Over the past decade, Indian society has witnessed an increase in the number of women-centric Bollywood films that have been created and released. Romantic comedies from Milan Luthria, The Dirty Picture (2011), Sachin Kundalka, Aiyya (2012), and Alankrita Shrivastava, Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) are among such films that highlight the experiences of their women characters. However, these films still have patriarchal themes that influence the life choices of their women protagonists. It can thus be said that such films purposefully bring out the negative aspects of uncontrolled female desire to maintain the patriarchal structure of Indian society.
A common theme in women-centric Bollywood films is that of the woman protagonist being forced to get married against her will. Since the seeming aim of most such films is to provide feminist depictions of the women in question, the protagonists are usually shown to rebel against their families who are coercing them into marriage. In The Dirty Picture, this happens when the character of Silk (Vidya Balan) — then referred to as Reshma — successfully flees from her mother’s house a day before her wedding. In Lipstick Under My Burkha, Leela (Ahana Kumra) constantly plans to elope with her lover, Arshad (Vikrant Massey). Similarly, Aiyyaa, the main character, Meenakshi (Rani Mukerji), regularly dreams of running away from her family home after her parents decide to fix her marriage.
All three characters — Silk, Leela, and Meenakshi — wish to escape their circumstances to fulfil their career ambitions. Silk and Leela, for instance, aspire to gain success in a world ruled by men. Meenakshi, however, aims for something much simpler: to be financially independent enough to rent an apartment where she can peacefully read novels and listen to music. Nonetheless, in spite of having socially acceptable and entirely harmless aspirations, the three aren’t allowed to remain ambitious. Thus, even when they try to break out of the gendered expectations that their families have of them, they face negative repercussions for their actions, mostly when they are denied the support of their families. Thus, the stories of Silk, Leela, and Meenakshi, in a way, warn the women viewers about how their own lives might turn out if they make life choices similar to the ones made by these three.
Suppressing Female Desire
Alongside their career ambitions, these characters are forced to suppress their sexual desire. When their desires are revealed to the other characters, the women are usually humiliated for wanting to explore their sexuality. In The Dirty Picture, since Silk is unashamed about having sexual urges, she is either labelled as “characterless” by her colleagues or is criticised for being too outspoken. An example of this can be found when she is having a sexual encounter with a Suryakanth (Naseeruddin Shah) and is forcefully ushered into his bathroom in an aggressively hurried manner when his wife (Shivani Tanksale) knocks on his door. Even though this scene can be interpreted as Suryakanth trying to hide his affair from his spouse, it is quite clear that she is aware of his relations with Silk. The onus to hide the affair is placed not on Suryakanth but on Silk.
Similarly, in The Lipstick Under My Burkha, Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has to keep the sexual fantasies she has about her swimming coach, Jaspal (Jagat Singh Solanki) concealed from everyone around her. She feels embarrassed when her neighbour sees her buying a swimming costume for herself and has to make anonymous phone calls to Jaspal to initiate verbal conversations that ultimately become sexually intimate. At the same time, in Aiyyaa, Meenakshi’s lustful feelings for her love interest, Surya (Prithviraj Sukumaran), are only brought out in the dance numbers Dreamum Wakeupum and Aga Bai. Much like Usha, Meenakshi resorts to behavior like stalking without directly approaching the person she fancies.
The tactics employed by both women might be viewed as deeply flawed and immoral. However, they are behaviors that are commonly carried out in real life because most women in India are neither taught nor encouraged to be expressive about their romantic and sexual desires — something that men are extremely comfortable doing.
The previous point goes on to explain why the women characters in these films are in a perpetual dreamlike state where they refuse to acknowledge their actual circumstances — Silk loses herself in the films she is acting in, Usha begins to find comfort in the pornographic literature she reads, and Meenakshi is always lost in her daydreams which include scenes from her favourite movies. In fact, Silk is even advised by a reporter named Naila (Anju Mahendru) never consciously to think about her reality.
Of course, the three women are eventually forced to accept their circumstances and are met with unfortunate fates when that happens. Once Silk stops getting cast in films, she finds an escape through alcohol and ultimately ends her life. Usha, on the other hand, is insulted by her family members when her truth is revealed to them by Jaspal. Fortunately, since Meenakshi’s romantic yearnings are not made known to her family members and are reciprocated by the person she is smitten with, she receives her happily ever after.
“Ideal” Wives and Daughters-in-Law
The three films also stress the performance of gender roles, particularly by the women in them. Shireen ( Konkona Sen Sharma), in Lipstick Under My Burkha, needs to perform all her duties as an ideal housewife while continually having to hide her professional work and achievements from her husband, Rahim (Sushant Singh). She is so helpless that she is forced to endure marital rape on a daily basis. When Shireen finds out Rahim is having an extramarital affair, she cannot confront him about it due to the heavily lopsided power dynamics within their relationship. However, when she does finally reveal to him that she has a full-time job and confronts him about his affair, he, once again, forces himself upon her in order to punish her.
Furthermore, in The Dirty Picture and Aiyyaa, the gender roles have more to do with the women being required to be viewed as ideal daughters-in-law. In The Dirty Picture, Silk is asked, in front of Ramakant’s (Tusshar Kapoor) parents, to act like a “decent woman”. They had seen her dance, which they deem “dirty” and “vulgar”, and is told that women like her do not deserve to be introduced to any man’s parents. In Aiyyaa, Meenakshi is nudged by her mother every time they are in front of her future in-laws and is asked to practice saying, “Where is Madhav (her fiance)? Should I bring tea and snacks for you?” Any disparity between the image they are expected to maintain and their actual, authentic selves is either met with name-calling or with a loss of life opportunities.
Women-centric Bollywood films often reveal the unpleasant lived experiences of their women protagonists. Since most of these movies end on a negative note, they create a binary between the ideal and nonideal Indian women — which instills fear in the minds of women moviegoers should they, too, refuse to act in “socially acceptable” ways. While most of these films attempt to be perceived as feminist narratives aiming to empower Indian women, they more often lead to strengthening patriarchal beliefs. As professor Judith Mayne writes in her essay, “Feminist Film Theory and Women at the Movies“, “…the difference assigned to the female spectator may ultimately serve, rather than challenge, patriarchal ideals.”