort in providing a comforting closure to these victims, thereby, viewing them as mere disposable plot tools. This has created a big lack in empathizing with such female characters wherein their survival and necessary care is never really prioritized instead they are left to succumb to their own agony while we cheer for our revengeful hero.
3. Badass or just Manly?
Another common mistake many of these “women-centric” films and series tend to do is blatantly masculinizing female characters, behaviourally, to portray them as strong and fierce. These stories which are majorly penned by a bunch of male writers instantly invalidates the very experiences of a truly empowered woman. Instead of amplifying these women’s voices through authentic lenses derived straight from the source, they often get suppressed under a heteronormative narration stuck in a loop of generalization.
For example, in the film "Dangal", Geeta Phoghat moves away from her family to National Sports Academy and her act of applying nail polish, growing hair is used as a tool of distraction to show her “indiscipline” leading her to lose the following matches. Her individualistic definition of femininity is somehow portrayed as a sign of weakness and brushing it off under the rug to imply defining that self-identity wherein cultural symbols of femininity are being used is merely an act done by bimbos. Unironically, it is to be noted that in the actual match, Geeta won it with her thick pony dangling to her nape. A story so heavily based on such strong and brilliant women surprisingly had four male writers leading to a poorly stereotyped screenplay with no attention to the personal identity of these brilliant women.
4. Commercialization of Modern Day Feminism
With the penetration of brilliantly crafted feministic shows such as Fleabag, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it seems that every streaming platform wants a piece of this pie but with no efforts whatsoever aka a tokenistic approach to preaching their performative action. This has led to the dilution of the strong and important movement with corporations and writers cashing in on its urbane and out-of-touch crème de la crème viewers who can afford these platforms resulting in gender-inclusive socio-economic gatekeeping.
"Four More Shots Please!" And "Veere Di Wedding" are poorly aged examples of what could have been a torchbearer turned into a consumer appealing purple washed attempt at showcasing an Indian working woman’s plight. Although the show is set in India, the feministic approach taken is that of colonial eurocentric standards regarding glamourization through their clothes, conflicts, and their careers. This leads to erasure and an indirect invalidation to most of our experiences as working women which is spent in traveling through the local transport, hiding the short dresses we purchased from our parents, bargaining at the fashion street, making peace with our parents’ decisions, and much more.
In conclusion, the good news is that there is an equal amount of backlash that these films receive, thanks to parameters such as the Bechdel Test, Mako Mori Test, Johanson Analysis, created by the women critics themselves to prevent the ugly voyeuristic narratives of the male gaze and provide an insight of this unjust representation. With films like Sir, a sensible representation of a working-class maid; the Malayalam dramedy "The Great Indian Kitchen", the Kangana Ranaut starrer film "Queen", Sridevi as a housewife in "English Vinglish", there is a plethora of these non-gimmicky and sensible portrayals of hard-working women written by women themselves. These films encapsulate the true allyship of the female voices, offering diversity in the representation of women and the backgrounds they come from, But more importantly, these films value the significance of “choice”, the right to make individualistic decisions, thereby, allowing them to center their opinions and perspectives instead of just being respected for their martyrdom and sheer tolerance to pain. Suffice to say, with the debut of OTT platforms, and digitization of content, more and more sensible and empathetic films and series are coming into existence such as Kuckoo in "The Sacred Games" (2018), Tara in "Made in Heaven" paving a path for more grey and dynamic female characters’ portrayal in the mainstream media.