Changing Roles

Article By Lakshmi Vijaykumar, Senior Research Consultant -AVTAR  Group

I decided to write this piece after watching a series of movies (mix of Hindi, Tamil and English) over the last few weeks. We all know that this is a corporate platform and we talk about issues related to working women, mothers and the likes. Cutting that stereotype, let’s look at how Cinema (we’ll stick to Indian) is breaking the stereotype on the portrayal of women in silver screens — because films are the mirror of society and reflect on what happens in the society. Cinema and society has had a two way relationship – cinema influences society and vice versa. To decide which one is the source will be similar to that of finding an answer to the age old question of which came first the chicken or the egg..!!!

Indian cinema has had the most beautiful female actors in both Bollywood and regional films who by far been there in frames of the screen as cosmetic pieces. Of course, barring a few exceptions during the late seventies and early eighties in both Hindi and regional cinema – Bengali, Malayalam and a few Tamil – where directors have consciously broken the gender stereotypes to present women dealing with real problems.

In fact, it was not even about the gender gap between two opposites, cinema has over the years portrayed women either being good or bad. The definition of “good” was those who were naïve, chaste, subdued, sacrificing, and worst controlled! Whereas bad women where aggressive, individualistic, gold diggers, scheming, westernized and certainly not submissive.

Interestingly, the LPG (Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization) era has played a major role in “freedomizing” the women in Indian cinema and society as a whole. Ever since, there has been a paradigm shift in depicting women in cinema and also on how women are perceived in the society. Perhaps, this was also because the baby boomers women emerged stronger, educated, and carried a “I speak my mind” attitude over their shoulders.

In the last decade with the entry of Gen X female actors and now the Gen Zers has narrowed the gender gap in both society and cinema. The changing role of women in Indian cinema is also a testament how the thinking has changed. Filmmakers have begun to bet on female-oriented movies and full marks to actors like Vidya Balan and Anoushka Sharma who have taken on the lineage of Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil of yesteryears.

Let’s take a look at some of the recent movies that have broken stereotypes in portraying women. The Hindi-movie Raazi, portrayed a female spy who crosses borders to protect her motherland from a security threat by a neighboring country. The movie not only shows the lead character twisting arms and killing people who came in her way, but gives little importance to the word “chaste”! Veere di Wedding, the other Hindi movie is the mother all modern age movies portraying women characters. The lead females in this movie not only are westernized in their lifestyles, but also openly speak about their bedroom woes. They presented a section of women, who are well educated and economically independent, and vocal about defying the society laws that force them to marry, have children, etc. Interestingly, one of the lead characters plays a divorce lawyer who bashes up the so called subdued but money minded women.

If Bollywood film makers are recognizing the need and understanding women’s role both in cinema and society, regional filmmakers are not staying behind. The most hyped Tamil movie, Rajnikanth-starrer, Kaala is a brilliant example of how cinema has awakened to de-casting women and breaking the boundaries of patriarchal society. The women in Kaala are not merely decorative pieces but characters that are assertive, bold and authoritative – characteristics that are anti-thesis of a typical Rajnikanth movie heroine. The three female characters in the movie will remain the minds of many in the years to come. The director who is known for his political viewpoints has walked his talk by showcasing women dismissing the hero’s political views and mocking his ex-love life. The change defining moment in the movie is when a character playing the role of an activist is stripped by a cop to quell a protest. Instead of picking up her bottom pant that was pulled off; she picks up a stick near it to beat the policemen responsible for the act. This is contrary to what we have seen in earlier movies where such circumstances were portrayed being shame-worthy for the victimized woman leading to suicides.

Like I said earlier, movies and our society represent each other. The change that we are witnessing on silver screens is perhaps the reflection of the change in mindsets not only in the society as a whole but a change on how women want to be projected and perceived in the society.

Let’s hope that Indian cinema fosters the much required positive change in our society that makes equality a norm and is gender neutral.