Women’s portrayal in Commercial Indian Cinema: a mirror image of Society

women in indian cinema1

Ask any Indian about their favorite pass-time, and most of the time you’ll get an answer as watching a movie on their TV set, or catching up a show of a flick in the local cinema-hall. From the famous scenes of the movie ‘Sholay’, to the dialogues of Deewar “mere pass Ma hai”(I have my mother with me), from the jolly and tomboy Kajol’s first realization of true love, to Shahid Kapoor’s silent walk behind a somber Kareena in the chilly weather of Shimla… for decades, Indians from Srinagar to  Kanyakumarika have watched, laughed, cried and loved the ultimate entertainment provided by the silver screen.

As the spectacular Institution called Indian Cinema celebrates 101 years, the women, their contribution in it and their portrayal has taken interesting angles. The social impact had always been huge on Indian silver screen and to think of it, it was not one-sided.

The lady steps in

As per the history manifests, in the dawn of the era of films in India, women were not allowed to be part of it. Working in films was thought something even worse than being a prostitute. The pioneer of Indian Cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, couldn’t get a lady as his heroine and had to take a boy called Salunke to be his female lead.

The largest film producing country had woman actively working in it in the year 1913, when a divorcee and mother of a little girl Durgabai Kamat feared of starvation and finally became the first woman to act in Indian films. Her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale also acted and became India’s first female child actor. Durgabai Kamat, though only in her desperate situation, marked the path for the generations of future women to come and join the film industry.

Objectification : beyond the body

Well, to be very honest, this word clearly depicts the image of a woman in Indian commercial mainstream cinema. As we surf through any music channels, all we can see are skimpily clad women dancing in some strange steps with songs which have very little musical or lyrical value. The popular culture is defining the trend, as it always had, and we are getting showered with such ‘item songs’ with famous actresses gyrating to the tune, or new ‘item girls’ stepping in everyday.  The media wants to put it as the celebration of a woman’s sensuality. But in reality this just objectification of the female embodiment. Even other than Item numbers, Bollywood is calling the mass for a feast of eyes… Women are hardly doing anything in these mill-made stories, other than gracing a party, an occasion of Holi or a college fest, smiling sweetly with a bunch of flowers in their hand and artificial wind to flow their tresses.

Think about it. the objectification of women has been the leading market grosser of any popular Indian movie. And it does not always deal with the women being an object of desire. Even a woman completely clad in saree can be objectified. In earlier times of 60’s and 70’s, women were being portrayed as an epitome of goodness, they were always daddy’s good girl in their best behavior, the loving rakhi-tying sister, the ideal teary-eyed mother. They were just idols to respect. They never broke the society’s law, they were super in all household works and most, most, most importantly, they always maintained their chastity. If they were out of this laksman rekha, they were marked as someone who has severely fallen from their grace. They are pardoned in the eyes of the viewers only if they were full of remorse, almost on the verge of suicide, until and unless some angel of a man comes to their rescue and explains their reasons to the society in a melodramatic manner. Earlier there was also a trend that the girl, who is not abiding the unwritten laws of society, is the escort of the villain guy(s), or the “vamp”. She can never be the example of ideal Indian women; she can be only the follower of the Evil side of the story.

Mirror, O Mirror

In India, society has a heterogeneous view of women. It is well-established in the core of the society that whenever the women transgress some boundary imposed by it and cross the limit of right and wrong as said by this institution, they are punished, with the deafening outcry “they are women , they are not supposed to do that!” At that time the whole society speaks up, because at that moment, society is a homogeneous one compared to the conglomeration called Women sect. At that time they are not classified based on religion, culture or age. They are, just, a sect who is trying to teach women desperately what is right and wrong.

All over the world, society always has a very strong influence on popular media. India is perhaps the largest example of that. Hence the filmmakers are just flying with the trend. They are portraying women as just a stand-by in the story, being the male-protagonist’s love interest, either giving him happy company, or making him a jilted sad Devdas. Even throughout the history of films, we have seen the use of the terminologies related to women used by society to abuse men. For example, “ja choori pehen ke baitha reh” ..Go and sit wearing the bangles..(like a woman).

Sadly, these trends still hold today, only the presentation has changed slightly. They are still the sex which is terribly dependent on the nodding of male chauvinism. A recent Bollywood movie called ‘Cocktail’ depicted how a fun-loving, open-minded, and yes, party-going and not-approved-by-Indian-society-clothed girl tried to change her basic characteristics in order to be lovable in the eyes of a complete playboy of a guy. Why? Because otherwise the guy was not be able to present her in front of his mother and even far-thinking, marry her.

It’s not that women are not showed in their full prowess in films. The women who spoke their minds, stood up to their rights, had their own lifestyle, protested against abuse, left their husband for doing wrong. But those films are always tagged as ‘Art movies’. As decades passed, films like Gulabi talkies, Mirch Masala, Phir Bhi, Bhumika, Rudaali, Arth  have gained critical acclaim, but didn’t appeal to the mass audience.

Arguments, counter-arguments and silver lining 

Now some can argue that in films or serials, a man’s mother is shown as all powerful and dictating the terms. Think again. They are the MAN’S mother! In an indirect way, the power is given to her because she is representing the patriarchal side of society. Same stands for the wife too, if the man supports her and not his mother. Actor and activist Shabana Azmi rightly remarked, “My problem is that the commodification (sic) of women is happening at a subliminal level, without the women even understanding it ”.

Society actually consumes what they want to see.  The society also reflects what they see in their day to day life entertainment. The young girls dresses according to “this heroine” acted in “that film” and dances in not-so-age-appropriate moves in national media and their family vouches for their talent in these “reality shows”.

Hence come to think of it, cinema is portraying women the way a lot more like the society portraying them. The society is portraying women as the cinema dictates to. This circle of misinformation and prejudices will remain so if the patriarchal viewpoint and sexist mindset does not get modified in a constructive and adjusting way. This can in turn help the film audience and hence different layers of society.

At present, the new waves of hope are surging. The female leads in some of the commercial movies are speaking up, as they actually wanted to. Living the way they wanted to. This is evident with films like Fashion, Dor, Kahaani, Turning Thirty, The Dirty Picture, No one killed Jessica etc, which have turned into box-office hits too. These are hints that change is knocking at the doorstep. But it does not redefine the age-old setup. It still has a long way to go. Quite long.

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8 thoughts on “Women’s portrayal in Commercial Indian Cinema: a mirror image of Society

  1. Thanks for visiting my site! I will try to seek out the actors and films you recommended.

    I’d like to ask your opinion about an idea that struck me while reading your post: do you think the objectification of women is more insidious in Indian media than in the West? I ask from a point of view (which may be outdated – please enlighten me if so 🙂 ) where I think of Bollywood female stars as more understated than Western ones (ie they wear tight-fitting saris rather than bikinis).

    Do you think that the effects of sexualisation / objectification of stars may be worse when the line between their stage clothing and ordinary women’s clothing is less distinct?

  2. I liked your train of thought. Though its also true that the leading industrialists of the Indian Movie Industry creates what it believes to be the demand of society. And as time and again it has been proved, they have fallen flat on their faces on a number of occasions. A lot of offbeat movies succeeded, which does not condone the societal approval. So, hope remains.. 🙂

    1. Very true. The creation of popular demand is largely based on the tycoons who are the money-tree for most big budget commercial flicks. And see, you are also categorizing the movies who didn’t follow the societal approval as ‘offbeat movies’! That is where lies the distinction between two types of Indian Cinema and their portrayal of Women. Concluding with the ditto: Yes, hope remains.

  3. Very well written, thought provoking article. Even if slow, the change is there. So many commercials film flopped recently in-spite of scanty clothes, item numbers and so cold big names. Hope remains.

  4. can you please provide me the reference of the book/article which mentions Durgabai Kamte as first female actress? I need it for my seminar paper paper titled ‘Portrayal of Divorcee in Indian Cinema.’

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