The journey of Bollywood heroines from ‘Abla’ to ‘Sabla Nari’

By: Meghna Das Chowdhury

A country’s cinema offers a deep insight into its culture. The reach of the Hindi film industry across India makes it a ready reference for the country’s dominant mores and concerns despite its extraordinary social diversity. But cinema doesn’t just reflect social attitudes, it often plays an important role in shaping them.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way Bollywood has changed attitudes towards women. Says Shenjuti Dutta, a film studies professor at St. Xavier’s College Kolkata, “Not only Bollywood but the film industry of every region is inclined towards patriarchy. But it is also true that Bollywood does focus a lot on women-centric films these days.”

Bollywood has been an amalgamation of women-centric films and women playing side roles films. In the 1970s, Zeenat Aman introduced Bollywood viewers to a novel western sensibility with her unconventional personality. She played roles with strong characters in most of her films, like Sheetal in Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, Rupa in Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram, or Roma in Chandra Barot’s Don.

Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) in Manmarziyaan, is most definitely not your typical Bollywood heroine, whether it’s her confusion about love, the way she looked after her ancestral shop or her attitude to social norms. She owned up to her desires and mistakes and lived her life on her own terms. Kangana Ranaut, as Rani in Queen, made us enjoy her transformation from a shy, reserved girl to a woman who owns her life and her fledgling confidence grows over the course of the movie. From Jaya Bachchan to Ratna Pathak Shah, Bollywood mothers have time and again showed why they are the strongest characters in both reel and real life. Swaroop Sampat in Ki & Ka was probably the first Bollywood character to understand that it is okay for a man to sit at home while his wife worked. Sandhya Mridul in Angry Indian Goddesses was a career-oriented woman who never got away without a fight. She readily holds a gun and kills a rapist because the law would do nothing to bring justice.

Even before the liberated women of the 1970s personified by the likes of Zeenat Aman, there were amazing women in leading roles. Fearless Nadia was India’s first stunt girl. But, at the same time, we have women like Simran from Dilwale Dulhania Leh Jayenge; the iconic scene of a woman letting go of father’s running to her lover suggests nothing so much as a transfer of property from one man to another.

From Sajan Kaa Ghaar to Sarabjit the woman evolved as a sister. From Karan Arjun to Kahaani she evolved as a mother. From Dilwale Dulhania Leh Jayenge to NH10 she evolved as a lover. And as these roles evolved, there was a marked change in our society too. Women these days are indeed more independent. They know how to take care of themselves, to make decisions for themselves.

Bollywood now focuses on more woman-centric films. Films like Indian Cabaret, Margarita with a Straw and Pink might have employed the stereotype of the woman as a whore, but also showed her as empowered. Lipstick Under My Burkha politely says, “It takes balls to be a woman”. The film portrays women as autonomous, with real feelings, whether sexual or life desires.

Those desires and dreams are not guided by men. While Bollywood is making an effort to feminize its films it cannot consider the pervasive and entrenched patriarchy in Indian society, get too far ahead of its audience.

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