As International Women’s Day approaches, let’s take a look at the iconic characters created by some of Hindi cinema’s new-age female directors
Celebrating iconic storytelling by Indian female directors on Women's Day 2023
For a long time, Bollywood has mostly featured narratives with male protagonists. However, thanks to the emergence of female directors in Bollywood, the shift is more evident now than ever. Female actors no longer just play secondary characters in men’s world, but have their own story to tell. Related to that is the female gaze - a feminist theory referring to a female character’s agency in her narrative. With its inspiring characters and modern setting, it represents a female director’s point of view.
In Hollywood, directors like Greta Gerwig, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sophia Cappola, and Mira Nair have created some of the best female-driven films like Little Women, Ladybird, Lost in Translation and Bend It Like Beckham, among others. The wave hit Bollywood with the emergence of directors like Zoya Akhtar, Meghna Gulzar, Gauri Shinde, Ashwiny Tiwari Iyer, Nandita Das and Anvita Dutt. Let’s take a look at the impeccable body of work that some of these filmmakers have created…
Although Zoya Akhtar is criticised for portraying the upper-class’ point of view in her films, she understands the psyche of her characters and does justice to them on screen. Her female characters are fierce, daring, talented and breaking free from the shackles of society. Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) from the 2015 film Dil Dhadakne Do is an upper-class talented woman, who married against her will, and is bound to follow society’s patriarchal notions. But she still hopes for her family’s support and fights for her love. On the other hand, Laila (Katrina Kaif) from the 2011 film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is a free-spirited, easy-going girl, who wants life to surprise her every day. These women have a perspective of their own, and also have the willpower to fulfill their dreams.
The male characters in these movies also do not objectify a woman’s body. Rather, they become a support system for their female counterparts, and are in tune with their own feelings as well - something that was lacking in Bollywood’s earlier male characters.
What comes to mind when you think of a spy? A toned man with impeccable looks, fighting skills and a sharp mind. And now, think the exact opposite and that is how Meghna Gulzar wrote one of her most iconic characters, Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) in the 2018 film Raazi. The film showcases the journey of a naïve Kashmiri girl, studying at Delhi University, who is sent on a secret mission to Pakistan. The film does not have memorable action sequences that will keep you hooked to the screens. Rather, Sehmat looks innocent and beautiful and uses her intelligence to take out information. In this film, Meghna broke several stereotypes attached to a typical spy, and wrote one of the most memorable spy characters that Bollywood has ever seen. Sehmat’s character emphasises the value of women in society and their underappreciated role in the process of nation building.
Gauri Shinde grabbed the nation’s attention when she directed English Vinglish in 2012, telling a heartwarming experience of a middle-class housewife, who lacks respect in the household. Sashi’s (Sridevi) experiences resonated with every Indian mother who is mocked for her poor English-speaking skills or is limited to doing housework. Sashi inspires you to come out of your comfort zone, face challenges and experience light at the end of the tunnel.
When mental illness was considered a taboo in India, Gauri made Dear Zindagi. The 2016 film showcased Kaira (Alia Bhatt) dealing with heartbreak, family trauma and the challenges that adulthood brings in one’s life. Dr Jug (Shah Rukh Khan) is a psychologist and is the perfect example of a male character written by a woman. He is mature, expresses his emotions well and is miles away from being judgmental.
Anvita Dutt puts a female character in an uncomfortable setting which makes her bring out her darker side onscreen. Bulbbul, starring Triptii Dimri, released in 2020 is a perfect example of a woman who tunes in with her darker side and takes revenge on people who raped and eventually killed her. The film features ‘Shakti’ - the darker and menacing side of a woman who comes back to haunt her culprits. This mythical cinematic marvel is a fresh take from a woman’s perspective that you might not have witnessed before and is sure to bring chills down your spine.
Anvita wrote another inspiring character, Qala (Triptii Dimri) in the 2022 film Qala, who while looking for validation from her mother, indulges in wrong practices, in the hope of receiving love from her mother. Her ambition later takes a toll on her mental health, leading her to take her own life. Through Qala, Anvita deals with family and childhood trauma that makes a lasting impression on an individual’s life. Her stories often revolve back and forth into the character’s past life in order to understand the psyche and a perspective from a child’s point of view.
Of course, there are many more creators whose body of work has changed the female gaze in Bollywood, but these are some of the creators who have made a significant impact and started the debate about a woman’s experience. The female gaze and a female’s point of view are crucial to promote representation in a male-dominated business, and to highlight a female point of view on screen. Therefore, the next time you view a movie, try to understand the subtleties of the storytelling and connect them to your own experiences, you never know, you might learn more about a woman's perspective in this world where men predominate.