Passive no more: How portrayal of women is changing as Bollywood evolves

Written by Priya Arora

“Women are born to make sacrifices for men.”

The dialogue comes from the 1995 Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, in which Simran, the main character, has fallen in love, but his family has already arranged for him to marry someone else. His mother tells him to renounce that love according to his father’s wish.

For Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry, the path to an authentic portrayal of women has been bumpy. In India’s Hindi film realm, onscreen mothers are depicted as passive housewives for a long time, succumbing to patriarchal pressures.

But this portrayal is being challenged. In recent years many films have featured mothers and overall women as complete and complex human beings – not melodramatic side characters, but vocal, independent leads who are in charge of their own fate.

Tribhanga, which released on Netflix in January, is one such film. The story follows Anuradha (Kajol), an actress and dancer who has to face the demons of her past, when her mother, Nayantara (Tanvi Azmi) ends up in the hospital. Nayantara, a high-profile writer, gets to tell her side of the story in a flashback, through a conversation with a disciple who is recording material for a biography.

Vidya Balan, Shakuntala Devi Vidya Balan as Shakuntala Devi struggles to perform her duties as a mother while balancing her career. (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)

Written and directed by actress Renuka Shahane, Tribhanga does not cover specific themes of Bollywood films such as single motherhood, sexual abuse and open relationships. Nayantara is shown leaving her husband herself so that she can pursue a career, date as a mother and drink recklessly when she feels like it. She does not realize that one of her boyfriends has sexually abused Anu – and repeats the cycle of trauma when Anu’s daughter is bullied for being born out of wedlock.

“My mother has always shared her decline with me,” Shaheen said in a video interview last month. “The fun aspect of growing up with her was that I could see her as a human being.”

Shahane took this real-life inspiration and incorporated it into a script, which he worked on for nearly six years. For the characters, she said, portraying women as complex, if flawed, people. “They are the first ones, and they are very talented, beautiful, strong women, but they also have feelings.”

But audiences and industry were not always so welcoming – in the past decade, women-led films such as The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahani (2012) performed well at the box office, while others, like the 2018 film Veere De wedding did not happen Nevertheless, mothers are often depicted to follow traditional gender roles, doting on their families and focusing solely on the lives of their children. In the 2001 family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the mother (played by Jaya Bachchan) is shown to be telepathically aware of her son’s feelings and appearance, whether or not he is physically possessed by her. And the 1999 film Hum Saath Saath Hain placed the mother’s preference for her youngest son at the center of the story’s struggle.

The direction of a more three-dimensional depiction of onscreen mothers has been developing for decades. According to Behroz Shroff, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, it began in the 1950s, when post-independence India was breaking the shackles of colonialism. Shroff said that in the 1957 film Mother India, the ideal mother was depicted as the daughter of the nation, both committed to her domestic duties and to her country. But as India spread globalization, international trends and free-market capitalism, and by the 1990s, there was a growing need to address the then bureaucratic audience. This created a conflict between showing women dutiful, as they actually are, when more viewers around the world were petitioning for more accurate representation.

Tribhanga, Kajol, Kajol Tribhanga Kajol’s character in Tribhanga, an actress and dancer, will have to face the demons of her past. (Photo: Netflix)

Recently about women-led films like Tribhanga, Shroff said that the challenge of playing the mother was necessary to make the characters more perfect for life. “A mother has to be three-dimensional, and her sexuality has to be valued. Especially when she is no longer dependent on financial support from her husband. “

In recent years, the increasing investment of global streaming platforms in India has also accelerated progress. “Somehow capitalism affects creativity and adds new voices.”

Much of this comes back to the audience. International audiences on streaming platforms, especially in larger markets such as the United States, are more open to seeing women in different roles – which makes them more logical and profitable.

Shroff said that streaming services “have a certain sensibility that they want to see in the kind of narrative they are promoting on their stage. It is for women filmmakers, women writers, behind the camera and in front of the camera for women It has been a great boon. “

Director Alankrita Srivastava of the 2019 film Dolly Kitty and Woh Shining Star (streaming on Netflix) agreed that this change is now happening because of women who have worked in the industry, but the changes are also getting more Huh. The interests of liberal audiences. “I think the audience might also have to open up a bit more to stories that aren’t necessarily the male, high-caste, czander heterosexual heroes at the center of the universe,” she said.

Motherhood is also a theme in Dolly Kitty, which tells the story of two women who are on parallel paths to self-discovery. One of them, Dolly, is a middle class mother of two who is searching for reasons she does not feel sexual desire towards her husband. At first, she blames herself – but during her journey, she questions her helpless mother, whom she had long mistaken to leave the family to pursue her dreams. And in doing so, Dolly realizes that the problem is not hers, but her unsatisfactory marriage, which is holding her own ambitions and desires.

The 2020 film Shakuntala Devi (streaming on Amazon Prime) presents the life story of the famous mathematician. Devi, depicted in the film by Vidya Balan, struggles to fulfill her duties as a mother, balancing her career and her passion for mathematics. Told to Devi’s daughter’s lens, the film also sheds light on the toll that interracial trauma can take – Devi hated her own mother, and in the end, her daughter expresses her inability to understand Devi.

With similar themes of intercontinental trauma present in Tribhanga, actress Kajol reiterated the importance of expanding a mother’s point of view in Bollywood films.

“We, as a country, put this whole idea of ​​mother in a very small, tight box,” she said. But such thinking is set up for failure, and limits the possibilities for women- and off-screen. “It’s a surefire dream that you will be the perfect mother – you can’t. If you go through that parameter there are just too many obstacles and you’re bound to fail.”

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