Are women-centric Bollywood films opening new doors?

Mar 08, 2014, 09:15 IST | Asira Tarannum and Bharati Dubey

Most women-oriented films that Bollywood produced over the years have bit the dust. On International Women's Day, we wonders if the tides are turning

Of the many films featuring strong female protagonists that have come and gone, few have been etched onto our collective memory. It may be pointed out that box office success in Bollywood is attributed mainly to male stars and filmmakers spend big bucks to cast known actors in their films. But on the occasion of International Women’s Day, hitlist explores how some films were exceptional as they defied all trends and norms in Bollywood. 

Sridevi in English Vinglish

If we go back half a century, films like Mother India and Pakeezah — considered two of the finest classics of Indian cinema — were path-breaking movies. Nargis played Radha, a poor village woman who fights against odds to raise her two sons, while Meena Kumari’s Sahibjaan was the epitome of heartbreak. The former killed her evil son for the sake of preserving justice, while the latter sacrificed her love in the film. Both characters set the tone of their respective films and ended up being huge hits too.

Nargis in Mother India and Vidya Balan in Kahaani

But some things changed in the ’80s and ’90s. While parallel cinema still dared to dabble in films dealing with feminist issues, commercially they were duds, however genuine the intention of the film-maker. Films like Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand, and Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja, come to mind. While these movies dealt with the bold subject of women’s triumph, they didn’t work at the box office. Most women oriented films surprisingly recieved poor response.

As if on cue, films with women playing the “hero” of the film failed miserably and consistently. Soon producers feared investing in these films.

Pakeezah centred around the life of Meena Kumari’s character Sahibjaan, who sacrifices her love in the film

However, more recently, the tide seems to be turning in favour of these films with women-oriented scripts gaineing acceptance in the industry. On their part, actresses too are more open to playing protagonists for a change.

Filmmaker Gauri Shinde, who made a successful directorial debut with English Vinglish, vouches for the same. “It was difficult for me to pitch the film. I was a first-time director and I was not making a film about a young woman. It didn’t have any item numbers in it, so there were doubts in people’s minds,” she says, adding that it takes a while to draw audiences into cinema halls, but once people start liking a film, word spreads and the film’s collections pick up as well.

Rekha in Rajkumar Santoshi’s film, Lajja, which was based on the plight of women in India

While Shinde found it difficult to convince studios with her film, it was a cakewalk for Santoshi. He says, “I was a successful filmmaker and nobody had any problem with my subject. During those days, films with women doing rona dhona worked well with the audiences. My films, Damini and Lajja, took the revolutionary road as they shocked audiences with their treatment of a woman-oriented theme.”

And while he concedes that multiplex audiences want to see all kinds of cinema, he is quick to point out that they charge higher ticket rates for male-oriented films and not women-oriented ones. “It is important to market the former in a manner where audiences connect with you,” he says.

Gauri Shinde admits that pitching her debut film, English Vinglish, to producers was not easy

Shinde explains that ours is a male-dominated country and the film industry, in particular, is no different. “Most of the audiences are men; they buy tickets at the counter. Besides, there is this perception that women-centric films will be boring and righteous. Unless more women get out on their own and decide what they want to watch, things will not change,” she says.

Actor-producer Dia Mirza, who is now making the film, Bobby Jasoos, with Vidya Balan playing the main lead, agrees.

“As our audiences evolve, so do our filmmakers and their ability to tell stories showcasing women in interesting avatars. The new India is eager to celebrate women characters that are nuanced, entertaining and most importantly, real. Eventually it will always be the story that is the clincher, and it’s great to see that we find more and more women now taking our stories forward.”

Shabana Azmi, known for playing a formidable woman in her films, believes that audiences love a well-made movie

Vidya Balan, who is known to do women centric films, seconds her. “A good film will irrespective of its theme. People react to human beings and their stories. The only criterion is how well a story is told. How else can you explain that Gravity bagged seven Oscars besides being the sixth highest grossing film of 2013?” she says.

Prakash Jha, who has featured strong women characters in films like Mrityudand, blames the society for its negative approach. He says, “Ours is a male oriented industry and society, but things are changing now. If a film is promoted well, it works. I don’t think a film will work only because it is star oriented.”

Shabana Azmi, known for playing a formidable woman in her films, asks both filmmakers and audiences to be patient. “I think this is a misconception. Vidya Balan’s women-centric films have had commercial success, and in the past too, films of Meena Kumari and Nutan were very successful. I’ve had a fairly decent stint myself. We underestimate our audiences; they warm up to a good film. What sometimes fails is the budget, not the film,” she emphasises.

Blast from the past

>> 1960s: Bandini, Seema, Sujata and Saraswati Chandra paved the way for women-centric films. Powerful direction by stalwarts like Bimal Roy, coupled with Nutan’s acting ability, took these movies to another level.

>> 1970s and ’80s: Films like Meera, Khushboo, and Insaaf Ka Tarazu had a strong feminist flavour. While beauties such as Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman upped the glamour quotient, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil were bracketed as parallel cinema artistes.

>> 1990s: Two films from this decade stand out — the Prakash Jha directed Mrityudand and Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini.

>> 2000s: Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja put women’s issues back under the spotlight.

>> 2010s: With The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, Vidya Balan proved that women-centric films can rake in the moolah at the box-office.

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