Why 2019 Was Not A Good Year for Bollywood’s Women

Female representation in Bollywood continues to be a big disappointment. 

Updated
Gender
8 min read
Bhumi Pednekar and Kiara Advani
i

As another year draws to a close, Bollywood has churned out around 100 films. From tackling live-in relationships like in Luka Chuppi and extra-marital affairs (Pati Patni Aur Woh) to premature balding in Bala and even drag (Dream Girl) - Hindi film content has surely evolved with time. However, Akshay Kumar continues to be the saviour of the nation, Kartik Aaryan still doesn’t tire of long monologues and brownface is deemed a necessity because, of course, a dusky skin tone is an imaginary concept?And when it comes to female representation, especially 2019, has been a big disappointment.

Films like ‘Kabir Singh’ and ‘Bharat’ raked in huge numbers at the box office, but what the directors successfully ensured is that the heroine is either criminally robbed of screen time or her presence solely revolves around the hero.

In some cases, she can be safely compared to a piece of second-hand furniture. Films like Marjaavaan, Kesari and Bharat were found hugely lacking when it came to fleshing out the female characters. Apart from a few exceptions that successfully presented us with meaty female protagonists, several “women-centric” films that managed to reach the theatres were complete washouts.

That brings us to a serious question – why is it that even the most ambitious scripts failed to create admirable and coherent character arcs for women? Here’s a look at why many Bollywood films were found lacking when it came to the representation and portrayal of women on screen this year.

Women as Mute Spectators?

Let’s start with one of the most talked-about films of the year – Kabir Singh, a remake of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Telugu feature Arjun Reddy. In this supposed “love story”, Preeti, is as good as a ghost. We are introduced to her through Kabir’s eyes. Always dressed in a salwar kurta, Preeti has one expression plastered on her face – fear. She has been sketched out to be at Kabir’s beck and call, to be slapped by the misogynistic bully and to break down in every second scene. The first proper sentence Preeti utters is – “What do you like in me, Kabir?” Do we know what she likes and dislikes? Didn’t she ever realise that she was mistaking abuse for love? What about her career? It’s almost shameful 2019 offers us such a shallow character.

Kiara Advani in a still from <i>Kabir Singh</i>.
Kiara Advani in a still from Kabir Singh.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

And then there was Marjaavaan. Sidharth Malhotra, aka Raghu’s love interest, is Zoya (Tara Sutaria), a mute girl. Milap Zaveri has taken Zoya’s silence very seriously because she has nothing to offer in the film. Zoya is from Kashmir and the director literally cracks open our skulls to drill the fact that she stays in a locality that has a mosque, a church and a temple in the same yard. Zoya literally believes that music lies in the sound of mundane things like water, bees, chuckles, etc., and her sign language can make a child laugh. The only time Tara Sutaria gets to emote something is when Raghu talks to her grave.

Tara Sutaria in a still from <i>Marjaavaan</i>.
Tara Sutaria in a still from Marjaavaan.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

When it comes to the female presence in films, Akshay Kumar can’t be forgotten. Even though women in his films have considerable screen time (Padman, Mission Mangal), Akshay continues to play the saviour. We will come to Mission Mangal in a while; let us focus on Kesari now. True this is a war film, but would it be too much to expect a decent love ballad? Parineeti is no more than a flashback. Her generic and supportive wife act is so forgettable that you can’t help but wonder whether the female character was an afterthought.

Speaking about blink and miss roles, Gul Panag has been rewarded with three scenes in ‘Student of The Year 2’. While Dharma Productions’ often includes gay characters in their films, they are also known for reducing them to caricatures (Rishi Kapoor in ‘Student of The Year’, Boman Irani in Dostana), and the latest victim is Gul.

The actor plays a sports coach, but neither is she seen ‘coaching’ the students nor does her character have any bearing on the proceedings of the film. The reason she exists in the film is just for offensive comic relief.

Heroines – Love Interests & Damsels in Distress?

These are two areas wherein Bollywood seems to be progressively making a progress at a time when we are trying to move forward when it comes to roles of women in society and films. Be it Disha Patani in Bharat or Tara Sutaria in Student of The Year 2, these roles are so replaceable that you remember the insignificant furniture in a scene rather than what they actually played. Salman Khan plays the eponymous titular role in Bharat who packs punches without even suffering a scratch even when he is in his 70s. Ali Abbas Zafar rewards Bharat with a love interest, Radha (Disha Patani), whose only purpose is to swing to a sexually suggestive item song and then depart with the line, “Kisi bhi Radha ko uska Krishna nahi milta.”

Disha Patani in a still from<i> Bharat</i>.
Disha Patani in a still from Bharat.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

“I love the small-town girl insecurity,” Manav (Aditya Seal) tells Mia (Tara Sutaria), and I don’t think I need to explain further. As soon as Mia enters the grand St Teresa’s College, she immediately cuts ties with her not-so-rich boyfriend Rohan (Tiger Shroff). She has been sketched as scheming and selfish, so that poor Shreya (Ananya Panday) gets some screen time to dance and woo Rohan. Mia sheds a lot of tears, and she is so distressed that it will put damsels in distress to shame.

It’s almost appalling that in 2019 you can actually have roles that are tailor-made for male consumption. Yes, I am talking about ‘Housefull 4’ and ‘Pati, Patni Aur Woh’.

Main abla hoon tabla nahi,” Kriti Kharbanda’s character says when she falsely accuses Bobby Deol’s character of rape only to get him to be with her. This is meant to incite laughs from the audience. Then there is another sequence wherein Kriti (Kriti Sanon) attempts to punch the villain, only to be stopped by Harry (Akshay Kumar). “Tumhara kaam nahi hai,” he proclaims. What else can the woman be expected to do, but romance the man whose ‘duty’ it is to pack punches?

Kartik Aaryan, Bhumi Pednekar and Ananya Panday in <i>Pati Patni Aur Woh</i>.
Kartik Aaryan, Bhumi Pednekar and Ananya Panday in Pati Patni Aur Woh.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Kartik Aaryan has entered the film industry to rattle monologue after monologue that pities the men, and Mudassar Aziz has given Kartik’s Chintu Tyagi enough scope in Pati, Patni Aur Woh to do the same. Vedika Tripathi (Bhumi Pednekar) is the “woke” woman of 2019 who proudly declares that sex is her hobby. However, she is too tired of being the “rebellious” woman, so she wants to resort to some “restriction.” Even after cooking meals for her husband and cleaning his clothes, this dutiful wife cannot please the ‘middle-class Indian man’ who is branded a beggar if he requests sex from his wife, labelled a cruel man if he does not have sex with her and even accused of being a ‘bad sanskari’ if he coaxes her into succumbing. Chintu flies into the arms of the ‘other’ aka Tapasya Singh (Ananya Panday), who is introduced with a shot of her butt. While one is the seductress, the other is helpless. Must have taken multiple drafts and many sleepless nights to zero in on these stereotypical portrayals.

Special Mention – Mission Mangal!

A still from <i>Mission Mangal</i>.
A still from Mission Mangal.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

This is one movie that has five women in the forefront, but only to be royally wasted. The problem with Mission Mangal is its offensive gaze. In a film with an ensemble cast, only the hackneyed backstories of the women have been given special importance.

Few Interesting Leads and Supporting Roles

Giving credit where it is due, the year also saw some applause worthy performances. While Priyanka Chopra as Aditi Chaudhary made us reach for a box of tissues in The Sky is Pink, Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar were impressive as shooter dadis Chandro and Prakashi Tomar in Saand Ki Aankh.

Priyanka Chopra and Zaira Wasim in <i>The Sky is Pink</i>.
Priyanka Chopra and Zaira Wasim in The Sky is Pink.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

In The Sky is Pink, Priyanka plays Aditi with remarkable restraint. A competent actor, she switches gears with ease, making us empathise with her heartbreak and inspiring outlook towards life. On one hand she is an energetic parent, prancing around and making sure that her child’s last wishes are fulfilled. On the other, Chopra’s vulnerability haunts us long after we have exited the theatre.

Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar in <i>Saand Ki Aankh</i>.
Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar in Saand Ki Aankh.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Taapsee and Bhumi fight patriarchy with a gaze of steel in Saand Ki Aankh. Playing two sexagenarians from a village in Uttar Pradesh, the duo have really worked hard to get their accent and body language right. From learning to hit the bull’s eye to covering up for each other, the duo complement one another in every shot. At a time when most films focus on the sexual liberation of women, comes a film where two ladies struggle to break away from societal stigmas. Taapsee did a spectacular job in Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla too.

A still from <i>Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga</i>.
A still from Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.

Sonam Kapoor had two big films – Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and The Zoya Factor – to shoulder this year, but her performances weren’t impressive. Nevertheless, the roles had something new to offer. In Ek Ladki... she played the role of a lesbian woman struggling to make her family and an equally judgemental society accept the way she is, and The Zoya Factor shows her getting drawn to superstitions when she becomes the lucky charm for the Indian cricket team.

Worth mentioning is also Sanya Malhotra’s character Miloni in Ritesh Batra’s Photograph. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a reserved, sheltered Gujarati girl who is slowly drowning in the expectations of her parents. A chance meeting with a stranger gives Miloni hope that there’s a person with whom she can share a part of her life that’s getting crushed.

This year also saw some excellent supporting characters. Take Safeena (Alia Bhatt) in ‘Gully Boy’, for instance. Hailing from a conservative Muslim family, she studies hard to become a doctor, but her family clearly has another goal for her – to get married.

She is arm-twisted by her mother to attend a cousin’s wedding, even if it means bunking crucial classes. Safeena terms the marriage “wahiyat”, only to be shouted at by her mom. The pent-up anger has physical manifestations. Safeena is brave, passionate and territorial.

Secondly, Gaura in Article 15. Sayani Gupta plays a character who comes from a lower caste, and time and again she is made to realise that she is not “fit” to enjoy the privileges of the “upper-caste.” Though we would have loved to see more of Gaura, but she is as significant to the narrative as Ayushmann Khurrana.

Raazi, Badhaai Ho, Hichki, Pari, Andhadhun - be it through horror, thriller or drama last year women had a lot to offer and experiment with. Here’s hoping that there will be a silver lining in 2020.

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