Here’s a question to ponder: If you had to write down your profession, would you describe yourself as a “family member”? The answer, if you’re the heroine of a mainstream Hindi film, is yes.
We looked at the 10 top grossing Hindi films of the past 10 years, and found that 35% of these leading ladies play a woman whose profession is a mystery. These characters are usually known in relation to a male character (sisters, mothers, wives) and for 27%, their only reason for existence is to be the hero’s love interest. Welcome to the 21st century.
Every few years, we get a film led by a female protagonist that seems to make both the audience and the Hindi film industry sit up. The likes of The Dirty Picture (2011) and Queen (2013) felt like watershed moments that held out the hope of a new era in the representation of women in Bollywood. While it’s true that the writing of women characters has consistently improved, the 100 films we surveyed showed just how low the bar is when it comes to on-screen women.
In the real world, India’s grappling with declining female labour participation despite 52% of Indian women expressing a desire to work. From 32% in 2005, India’s female labour participation dropped to 19% in 2021, according to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy has found one in four women, aged 15-29, is unable to secure employment. You’d think the wish-fulfilment machine that is Bollywood would tap into this and imagine worlds in which all heroines are working women. Yet for female protagonists, being a family member is the most popular profession among the hit films of the last decade.
Going through the 10 biggest hits for each year, from 2013 to October 2023, we asked just one question: What is the heroine’s profession in the film? Never mind how much time she gets on screen, how many dialogues allow her to have an identity independent of the hero’s, or the impact of the role.
Curiously, the second most popular job for on-screen women is that of a cop, spy or some sort of officer in a law enforcement agency (12%). Are these strong and powerful women pointing to change in how heroines are being imagined? Is the commercial Hindi blockbuster embracing the idea of a woman who can be the hero’s equal? Or is this trapping women characters in a gendered understanding of strength, which demands women be manly in order to come across as heroic?
Professions are also deeply gendered. For instance, in the 100 films we looked at, there was only one instance of a woman playing an engineer: Katrina Kaif in Bharat (2019). We also found that women in professions like doctors, gangsters, and athletes constitute a mere 5% each. There are some actors who have consistently played working women whose professional lives are not treated dismissively — Sonam Kapoor belongs to this category. No matter how flimsy or light-hearted the plot of her film may be, her character almost always has a job — but then there are others who do the opposite. For example, most of the women played by Sara Ali Khan don’t have a job. By and large, it seems that even for Bollywood, with its rose-tinted unreality, an independent woman is too fantastical as a concept.
By the power of hindsight, we can tell you that 2022 was a terrible year for women characters. While the macho hero ruled the roost, women characters were sidelined and their roles were frequently irrelevant to the central plot. The trend seems to have continued into 2023. So far, the two biggest hits of the year are centred upon heroes. In Jawaan, the women who initially seem important to the story are eventually literally put into jail cells so that the stage is cleared for two Shah Rukh Khans and Vijay Sethupathi to do their thing. In Gadar 2 (2023), Amisha Patel has nothing to do other than weep and faint prettily. However, it’s also been a year of unexpected twists, like writer-director Luv Ranjan being (briefly) sympathetic to an independent working woman’s desires in Tu Jhoothi Main Makkar (2023) and Satyaprem ki Katha (2023) rooting for a heroine who is a rape survivor.
As audiences demand more nuanced narratives and the industry sees more women in decision-making positions, let’s hope women on and off screen get a better deal and more time in the spotlight.