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Strong, independent women are increasingly showing up in Bollywood movies. Are they being allowed to move in the right direction? Their stocks may be rising, but the deal they get still comes with strings attached

It is customary for Mumbai movies to do their bit – even if it amounts to only lip service – on and around March 8, International Women’s Day. This year, it was much more than just a bit. Bollywood pulled out the stops and carpet-bombed us with a flurry of genderthemed dramas. Several leading ladies of Hindi cinema got to live up to that tag – they led the charge. Why, then, are the Deepikas and Sonakshis still having to fight for pay parity with their male counterparts?

On the face of it, divas are on a roll in Bollywood. Several films spearheaded by women (both before and behind the camera) earned critical and commercial rewards in 2016. The first quarter of the current year has extended the strong run of women-centric films in quantity, if not in quality.

Since early March, Bollywood has delivered Phillauri, Anaarkali of Aarah, Naam Shabana, Poorna, Begum Jaan and Noor. Barring Poorna, actor-director Rahul Bose’s ode to the spirit of a 13-year-old Telengana tribal student who became the youngest girl to conquer Mount Everest, these films have been middling affairs at best. Helmed by male directors, they have done little to turn the tide emphatically and permanently in favour of films about gender issues.

These films have been done in by a lack of intrinsic quality. Phillauri, produced and top-lined by Anushka Sharma, was an interesting experiment in merging disparate genres – period drama, modern rom-com, ghost story, woman-on-top saga and good old Punjabi love legend. But nothing in the film suggested that it had the power to rewrite the rules for good

When a woman makes a film about women (and their aspirations and desires) – like Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha – the Central Board of Film Certification, headed by a producer of 1980s B-grade Bollywood potboilers, promptly bans it for being “lady-oriented”. But over-the-top films like Naam Shabana and Begum Jaan, which offer a very male way of looking at female rebels and rabblerousers, face no obstacles

This is one reason why so many mainstream women’s films made in Bollywood tend to restrict the heroines within ‘approved’ parameters. These characters are made to mimic men and play trigger-happy, violence-prone avenging angels, as Priyanka Chopra and Sonakshi Sinha did in Jai Gangaajal and Akira respectively, and now Vidya Balan (Begum Jaan) and Taapsee Pannu (Naam Shabana) have done. The implication is that a woman can find a place at the high table only if she acquires ‘masculine’ traits – in other words, become one of the boys.

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Avinash Das’ Anaarkali of Aarah, propelled by a powerhouse performance from Swara Bhaskar, articulates the right positions regarding the question of consent. But so slackly scripted is the film that its assertions never acquire the sort of punch that could make other Bollywood filmmakers and consumers of Hindi cinema to recognize the potential of an alternative way of seeing women

Anaarkali of Aarah resorts to worn-out devices to push the story forward. A sozzled, power-drunk man molests a popular dancer in public. He shows no remorse. The cops side with him. The girl takes a stand. She receives support from sundry men who conveniently get out of the way when it is time for her to confront the wrongdoer all by herself and bring him to book. Some critics have hailed it as a radical film, choosing to ignore the trite, predictable vengeance-drama methods it deploys

Anaarkali of Aarah isn’t as screechy as Begum Jaan. The latter peddles feminism on steroids. A hookah-smoking harlot who runs a brothel wages all-out war (with the support of her feisty, foul-mouthed girls) to save her ‘home’ from being torn down because the Radcliff line runs through it. Begum Jaan is relentlessly loud and lacerating. It shrieks its lungs out to make a very obvious point: azaadi is as much for women as for the men who have divided the subcontinent.

Even in Dangal, the wrestler-girls have to function within a space demarcated by their unrelentingly stern father, himself a wrestler who could not achieve all he wanted in his sporting career. The problematic patriarchy at play in the Nitesh Tiwari-directed film has been commented upon by many observers and rightfully so. But Dangal is a breakthrough in terms of gender equations in an ultraconservative society in comparison with the Salman Khan starrer Sultan. Here, too, the female protagonist is a wrestler, but she is compelled to give up her career as she settles into a life of domesticity while her husband pursues greater global glory.

Much worse, of course, is the way in which Bollywood heroines are still frequently reduced to objects of desire to cater to the male gaze. Item numbers are routinely bunged into films without much logic – the idea is to titillate the audience and feed their baser instincts. While this still goes on unabated, all hell breaks loose if a woman on the screen appears to stray beyond the restrictions imposed by social orthodoxy.

In the recently released Jolly LLB 2, the character played by Huma Qureshi is the lawyer-protagonist’s feisty wife. She is a woman who loves her whiskey and often gets so high that she crashes out on the living room sofa. Her husband takes credit for the fact that he gives his wife the freedom to do as she wishes. Can’t a woman be a free bird without having to do the very things that wayward men indulge in or be dependent on her husband’s goahead?

In Pink, which has been widely lauded as a strong feminist film, the three girls who fight a bitter legal battle against a politically connected molester have to rely heavily on the wiles and tenacity of a moody old male lawyer. The latter is projected as a father-figure who takes up cudgels on behalf of the trio who, despite the spirited fight that they put up individually and as a group, remain three girls in need of a male helping hand to receive justice.

But not all women-centric Bollywood films are of the Pink ilk. Like Lipstick Under My Burkha, Leena Yadav’s Parched and Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses project women as characters who decide their own fate despite being up against severe challenges. Pretty much the same is true of films like Neerja and Queen, neither of which needed the support of a big male star to make headway at the box office. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata was another film that revolved solely around a woman from a socially disadvantaged segment who struggles to ensure that her daughter receives formal education and improves her lot in life.

So, Bollywood is changing all right as far as the portrayal of strong female characters is concerned, but gender sensitivity still isn’t mainstream Hindi cinema’s strong suit. The women we see in Mumbai potboilers are still some way off from acquiring meaningful substance and stature.

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