When most people think of Bollywood films a particular image comes to mind and that image rarely features an empowered woman. While Bollywood certainly has a complicated relationship with complicated women, there are many women working in Hindi cinema who play three-dimensional roles, primarily by refusing to be two dimensional. What follows is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order.
On a list that is chock full of some of the best movies in Bollywood, this one might be number one. This is one of my favorite movies, period. I related so much to this character and the magic of her is that so many other women did too.
Kangana Ranaut plays Rani (Hindi for “queen”), a shy, well-mannered, and obedient girl who is jilted by her fiancee Vijay just as her wedding festivities begin. After wallowing for a few days, she decides to go on her “dream honeymoon” to Paris (her favorite city) and Amsterdam (his favorite city) alone. This is not a usual step for anyone in her family. She only speaks broken English and arrives in Paris wan and clearly frightened. She meets the gorgeous, liberated half-French, half-Indian Vijaylaxmi (goes by Vijay) who helps her appreciate the city and definitely puts her in siutations that she would not have got in otherwise. Then, though, it’s on to Amsterdam and Rani won’t have Vijay(laxmi) to guide her. There, she is truly on her own (except for the men that share her hostel). And there she really comes into her own. In India, she relied on her fiancee Vijay to feel brave. In Paris, she had Vijay(laxmi). But in Amsterdam it’s all Rani.
One of my favorite details of this movie is that you can see her bridal mehendi fading from her hands throughout at the same time that you can see her face brightening and she becomes more lively and cheerful. Yet, she never ceases to be Rani. And that is the best part. This is not a story about a nerdy girl that the world turns into a glamazon, who suddenly becomes beautiful and daring because we collectively decide that she looks the part. This is a woman who the world would not allow to blossom, who found a way to do it anyway. You see the real Rani when she refuses to let her ex take her dream trip from her, but you really see her in the girl who had to leave the nest to find herself and appreciate home. And “Queen” does all of this so gracefully that it does not come across as cloyingly sweet or overdone.
Kangana plays the part so beautifully. She is herself a very outspoken woman so it’s fascinating to see her transform into the terrified Rani on the streets of Paris. You want to cry for her when the police ask to see her passport. But that’s how we are! A woman in a movie does not have to be fearless or flawless to be a heroine, she just needs to be herself and to appreciate that she is capable of accomplishing whatever she likes. Guys, this one is on Netflix and you would be crazy not to watch it.
Anaarkali of Aarah
A woman who sings ribald songs for a living is harassed in public by a state politician. The local police cover the incident up but Anaarkali (played by Swara Bhaskar) refuses to simply move on. She is threatened, loses her livelihood, and has to flee to Delhi. Even there she is found out. But at no point does she give up on being herself. At the center of this movie is a woman who sings dirty songs for a living. At the center there is also a question. Does this mean that people have rights to her body? Does questionable content mean that its performer has no personal autonomy? Anaarkali refuses at any point to lie and admit that she was wrong and allow herself to be owned and used. Although this movie deals with serious themes, its star is undeniably small-town glamorous and brings a lot of color the world she inhabits.
The Dirty Picture
It is easy for us to condemn the women behind the racy photos, but it is much harder to admit that we create them. Like Annarkali of Aarah, “The Dirty Picture” centers on a woman who dares to have a sexuality. Based loosely on the life of South Indian actress Silk Smitha, “The Dirty Picture” stars Vidya Balan as a girl who rockets to fame on the back of her willingness to display her sexuality in films. She is the most popular actress in the industry but also the most demonized. She calls this hypocrisy out blatantly while accepting an award for her movies. How is it that the same people who pay to see her movies and give her awards also refuse to socialize with her and shame her? As she points out, if she deserves shame, they are just as culpable. Vidya Balan plays her role very well. As Silk, she is a woman who feels most empowered when she dominates the screen. She is proud of her looks and her appeal. But the story around her suffers from some uneven tone. The 1970s setting comes across a bit cartoonish and the noughts style love song is as out of place as the couple in it. Finally, Vidya is almost the only woman in the whole movie, apart from a mother figure and the wife of Silk’s co-star. However, this could serve to reflect the isolation and entrapment that Silk felt in a male dominated industry.
More Bollywood movies about women you should check out.
Three women living in New Delhi take on rape culture in this pitch perfect courtroom drama.
A career-minded young woman has to take care of her ailing father. For once, a movie explores a familial relationship between a man and a woman.