By: Ishita Das (National Law University, Jodhpur)

‘Bollywood’ is the phrase popularly used to refer to one of the largest film industries in the world thriving in the populous nation of India. Women Empowerment: Myth or Reality?Bollywood has played a very prominent role in shaping the cultural ethos and value system of India’s citizens. Bollywood, mainly referring to the mainstream leg of the Indian film industry has produced great movies which have in turn produced memorable characters. Some of these comprise strong female characters such as the role of Nargis in Mother India and more recently, Vidya Balan in Kahaani. However, these characters are just exceptions emerging from the crowd of the husband-worshipping and domestically-inclined heroines.

Heroine is supposed to be the female counterpart of a hero. However, unlike Hollywood, which has produced movies such as Lara Croft, The Hunger Games, Salt, Divergent, Frozen and Maleficent, where the weight of the film rests almost entirely on the shoulders of its female protagonist, Bollywood has attempted to produce films revolving around a woman, only to narrate how she kisses the peak of success in her career only to reach an all-time low. In films such as Fashion, where Priyanka Chopra’s character is shown as an ambitious and confident young woman, she is also shown losing her way in a dramatically orchestrated downfall. Furthermore, in Dirty Picture, even though Vidya’s character is that of an intrepid woman who does not care about what the media portrays her as, she ultimately succumbs to defeat, both professionally and personally. However, her character mouths one of the most unforgettable dialogues from the movie. When she says that people watch the movies for three main reasons, “Entertainment, entertainment and entertainment”,[1] she spells out the primary reason why female characters are mostly marginalized and objectified for cheap titillation.

To cater to male voyeurism, and reach out to the rustic masses, most films have these ‘item numbers’, where famous actresses are seen gyrating to a musical number, while being surrounded by a mob of drunken and lustful men. The idea of excessive skin-show and the use of female sensuality to appease certain segments of the consumer population are unnecessary and demeaning to the sensibilities associated with womanhood. If the primary goal is entertainment, why are there no Munni, Sheila or Laila counterparts when women constitute a huge chunk of the Bollywood-watching audience?

The trend of ‘male eye-candy’ is a very recent one in Bollywood and even though movies such as Desi Boys sought to cater to a wider female audience, the inclusion of songs such as ‘Main Tera Hero’ only reinforce the belief that women need men to be their saviors or heroes as they are incapable of self-protection. Since the foundation of Bollywood, the plot premise of girl-meets-boy, girl-gets-in-trouble, boy-fights-villain, and finally boy-gets-girl has been rehashed countless times. In the garb of entertainment, the age-old patriarchal beliefs have been fed to the masses by the creators of such Bollywood masala movies.

Earlier, films such as Mirch Masala and Guide tried to send a message about the need for a progressive society where women are allowed to stand up for what they believe in, be it a social cause or a professional choice. More recently, films such as Queen, English Vinglish, Gulaab Gang and Highway, have taken the baton forward and emphasized this quality: Veera in Highway, who through her new-found freedom finds the courage to speak up against her abusive uncle; Rani in Queen, who after her marriage cancellation, embarks on a journey of self-discovery and unlocks her true potential; Shashi in English Vinglish, who decides to take up the challenge of learning English much to the surprise of her husband and children, and the Gulaab Gang women who not only fight for other women but the entire village. Films such as Guide were considered to be bold and ahead of their times, and in the contemporary setting, when movies such as Queen and Gulaab Gang do well in terms of box office success, it does exhibit the maturity of both film-makers and the consumers of Indian cinema.

The depiction of women in Bollywood has been both denigrating and empowering. Hence, it would be wrong to refer to such portrayal as a myth or for that matter, as a reality, for it is neither. Bollywood acts as a mirror whereby it is up to the viewer to derive conclusions according to his/her wishes. Even if the director wishes to convey a social message and the film attracts audience for its irrelevant item number, the purpose would stand defeated. Women empowerment in Bollywood is relatively subjective in comparison to other forms of media where the producer directly interacts with the consumer. However, it does provide an excellent platform for story-telling, be it the story of a Rani or a Veera.


[1] “The Dirty Picture (2011) Quotes”, IMDb, Viewed on 10 June 2014 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1954206/quotes).


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