Women In Bollywood In 2019: The Good, Disappointing, And Ridiculous

2019 is not 2016. No Pink or Neerja or Dangal or Dear Zindagi. Stereotypes won at the box office this year
Women In Bollywood In 2019: The Good, Disappointing, And Ridiculous

How do you sum up a year in Bollywood where the biggest hits featured women in the classic stereotypes of dead honeytrap (War), ornament (Kesari), festive baubles (Housefull 4) and dancing shampoo commercial (Super 30), while the interesting roles gathered loose change at the box office? You count the good things, note the disappointments, make a cuppa and watch the new trailers.


The Cheerful Dysfunctionality of Judgementall Hai Kya 

Kangana Ranaut's film choices are delightfully odd by Bollywood's conservative standards where women have to constantly explain themselves. Here, she plays a woman who is so afraid and suspicious of men and their capacity for violence that it manifests as a mental health issue. In the course of a plot that proves her suspicions of men right, she is, however, shown to be not fully up there. Her mental health problems are real, and by film's end, Ranaut's character confirms what the film suggests all along—she knows she has demons and doesn't mind living with them.

The First Political Actor in Manikarnika 

Ranaut again. This one fits perfectly with the muscular nationalism of her politics, but she still packs a surprise in the story. Who knew the queen Lakshmibai was a bibliophile, seduced by a handsome well-stocked library? Bollywood rarely shows women as political beings with minds of their own. In a previous essay, I have noted how the protagonists of Hindi films set in the Independence struggle and Partition, red letter political events for India, are always men. Even in a thoughtful indie film like Manto, it is Manto who suffers the tragedy of Partition, his wife only experiences Manto. Manikarnika changes this.

The Career Women in Bharat, Gully Boy and Mission Mangal 

Last year, I had written about the increasing sexual assertiveness of women in Hindi film (which I dig), and their growing disinterest in work which baffles me. In Bharat, Salman Khan refers to Katrina Kaif as Madam Sir because she is his boss at first and always on a high-powered, steadier career path than him. Khan's movies contain an unexpected strain of female empowerment at least since Dabangg (2010) where Sonakshi Sinha was the sole earning member in her family, looking after an alcoholic father and a handicapped brother.

In Gully Boy, Alia Bhatt is a medical student who aspires to perform liver transplants, considered to be the most complex surgery known today. As Baradwaj Rangan wrote here, Gully Girl might be an even more compelling film. Then, there were the space scientists in Mission Mangal, a nearly all-women team who deliver the first satellite to enter Mars' orbit on the first attempt. I could only think of Parineeti Chopra in Hasee Toh Phasee before this, so simply in terms of representation, this is good and necessary.

The Matter-of Factness in Good Newwz 

I like the breeziness and stylish clothes with which Kareena Kapoor Khan discusses in-vitro fertilisation. Although Bollywood has never blamed women for being 'unable to have children', it has cast them as reserved, repressed or unreasonable characters. Rani Mukerji did this twice, in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke and in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. In Filhaal, Tabu is unreasonably difficult with her best friend who agrees to be her surrogate. This is entirely understandable, of course. But Kapoor Khan's pragmatism is a nice surprise. This is, in fact, the original promise of Western science, isn't it, that it will save us from the savage prejudices of tradition?

The Franchise in Mardaani 

The second instalment of Rani Mukerji's short-tempered cop means only the second female-centric franchise in Bollywood, after Kahaani. (Every male A-lister, barring Aamir Khan, has a franchise to himself or is getting one.) The tonality of the Mardaani canvas is bit too angry and extra-judicial for me, but the character is warm, intelligent, competent and nicely short-tempered. It's good to see women like that.

The Complexity of Badla 

This remake of a Spanish film changes one thing from the original: the gender of the protagonist. With this, it allows a woman to be selfish in a way that Bollywood does not permit women to be. On the rare occasion when a woman is a murderer, she is usually killing for the sake of her love. No such reasoning here. Taapsee Pannu here is gloriously self-absorbed—in her career, and her sexual choices. Leading men, on the other hand, are allowed to be completely absorbed in personal projects like revenge (Agneepath, Karz, Baazigar) or personal glory (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Luck By Chance, Jawani Diwani). True equality should mean equal opportunities for selfishness, no?

The Female-led Holiday Release 

Considering its material about real-life grandmothers becoming shooting champions, Saand ki Aankh is plain boring, but there is one gamble it took that I noticed—it is perhaps the first Hindi holiday release that relies only on its female stars.


The Short-Sightedness of Section 375 

When I think of the script-discussions in Section 375, I imagine preppy high-school boys with a library of pulpy thrillers congratulating themselves for thinking up a "twist", with no further thought on what it is that they want to say.  Any progressive, human-rights centred law, or any social movement will have loopholes, people who manipulate it for their ends. Of course, there must be people who misuse the strict new law on rape, or the anti-dowry act. Equally, there are people, and even governments, who manipulate the law on homicide or theft or defamation—does that necessarily bring those laws into question? Or does it call for careful procedure and investigation? This film casts the #MeToo movement as phony, and uses phrases such as "the honourable Twitter court of India". Worse, it shows a sensitive, empathetic court-room with sensitive judges and decent lawyers, breaking with the progressive tradition of the courtroom drama across languages. In which world is this courtroom set? Fantasy?

The Nasty MeToo Snub in Super 30 

Director Vikas Bahl, who had a serious sexual harassment complaint against him, dismissed the entire MeToo movement with a sequence where a woman who does not know what the film's hero Hrithik Roshan looks like, accuses him of sexually harassing her. Naturally, she is swatted away as a fraud. Just before the film's release, director Bahl secured a "clean chit" from an internal committee set up by the production company.

The Home Science of Mission Mangal

Vidya Balan and her eyes can make applying the logic of frying puris to sending a satellite into space believable. But this film should have let Balan sit, and scribble calculations and draw diagrams instead of making her cook, do puja and run domestic chores throughout her screen time. Couldn't she be a bit more scientist-y? After all, it is rocket science, what she did.

The Story that Never Gets Written in Kalank 

Perhaps it is that I saw shades of Tagore's Charulata in Alia Bhatt's headstrong character in the pre-Independence drama that I can't help thinking about why a woman who goes for what she wants would leave her article for her husband's newspaper unfinished. Why would a driven, resourceful girl forget about the work she set out to do? Or is it just the journalist in me, unable to digest a deadline missed so casually.

The Insipidity of the RomCom in The Zoya Factor

From its storied legacy in 1930s Katherine Hepburn films to its heyday in Nora Ephron's 1990s films, the romcom is a genre that is driven by women. Indeed, it derives its material from the contemporary educated woman's conflict between submitting to love (the traditional thing), and insisting on equality and independence. This sets up its standard features—crisp, tasty banter, beautiful clothes, wealthy settings, and the frisson between hero and heroine. Over the Noughties, only Sonam Kapoor has persevered in keeping the genre alive in Bollywood. But this, despite the sharp casting, was flat in the writing and the cricket action was amateurish. It looks like there will be no romcoms in the next couple of years.

The Ridiculous Sex Talk of Pati, Patni aur Woh

Man: What are your hobbies?

Woman: I love sex

Man: *Stupid grin*

Woman: *Smug grin*

Bhumi Pednekar, who voices the woman's dialogues, is positioned as a sex-positive woman. But who talks like this in real life? Many of us enjoy sex, some the intimacy, but no one talks like this, female or male. This is the male fantasy of the 'cool girl'. It's not just that it is crude, which it is, it is stupid. No activity which involves the possibility of limbs stuck in awkward positions, and the secretion of bodily fluids can qualify as a hobby. A person may enjoy sexual conquest. Then you'd say: I enjoy 'seduction'  or 'romaánce'. No? And then, there is that marital rape joke which remains unfunny, blockbuster or not.


Chhapaak: Deepika Padukone's acid attack survivor film does not offer a plastic surgery makeover. This is the biggest difference from our other mutilated face superstar film, Khoon Bhari Maang with Rekha. The thrill in this film was the new face and hair that Rekha uses to wreak revenge. Here, Padukone stops wrapping the dupatta around her face, and her body language changes from crumpled to relaxed. Point to note: The film appears to have no major male star with her.

Shakuntala Devi biopic: After space scientist, Vidya Balan plays the real-life mathematics star Shakuntala Devi. Hopefully, she gets to do more maths and less home science here. All the promotional material for the project features Balan. So far, no major male star has been announced so far.

Dhaakad: The teaser suggests a Lara-Croft like action film headlined by Kangana Ranaut, and makes a gamble for the Diwali weekend in 2020. If it keeps its date, then true to Ranaut's ambition she will take on the big male hero territory of holiday releases single-handedly. Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar had each other for support at least. Once again, no major male star on the horizon here.

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