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Women and Bollywood – Are We Getting There?

women in film

Throughout the history of Indian cinema, the story of every hero is invariably left incomplete without saving a ‘damsel in distress’—the heroine. Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world, has an approximate 4 billion viewers across the world, thus putting it at a pedestal where it almost represents the mindset of our society, not only in India but across the world.

When Dadasaheb Phalke, the Father of Indian Cinema, released Raja Harischandra in 1913, there was a paucity of women artists. So much that women in the film industry were almost negligible and female characters were also played by male actors. Times however, changed by the 1930s and women like Devika Rani, Zubeidaa, Mehtab and Shobhana Samarth, belonging to affluent families entered the movie business and changed the face of Indian cinema. These women can also be called the catalyst of change for Bollywood and helped redefine the importance of women in films.

‘Achhut Kanya’, ‘Jeevan Prabhat’, ‘Nirmala’, ‘Alam Ara’, ‘Zarina’, ‘Chitralekha’, ‘Parineeta’, among others, are some of the movies with woman-centric themes of that era. It was not easy to find a strong foothold in a male-dominated and patriarchal society, but they achieved that feat. Devika Rani, the co-founder of Bombay Talkies studio was one of the most powerful actresses of her time. Zubeida, daughter of Fatima Begum and the daughter of an affluent Nawab, shot to fame with “Alam Ara” and commanded a high wage.

During the freedom struggle, cinema was used to illustrate the agitation and oppression of various sections of society. After independence, cinema became a very effective means to address social issues. During the golden age of Bollywood (the 1950s–70s), the rich tradition and culture of India were acknowledged. It was also the time when women were playing important roles in films. A few examples include Mother India, made in 1957, by Mehboob. The film was made ten years after India gained independence from British rule. In this film, the director, Mehboob, attempts to combine socialistic ideals with traditional values.

Cut to the present, the women in Indian cinema have evolved over time. Women have mainly played decorative objects in the Hindi cinema for a long time. Or even in films where they had important roles, they are more likely to be portrayed as victims and martyrs. Films like “Kahaani” presented women as strong females who can raise their voice against injustice, who can rebel in their own way and make their own political statement.

In earlier mythological classics, women were portrayed as goddesses and daasis, nowadays the times have changed, and women are starring in bold blockbusters, narrating untold stories of women. For instance “Begum Jaan” (2017) starring Vidya Balan in the lead. Now in Bollywood women-centric movies have started to sweep the theater. No movie maker would have dared to make movies like ‘Raazi’,’Thaapad’ 10 years ago.

Not only on screen, but the prominence of women can also be seen in the technical side of movie-making as well. Women confidently take up the roles of movie directors, technicians, camera persons, etc. Various feminist movements, women rights activists, empowered women, and also women who raise voices for their rights can be given credit for these changes that we see today. Men, too, in various instances, have stood up for women’s rights and supported the opportunities that have opened up for them today.

On the other hand, cinema has always tried to put forward the ‘ideal women’ image in front of us. In most of the romcoms that get released, many undesirable situations are represented that do not enhance woman’s status in society. Since we know how much impact a movie can create in our society, we might as well ensure that women are given the respect they deserve in the reel, so that the same might, in turn, get translated into real life.


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