Bhumi Pednekar in Sonchiriya
Bhumi Pednekar in Sonchiriya

It’s the end of the year and time to check on the progress made by women in the Hindi film industry — have they inched forward at all? Yes, if the graph is viewed under a microscope.

Female producers, directors and technicians? Still abysmally low in number. Pay parity? Ha! Sexual harassment? Just gone under the radar after the #MeToo movement. Better roles for women? Definite increase in number.

In the typical Bollywood commercial films like Total Dhamaal, Housefull 4 or Paganpanti, the leading ladies had little to do, but in some action films that were firmly within the mainstream genre, and had major male stars, even the token females were given roles that were not merely decorative — like the small parts played by Yami Gautam and Kirti Kulhari in Uri: The Surgical Strike, Shraddha Kapoor in Saaho,  Vaani Kapoor and Anupriya Goenka in War,  Mouni Roy in Romeo Akbar Walter, or Adah Sharma and Angira Dhar in Commando 3.

Among the top grossers of the year was Mission Mangal, about a group of female scientists who worked on India’s space programme, but even the star actresses like Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu and Sonakshi Sinha, who made up the cast, conceded that the real hero of the film was Akshay Kumar, who is, to quote an actress, worth more than five women, at the box office.

The film that waved the feminist flag most enthusiastically was Saand Ki Aankh, that was about two elderly women who buck the patriarchy of their family and village to become ace shooters. That the two sixty-plus women were played by Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar, caused a minor controversy with Neena Gupta wondering why older actresses could not have been cast. Bhumi Pednekar was inadvertently drawn into another controversy, when she played a dark-skinned woman in Bala, with atrocious boot polish like make-up, when a dusky actress could have been selected instead. The film also suggested that her character, Latika, a lawyer, was aggressive because she was constantly mocked and rejected on account of her complexion. (The other leading lady of Bala is Yami Gautam, who played a shallow, beauty-obsessed small town model.) The protagonist of this film is a male (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) worried about hair loss, but a charming little film, Gone Kesh, in which a young woman suffers from alopecia went unnoticed.

In spite of the presence of stars, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga (directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar), about a small town girl (Sonam Kapoor) discovering and embracing her sexual orientation, had the courage to bring a woman out of the closet, but it made no ripples at the box-office. A similar sad fate awaited Khandaani Shafakhana, starring Sonakshi Sinha, directed by a female, Shilpi Dasgupta, about a young woman who takes over her uncle’s Unani clinic, specializing in sexual problems. Perhaps family audiences felt uncomfortable with the subjects spoken about openly, when they did not mind so much, the mayhem caused by Ayushmann Khurrana among the male population of Mathura, by speaking in a sexy female voice on a chat line in Dream Girl.

If there was the patriotic fervor of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, played by Kangana Ranaut (who also co-directed it), Kriti Sanon playing a small part in Panipat, made the character of Parvatibai - medicine woman and warrior - count. This actress also caused some hassle in conservative Mathura in Luka Chuppi, by first insisting on a live-in relationship (with Kartik Aaryan) and then on a proper marriage.

 Aaryan, who was made to deliver the most misogynistic rants in his earlier films, played the straying husband in the remake of Pati Patni Aur Woh. No matter how straitlaced Kanpur may be, in 2019, audiences would not forgive a wife passively forgiving the husband infidelity; so the wife (Bhumi Pednekar) and clueless other woman (Ananya Panday) gang up to teach him a lesson. Still, the husband gets away with a mild reprimand, and mainstream Bollywood still does not want to deal with bored wives wandering into the arms of young lovers. In Badla, Taapsee Pannu does have an affair, commits murder and makes a mess of her happily married life — but faced with Amitabh Bachchan as a plain-speaking lawyer, she does not flinch.

In De De Pyar De, an older man (Ajay Devgan) falling in love with a younger woman (Rakul Preet Singh) is seen as quite normal, while the ex-wife (Tabu) is saddled with kids, in-laws, and a ridiculous suitor. With the typical sexism of Hindi cinema, in one scene, the two women quarrel over the man, quite missing the irony of comparing themselves with new and old car models.

There was also the blatant sexism of Section 375, in which a woman (Meera Chopra) in a consensual relationship with a married man, accuses him of rape when he breaks up. Her lawyer is the bungling supposedly feminist Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chadda), who manages to win the case anyway, against her far superior mentor (Akshaye Khanna).

After the top rung of divas as Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, actresses like Kangana Ranaut, Alia Bhatt, Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Shraddha Kapoor, and Kriti Sanon are representing the intrepid women of a world in which women want to speak up and be heard.

Alia Bhatt’s fiery medical student, Safeena, in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy may not fight the head scarf, but she knows how to keep her boyfriend (Ranveer Singh) in line. In the dacoit drama, Sonchiriya, set in a patriarchal wasteland, Bhumi Pednekar plays a village woman who risks her life to save a rape victim.   

Rani Mukerji returned as tough cop Shivani Roy in Mardaani 2, and caught a psychopathic rapist-murderer — showing that women can do the job as well as any man, even in a hostile environment, but, at the same time, making it look like women must only take up cases to do with women. Let’s hope she gets to investigate other serious crimes, too, in future.

Kangana Ranaut fought mental illess in Judgemental Hai Kya, and Priyanka Chopra played a tiger mom in Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink, who puts the health of her ailing daughter above everything else. 

But heroism comes from unexpected places — like a small film Jhalki, in which a plucky little girl (played by Aarti Jha) goes after a human trafficking mafia to save her little brother from slave labour.

The biggest wish for the new year would be a level playing field for women filmmakers, stories that give actresses roles worthy of their talent and reflect the reality of the times.

The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.

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