Woman Power and why it is important in Indian Cinema
Right from ‘Mother India’ to ‘Dirty Picture’ there have been many stories that are about woman protagonists but strangely and unfortunately though they were strong characters and stories they might fail the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel test is a simple one. Are there two female characters in the film? Do they have names that are prominent in the story? Do they talk to each other at some point in the story about something other than a man? And you’d be surprised to find that most of our woman protagonist films fail this test. Because unfortunately on screen, and that’s definitely not a reflection of real life, Indian women speak only of men and to men. It’s almost as if that’s all there is to their lives.
But in this past year there have been films like ‘Highway’, ‘Queen’ and ‘Gulab Gang’ that were about women, and had women talking about things other than men. Why are these films important? Because it is important to have films representing half the country’s population as more than just a reflection of men’s worlds, as more than just having lives that revolve around men. And interestingly the films that have done this and been good scripts and had strong characters have actually gone on to be box office successes too.
Why is this important for us in general? Well even if this were to be seen from a storytelling point of view, given the fact that 90% or more of our cinema is about men and their battles, issues, fears, just in terms of pure variety of entertainment shouldn’t we have as many films about women protagonists and things other than men? Wouldn’t that be a good way to start dialogues about women’s lives, their views, their perspectives, the way they think, deal with life etc. If nothing else at least it provides for a whole new relatively unexplored world of entertainment.
Is it not possible that one step towards equality is sensitizing everyone about a woman’s way of seeing the world and beginning to enjoy stories about women as much. Because clearly the box office says that there is no difference when the script is good and the film is marketed well.
Let’s take ‘Queen’ for example, the most fun part of the film for a lot of people, men included, was the part where Vijaylaxmi and Rani hung out together, got drunk together, bonded and found a certain sisterhood in each other’s company. And it didn’t become about just that, it moved on and became about so much more, like any true journey it didn’t get stuck in the bonds of any one relationship but kept moving forward to encompass more and more aspects of life.
Just as producers are looking for different stories all the time and content which has a certain newness to it, this whole world lies pretty much unexplored. And very few actresses have stepped into this world and space, but the ones that have have been richly rewarded with public goodwill. Take Vidya Balan for example. She’s the only female star that a 50 crore film is made with, and only because she took the risk of doing a ‘Kahaani’ and a ‘Dirty Picture’. The same for Kangana Ranaut, she mustn’t have gotten as much positive feedback for anything in her 6-7 year journey as an actress as she did for ‘Queen’. Much more satisfying than having five 100 crore films where no one ever talks of your craft, your performance and you’re just a prop in the story. Alia Bhatt was known only for ‘Student of the year’ and then came ‘Highway’ for which she will be remembered for decades to come for her performance and the impact of the story on viewers.
Why is it important for women to be talking of something more than men? Because that begins to let us into their worlds, this relatively unexplored territory in Indian Cinema that can help us experience new emotions, explore new premises in terms of stories, new worlds, new priorities, new urges, a new emotional landscape and a new way of seeing the world instead of the classical ‘male gaze’. We’ve been seeing the world of Indian Cinema mostly through the male gaze.
Interestingly even when most of our women centric films are analysed, they fail or nearly fail the Bechdel test. For example in ‘Highway’ there is almost no interaction between Alia Bhatt and other women where the conversation isn’t about a man. Even in the scene at the end where it’s a conversation between her and her mom it’s about her molesting uncle.
It’s the same for ‘Dirty Picture’ which almost fails except for Silk speaking to the tabloid queen.
One hopes that in the near future we have more films exploring this large world of perspectives and ways of thinking and emoting along with what we already have. Then we could call ourselves truly diverse.
The male gaze: the introduction of the term “the male gaze” can be traced back to Laura Mulvey and her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” which was published in 1975. In it, Mulvey states that in films women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres. While this was more true in the time it was written, when Hollywood protagonists were overwhelmingly male, the base concept of men as watchers and women as watched still applies today, despite the growing number of movies targeted towards women and that feature female protagonists.
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