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Bollywood has barely treated working women well. We need more Zoya Akhtars, Reema Kagtis

Recent Indian films and shows such as Delhi CrimeSoni, and Dahaad are welcome additions to the small list of progressive productions in which women try to attain professional success while managing their personal lives.

Soni (2018) has two female cops in the lead: While senior superintendent Kalpana (Saloni Batra) deals with her own pressures of being the perfect wife and mother, she is empathetic toward her junior Soni (Geetika Ohlyan) who gets short-changed at work. Delhi Crime seasons 1 and 2 give us a ringside view into the daily lives of DCP Vartika (Shefali Shah) and rookie IPS officer Neeti Singh (Rasika Dugal). Dahaad (2023) has sub-inspector Anjali Bhatti (Sonakshi Sinha) fighting misogyny and casteism at work.

Working women’s issues are in news once again these days, thanks to Harvard University’s Claudia Goldin winning the Nobel Prize in economics for her research on working women and labour markets. Although there is no such research done in India so far, one can get a broad sense of how bad things have been for working women through their depiction in Hindi films over the last eight decades or so.

Through the decades

Male actors have always dominated Hindi cinema and been paid handsomely, while the lesser-paid female actors are relegated to playing the eye candy trope with zero agency. A fresh look at how working women have been depicted over the decades in Hindi cinema throws some interesting insights.

Whereas women characters in Hindi films of the 1940s spent their whole lives inside their homes in the pre-Independence era, the ’50s and ’60s saw female actors occasionally play working professionals such as teachers (Nargis in Shree 420 in 1955) and journalists (Madhubala in Jaali Note in 1960). Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Mahanagar (1963), in which Madhabi Mukherjee steps out of home to take up a secretarial job and support the family, was a landmark production.

The seeds of New Wave cinema were planted during the ’70s, and the progressive trend continued into the ’80s. While commercial cinema was still melodramatic, hailing sacrificing women (think Waheeda Rehman in Trishul in 1978) and denigrating career-focused women as selfish (Hema Malini in Abhinetri in 1970), art-house cinema treated the roles of professional women well. Vidya Sinha in Basu Chatterjee’s films Rajnigandha (1974) and Chhoti Si Baat (1976), Rakhee in Anil Ganguly’s Tapasya (1976), and Zarina Wahab in Gharonda (1977) portray urban working woman with grace and dignity. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil followed in their footsteps in Arth (1982) and Ardh Satya (1983).

In Bhimsain’s Gharonda, Wahab is the sole earning member of her family who later gives up her job and marries her rich boss to fund her brother’s higher education abroad. Such realistic depictions as Gharonda were a welcome break from the stereotype of the working woman — a selfish troublemaker hell-bent on destroying her marriage for the sake of her career. Bhimsain examined this stereotype in Dooriyaan (1979), in which Sharmila Tagore plays a theatre actor.

During these two decades, Hindi films seemed to finally catch up with progressive Indian literature. While Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) shows how an educated woman married into a conservative family is frowned upon, Rajnigandha put a female protagonist under the spotlight. I will come back to this movie in a bit.

Also read: Indian family is back in Bollywood. But Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani just made…

Where are women labourers?

Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) exalted the female farmer. For a change, she is seen doing back-breaking labour rather than “soft”, aesthetically pleasing jobs such as plucking tea leaves. However, in Hindi cinema, women are seldom shown to be working in the manufacturing sector — which mirrors the real-life trend of the lack of a female workforce in the Indian labour market.

Hollywood has done relatively better: Charlize Theron is an iron ore miner in North Country (2005) who files a sexual harassment suit against her employers. Julia Roberts portrays real-life activist Erin Brockovich in the 2000 film by the same name; the American advocate took on Pacific Gas & Electric Company in a famous class action suit in 1993.

Perhaps the closest commercial Hindi cinema came to positively depicting working women in industry was Yash Chopra’s Kaala Patthar (1979). Rakhee plays a doctor in an ill-equipped coal mine dispensary, while Parveen Babi plays a journalist. Rakhee also plays a hotshot advertising guru in Doosra Aadmi (1977) and executive assistant to Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Trishul. Secretarial jobs for women seem to have been really popular in the ’70s and ’80s — Sarika in Basu Bhattacharya’s Griha Pravesh (1979) or Ranjeeta in Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978). The latter film was spoofed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee in  Rang Birangi (1983), with Deepti Naval reprising the role played by Ranjeeta earlier.

Sexual harassment at the workplace is briefly depicted in Prakash Mehra’s Namak Halaal (1983), where Patil rebuffs the advances of a customer at the hotel where she works. We have Bipasha Basu playing a business tycoon in Corporate (2006), while Kangana Ranaut’s character is sexually exploited by her boss in Life In a…Metro (2007).

Dig a little deeper, and you will find that Hindi cinema has yet to overcome the challenge of showing women pursuing their careers with single-minded devotion. Getting married and “settling down” seems to be a preoccupation with even the brightest, most promising protagonists who are briefly seen challenging patriarchy, be it the successful athlete Kusum Sangwan (Kangna Ranaut) in Aanand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) or the firebrand Bitty Mishra (Kriti Sanon) in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017).

In Farhan Akhtar’s landmark film Dil Chahta Hai (2001), the only woman protagonist with a normal job — Dimple Kapadia as interior designer Tara Jaiswal — is shown as an unhappy, divorced, maladjusted alcoholic. On the contrary, Shalini (Preity Zinta) and  Pooja (Sonali Kulkarni) are content just to hang around and wait to get married to the right guy.

Also read: Lazy writing drowns Neeyat, Blind, Gaslight. Bollywood just doesn’t get whodunit right

Showing modernity isn’t enough

It’s not enough to depict women as “modern” on screen, even though it is more acceptable now than before to show young women dressing boldly, smoking, or drinking amid male company without being judged. One of the reliable tests of progressiveness in movies is the Bechdel Test, which asks whether a work features at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. If you search high and low in commercial Hindi cinema, you will find that very few films pass the Bechdel Test, and  Rajnigandha is one of them. The film starts with Vidya Sinha’s character, Deepa, waking up from a dream, which is a metaphor for her identity crisis. The whole film is about her dilemma: Deepa had to choose between a life of domesticity with her loving fiancé and a job in a different city where she could rekindle an old affair. This is one of the few films I found very refreshing from a woman’s perspective; the obvious reason is that it is based on Mannu Bhandari’s book of the same name. Bhandari was a feminist and one of the leading figures in the Nayi Kahani movement in Hindi literature.

That brings me to this important point: There is a need for more women writers to create more female roles so that they can narrate their own stories. A 2014 Sundance Film Festival study found that male-directed films were more likely to feature male leads, whereas female-directed films were more likely to feature female leads. The gender gap among directors is widest in top-grossing films. Unless there is a significant shift in the whole ecosystem of Hindi cinema, there is unlikely to be any major change in either the subjects of films or the depiction of women on screen.

One positive example is Dahaad by Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar. The same team portrayed Priyanka Chopra as a successful businesswoman in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). Alia Bhatt has played a number of strong, independent women on screen, including the role of a TV anchor in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023). But her standout performance in recent times has been in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), in which she plays the role of a sex worker who helps unionise her ilk to fight for their civil and political rights. Utkarshini Vashisht co-wrote the screenplay with Bhansali. In most Hindi films, sex workers are treated as fallen women in need of a saviour. Vijay in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) accepts Gulabo, the sex worker (Waheeda Rehman), as a partner in the climax of the film. Crooners and bar dancers are seldom treated with respect, except in films such as Feroz Khan’s Qurbani (1980), in which Zeenat Aman’s character besots the two leading men. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar (2001) took a sympathetic view of the lives of bar dancers of Mumbai.

Show women realistically

In 2023, the seventh and last season of the popular Emmy-nominated Canadian web series Workin’ Moms ran on Netflix. Created by Catherine Reitman, who also plays one of the leads (Kate Foster), the show tracks the lives of six women trying to juggle their careers with their family lives. They hurtle from one problem to another — Kate has to pick up her kids from school in the middle of a busy work day, following which they vomit all over important papers in her office. Sloane struggles with a fussy newborn baby in the middle of an important meeting; Kate tries to multitask, cooking for her kids while micro-managing a live interview on the phone and burning her arm in the process. The show is highly relatable for urban working women all over the world. It’s near impossible to find an Indian show or film that would devote more than five minutes of screen time to the daily struggle of the working mother.

This is not to absolve Hollywood or the rest of the world from gender stereotyping. A 2019 study by US-based Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media titled How film and media stereotypes affect the lives and leadership ambitions of girls and young women revealed the following trends concerning 56 top-grossing films of 2018 from 19 countries, including India: Female characters are less likely to be shown as leaders than male characters (27 per cent to 42 per cent), female leaders are far more likely than male leaders to be shown wearing revealing clothing (30 per cent to 7 per cent), they are more likely to be sexually objectified using camera angles (15 per cent to 4 per cent), and more likely to be verbally objectified by other characters (13 per cent to 2 per cent). These biases get reinforced through successive films and shows, and young audiences the world over start accepting this unfair depiction as reality.

We don’t need research to tell us that Indian television series are probably among the worst of the lot. Even in 2023, women in most TV shows play roles that portray them as a burden to society — either they are weak and foolish and often get exploited, or are constantly plotting an evil scheme to bring another person (usually a female rival) down.

Infosys co-founder Narayan Murthy’s recent statement about how young Indians must work 70 hours a week fails to acknowledge that working women do double the work men do at home, in addition to their office tasks. Our films seldom highlight women’s work-life balance. The multilingual movie Court (2014) is one of the better films in this regard. The lawyer played by Geetanjali Kulkarni is shown making an effort to keep her family happy, as well as performing her duties efficiently at work. Shimit Amin’s Chak De! (2007) took a brief look at the work-life balance of Vidya Sharma, the captain of the women’s national hockey team. At one point, Vidya laments how her in-laws want the sarkari flat that comes with her profession but also want a demure bahu who looks after the needs of the entire family.

I hope to see more Indian films, TV shows, and web series that pass the Bechdel Test and depict the issues of working women realistically.

Nirupama Kotru is a senior civil servant. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

Source: The Print

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