She was meek, docile and vulnerable. She was the idealistic homemaker who was hidden under her husband’s shadow. That is how women were initially portrayed in Indian cinema. The bold characters were often relegated only to those of vamps. But that as they say is history. Gone are the days where cinema was driven by men on and off the screen. Today women command an equal position in the flourishing arena of Indian cinema. We don’t need heroes to run a film, actresses run the show with much aplomb. Over the years there has been a drastic shift in the portrayal of women on screen and also an increase in those calling the shots behind the camera.


One of the first few films to showcase the changing dynamics of a female character was the iconic Mother India. It portrayed the inner strength of a woman and her grit and gumption with which she can fight the toughest problems. Slowly but steadily filmmakers started touching upon bolder topics where women were given a voice of their own. This was also a result of the changes being witnessed in the society at large where women were taking determined stances. In the years that followed several women-centric films with hard-hitting female protagonists gathered momentum. Be it Aandhi which was based on a woman politician caught between her responsibilities to her family and her political career or Bhumika that centered the life of a film actress. The film with Smita Patil in the lead takes you on a quest for love, happiness and self identity through the protagonist’s character along with the challenges she encounters.

Then came a film like Arth where Shabana Azmi plays a fiercely independent woman, who despite having been left by her husband for another woman, fights against all odds to maintain her dignity and identity. While Khoon Bhari Maang had Rekha transform herself from a weak widow to a powerful lady out to avenge the atrocities committed on her family and her. The following decades witnessed the rise of women power and the dominance of female protagonists in mainstream and art films ranging from Mirch Masala, Mandi, Sardari Begum and Mrityudand to Lajja, Astitva, Chandni Bar, Pinjar, Chameli, Satta, Dor and many others. Though many of them were not commercially successful they managed to penetrate into the patriarchal stereotypes of films.

In recent times we have seen some remarkable films where the woman is not merely eye candy or a supporting character but the main hero that drives the story. Pandolin revisits these path breaking films.


No one killed Jessica: Two female protagonists get together to fight for justice. No one killed Jessica was inspired by the infamous Jessica Lal murder case where a model was openly shot in Delhi. Vidya Balan plays Jessica’s sister while Rani Mukerji plays a fierce journalist who join hands to fight for justice. The film solely rests on the two female leads that are fearless fighters and an epitome of strength. Especially Vidya Balan as the sister of the slain model portrays courage to fight the system rather than give in and mourn the circumstances. The film was highly appreciated for its treatment and the characterization of the women which serves as encouragement to the women of the entire nation.

Dirty Picture: Never has the sensuality and boldness of any female character in Bollywood been explored with such audacity. Said to be based on the life of southern actress Silk Smitha, Dirty Picture has Vidya Balan play the lead role with much confidence and ease. She comfortably slips into the character of an actress who lives life on her terms and conditions, is unashamed and outspoken. As the film traces the rise and fall of the actress, her love affairs and heartbreaks, Vidya steals the show with her punchy dialogs, confidence about her sensuality and no-nonsense attitude. Dirty Picture was a film  which won her the national award and duly so and had men only as supporting characters with the lady being the real hero.

Kahaani: Another remarkable film which showcases the inner strength of a woman and how she is undeterred by situations. Kahaani is the story of a pregnant woman out to find her missing husband and how she braves all odds to arrive at the bottom of it all. Once again, Vidya Balan aces the role with a compelling performance that was well received by one and all. On the one hand you pity the lady expecting a child but on the other you cannot stop yourself from being awestruck at her determination and heroism. Truly an iconic film driven by its unique concept and leading actress.

English Vinglish: Here’s a film starring one of the most talented actresses of India and helmed by an equally talented albeit debutante director. Sridevi plays the perfect housewife who excels at all her responsibilities except for being weak in English communication. This single weakness makes her an object of fun for her husband and her daughter. Initially she plays the depressed and weak woman but things take a drastic turn when she enrolls for English speaking classes. English Vinglish is the story of an ordinary housewife whose confidence and self esteem get a boost owing to her own willingness and determination. Director Gauri Shinde portrays a situation commonly witnessed in several Indian households with much realism and emotion. And the star performer, Sridevi doesn’t cease to surprise us even after so many years of staying away from the big screen. She makes the character her very own and encourages every woman to command the respect she truly deserves.

Heroine: Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine throws light on the life of a film star which is often shielded away from the common man. But an actress too has her share of triumphs and despairs, affairs and heartbreaks like every normal woman, only that every move of hers is under scrutiny. After highlighting the scenario of the fashion industry in Fashion, Madhur now moves to the film industry where several starry-eyed women come to build a career. Through the protagonist played convincingly by Kareena Kapoor, one gets to see the rise and fall of an actress and the story of her personal life. Though the film did not succeed commercially, it did achieve the purpose of showcasing the tough life behind the glamour through the eyes of a superstar herself.

And while we discuss the strong female character being etched out in today’s cinema, how can one not mention those women who are carving a niche for themselves behind the camera. Hindi cinema, mainstream or otherwise boasts of several talented female filmmakers. There was a time when a female filmmaker’s ability was questioned and there weren’t people ready to back her, but those were days of the past. Women today make the cinema they believe in and that too with the backing of not just top notch producers but the entire film fraternity.

And these filmmakers have not restricted themselves to mere women-oriented themes but their gamut of cinema extends far and wide. From stalwarts like Sai Paranjpye, Kalpana Lajmi, Aparna Sen, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair to the recent crop of women filmmakers who have made a mark with their debut films including Ashima Chibbar (Mere Dad Ki Maruti), Sonam Nair (Gippi) and many others, the industry has been blessed with a powerhouse of talent and burgeoning ideas. There is no dearth of ability or skill. We take a look at some of these immensely talented filmmakers who are changing the rules of this male dominated field.


Reema Kagti: She made her debut with Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd which received largely good reviews for its fresh story and treatment. Reema has learnt the tricks of the trade the traditional way. She started by assisting Farhan Akhtar on Dil Chahta Hai and Lakshya and then went on to make her first film with the same production house. It is her recent film, Talaash, co-written by Kagti and Zoya Akhtar, that has made her a name to reckon with. Her mystery thriller starring Aamir Khan has several layers intricately woven into it (love, loss and more) and as they start getting undone you realize the sheer brilliance of this director.  Her characters are illustrated to perfection, the story is gripping and the treatment is spot on. She is definitely one of the promising directors to look out for.

Farah Khan: From Bollywood’s celebrated choreographer to a notable filmmaker churning out commercial blockbusters, Farah Khan is a master of all trades. Her films are larger than life and packed with all the elements of masaledaar entertainer. Be it her debut film Main Hoon Na or Om Shanti Om, both the films were treated with much grandeur and no compromise on any aspect. The result, the cash registers wouldn’t stop ringing and Farah Khan added yet another feather to her cap. She symbolizes the modern woman who is juggling several hats and excelling at each of them, in her personal and professional ways. Not one to be feared by critics, she makes films in the language she believes in and not just the stars but even the audience support her wholeheartedly. It is just a matter of time before we get to see Farah recreating her magic in the upcoming film Happy New Year.

Zoya Akhtar: Films have been an integral part of Zoya’s life, with the maestro Javed Akhtar as father and the multifaceted Farhan Akhtar as brother. Zoya made her debut with the multi-starrer film Luck By Chance where she showcased the world she knows best – the film industry – highlighting its various nuances. Dealing with an ensemble cast in your first film and maintaining a balance in the multiple plot narration was a feat that Zoya accomplished in the first go. The film may not have been a commercial success but it definitely got her noticed. Undeterred, Zoya took her penchant for ensemble casts ahead with the impressive concept of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara which had a star-studded cast. The beautiful concept, taut script woven with various emotions and the overall treatment won her much deserved appreciation and several award nominations.

Kiran Rao: She may be married to one of the biggest superstars of Hindi cinema but that has not affected her own identity. Kiran Rao has assisted noted directors on several huge films, including the blockbuster Lagaan.  Having mastered the art she made her directorial debut with Dhobi Ghat which wasn’t your regular song and dance film but an offbeat one treated with pure flair and belief. Just this one film has made her a coveted name in the industry and across the international film circuit as well. Not just restricted to direction, Kiran is also part of Aamir Khan Productions and has produced memorable films like Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and Delhi Belly. She recently even lent her support to the indie film Ship of Theseus by introducing it to the audiences on behalf of director Anand Gandhi, an initiative which gave viewers an opportunity to experience a niche but extraordinary film with an interesting concept. We wait with bated breath to see what the filmmaker has to offer next.

Gauri Shinde: The newest addition to the ingenious lot of female filmmakers, Gauri Shinde has proved her mettle in her debut film itself. With a heartwarming film like English Vinglish that touched the chords of one and all in India and across the international film festival circuit, Gauri made a promising debut. Husband and director R Balki may have charmed audiences with his films but Gauri is in a league of her own. The perspective with which she treated the subject of the film and the proficiency with which she executed it was one to marvel at. She also bagged several awards for her directorial venture and has set very high expectations from her next venture, which she will surely outdo.

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