The year is drawing to a close, and is about to go down in history as a milestone in the long journey of the Indian woman towards true equality – the year in which women from many walks of life stood up and said no to sexual harassment and bullying, and refused to back down until the system that had seemed impenetrable so far began to take note. Is this legacy reflected in Hindi cinema – the most dominant form of cultural expression in this country? The answer depends on the vantage point – is one looking at how far we have come or how far we still have to go.
Prima facie 2018 has given us films with strong female leads – take Anurag Kashyap's Manmarziyaan. The fieriness of Taapsee Pannu's Rumi is special. Not because she is angry, drinks, smokes, curses, and is unabashed about her sexual needs – but because she is unapologetically committed to her desires. In a world where women across classes are wracked by familial and social guilt Kashyap gave us a heroine who has no trouble prioritizing her own happiness and pursuing it with a courage and dedication that her paramour lacks. She is also unafraid to make mistakes and to own them.
Unfortunately, the happiness Rumi is looking for is rooted solely in her idea of a significant other. Small town India today is teeming with young women who are fighting to study, resisting the pressure to get married, and yearning for financial independence. Rumi, with her unrelenting passion, could have given a voice to the aspirations of these young women, but she does not. This is especially ironical given that Kashyap claims to have been inspired by Amrita Pritam's life in writing this love story because Pritam's love triangle was secondary to her contribution to the world of ideas and letters.
Then there was the much beleaguered Padmaavat – where Deepika Padukone's eponymous character is a self-assured queen who, though famed for her beauty, commands attention to her knowledge, intellect, courage, and decisiveness. But in the end she is too much a product of her times to serve as an icon for ours – her decision to lead the women of her kingdom to commit jauhar was seen as a glorification of the horrific practice and the film was criticized, most memorably, by Swara Bhasker as a film that "reduced women to their vaginas."
Raazi (directed and co-produced by women – Meghna Gulzar and Priti Shahani respectively) perhaps had the strongest female lead of the year in Alia Bhatt's Sehmat, a RAW agent who marries into an army family in Pakistan to spy for India. With a quiet resolve and conviction Sehmat steps out of her comfort zone, masters the tricks of the trade, and finds extraordinary courage. She is an unlikely heroine who puts paid to the idea that women need to be masculine to do men's jobs or that they are easily swayed by emotions in the face of moral quandaries.
Her character is also a reminder that any number of Muslims have served this country at great personal cost – a reminder that should not be needed, but sadly in the polarized times we live in, might just be timely. Unfortunately, the film also ends up defining a patriotic Muslim in so narrow a way that it inadvertently buttresses right-wing propaganda. A Kashmiri Muslim does not have to risk her life and be ready to sacrifice her Pakistani husband to prove her loyalty to the country. A Kashmiri Muslim who questions the Indian army's human rights violations in the valley is also an equal citizen of this country.
That said, gender politics is not the only lens to assess the quality of characters being written for women. There is something to be said for meaty, nuanced, well-written characters irrespective of whether they make a feminist statement or not. Stree and Badhaai Ho are both films that score on many counts but squander their potential when it comes to doing right by their women characters. The former, a more overtly feminist horror comedy ironically has an underwritten central character played by Shraddha Kapoor. And the latter, for all its subversive delight focuses more on the situational comedy leaving the potential of its fascinating women characters underexplored. A little talked about film, 3 Storeys, on the other hand, manages to etch out morally ambiguous women with richly detailed and intriguing inner lives.
But for most part, the roles that could have blazed a new trail fell short in one way or another, in the process short-changing the actresses who portrayed them. At one level this points to the larger crisis of content in the Hindi film industry. In a country consistently producing world renowned fiction and non-fiction writers, the film industry has remained curiously bereft of good writing, at least in the last few decades. Perhaps because it only gets the writers it deserves. But as writers begin to get more respect and autonomy and the quality of the script begins to be recognized as the largest contributor to a film's box office collection, the Hindi film industry will start incentivizing its writers as well as attracting other excellent writers from outside its folds. At least some movies and its makers this year seem to have envisaged that reality.
On average, however, the number of substantial women's roles that do justice to the plentiful talent in the industry are still few and far between. The representation of women in other departments is even more abysmal. Directors like Meghna Gulzar and Nandita Das, and writers like Kanika Dhillon and Pooja Ladha Surti made a considerable impact this year, but, by and large, direction and writing are still heavily male dominated. As is production – so much so that Rhea Kapoor, who co-produced the hugely successful Veere Di Wedding, led by an all women star-cast, recounted in an interview how men were routinely surprised that she was actually involved in the process of filmmaking and not just decorated with the title gratuitously by her father's production house.
And she is by no means the only one. At least two actresses at the top of their game, Priyanka Chopra and Anushka Sharma, have turned producers in the last few years. While the former says she is committed to helping newcomers from outside the industry find a foothold, the latter has so far produced movies that give her the scope to play the kind of leads she would like to. In an industry where despite enough evidence to the contrary producers refuse to believe that women can lead commercially successful projects, in the end, women will simply have to take control of the content so that they can be the change they want to see.
In a country consistently producing world renowned fiction and non-fiction writers, the film industry has remained curiously bereft of good writing, at least in the last few decades. Perhaps because it only gets the writers it deserves.
When it comes to women taking back the power perhaps a bigger change is noticeable behind the screen. The Hindi film industry might not quite have had its Weinstein moment but for the first time ever at least a couple of predators of sexual harassment were publicly called out. In fact it was Tanushree Dutta's allegations against Nana Patekar that lit the spark for the wider #MeToo movement that took off across the country – not a mean achievement for an industry that usually remains insulated from socio-political goings-on.
Change is imminent. Slowly but surely women in the industry are standing up for themselves and other women in one way or another – be it Kangana Ranaut calling out Karan Johar for persistently asking sexist questions on his chat show, Aishwarya Rai who spoke out in favour of #MeToo, 11 women directors who pledged to boycott proven offenders, or Priyanka Chopra who has decided to invest in tech companies founded by women.
But the misogyny and systematic bias against women in the film industry is so deeply entrenched that it will take more than a couple of voices to turn the tide. For every woman who has recounted a personal story of sexual harassment at great cost there are thousands of stories that remain untold. For every woman who speaks up, there are hundreds who give in to the system.
In the end movies can hardly be expected to be more evolved than the industry that makes them. For years on end, not just women but even the portrayal of sexual and religious minorities in our movies has been problematic. Even in this present moment when the country is in turmoil on many fronts, barring Mulk and Manto there has been no effective effort to confront the political and ideological onslaught that is seeking to redefine the idea of India. (Mulk also deserves credit for Taapsee Pannu's Aarti who breaks many a stereotype in a relatively limited role.) Even Sairat, one of the most important films on caste to come out in recent times, lost its bite when remade into Dhadak.
Gender issues don't exist in silos – they intersect with deep-rooted socio-political faultlines. And an industry that fails to look within or outside comprehensively, will also fail its women characters and members. It may have come a long way and may even be headed in the right direction, but it is too early to say how long the road is to true equality for women within the Hindi film industry.