March 05, 2014

Women-driven Bollywood Films

Coincidentally or otherwise, too many of my Twitter conversations end up in a blog post. This post too, got kicked off by a tweet-discussion with Dilnavaz about ‘women-driven Bollywood movies’. Always grateful to people for giving me filmi things ponder about, I wondered what, if any, the difference between ‘woman-centric’ and ‘woman-driven’ was. My theory is that a ‘woman-driven’ film is one where a heroine, despite being handicapped by a short role or pairing against a bigger hero or a clichéd plot, has shaped the narrative. Now, this ‘shaping of narrative’ is subjective and disagreements are welcome. I have also tried to pick those movies that enjoyed commercial success for most part, since a woman driving commercial success is a bit of a rarity in Bollywood.

The pioneer in women-driven films was, of course, ‘Hunterwali’ Nadia. India’s first and only action heroine, she thought nothing of jumping over trains, cracking a mean whip and taking on muscular baddies in hand-to-hand combat. Unfortunately, these films have all but gone off public memory due to poor archiving. Here is my admittedly subjective list of recent and yesteryear Bollywood movies that are distinguished by virtue of being driven by women:


Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana

Sharmila Tagore played a grey-haired widow for nearly half the film, while her male lead , the reigning superstar, pranced around as her son. And yet, the story started with the hero getting besotted after seeing her on a train and ended with the hero accepting her as his mother at an Air Force honours function.

She fell in love, saw her lover die, had a son out of wedlock, tried to bring him up, saved her son by taking a murder rap upon herself, served a prison sentence and finally reunited with her son – her life being the focus of the story (“Saphal hogi teri aradhana…”). Rajesh Khanna was the reason people came to watch Aradhana but Sharmila Tagore was the reason they remembered it.


Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta

It takes a lot of courage to take Bollywood’s favourite ‘brothers lost in childhood’ plot and give it a distaff twist. But then, you had a heroine like Hema Malini to pull it off.  The biggest impact of Seeta Aur Geeta was not the film itself, where Hema Manlini stole Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar’s thunder with aplomb, but the aftermath. Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra remember the story of their film Gehri Chaal suddenly changing after the release of Seeta Aur Geeta and Hema Malini doing all the fighting. Because the distributors wanted it!


Waheeda Rehman in Trishul

Waheeda Rehman had about fifteen minutes of screen time in a film which had three of Bollywood’s biggest male stars and yet, she is the pivot on which the story of Trishul hinged.

Salim-Javed wrote a genre-bending tale where a son swore to destroy his father, in an industry where sons are always subservient to their parents. With his characteristic intensity, Amitabh Bachchan brilliantly channelized the pain of seeing his mother die a little every day (“Jisne pachchees baras apni maa ko har roz thoda thoda marte dekha ho, usse maut se kya dar lagega?”) and the film became an important piece in the document of the Angry Young Man.

In both Deewaar and Trishul, Bachchan’s anger was directed towards his missing father. In Deewaar, his mother tried to change his outlook. In Trishul, she extracted a promise that the son would take revenge on her behalf (“Main tujhe rehem ke saaye mein na palne doongi… Taaki tap tap ke tu faulaad bane, maa ki aulaad bane… main doodh na bakshungi tujhe yeh yaad rahe”).


Zeenat Aman in Insaaf Ka Tarazu

A model is brutally raped by a pervert, who is then acquitted by court on the ‘she-asked-for-it’ defence. This ‘reputation’ leads to her modelling career hitting a snag but when she is fighting back, the pervert (yes, the same guy) rapes her teenage sister. She kills him, emptying a revolver into the man.

Insaaf Ka Tarazu was notorious for its explicit rape scenes, which bordered on titillation. It suffered from over-dramatisation and very bad acting. But the plot, borrowed from Hollywood thriller Lipstick, centred on Zeenat Aman and she completely eclipsed the two male leads of the film. After this, Deepak Parashar – her lover in the film – became Bollywood’s Official Wimp and Raj Babbar became much celebrated for his villainous turn.

Moving away from the usual Bollywood tradition of hero avenging the female folks’ ‘dishonour’, here was a girl who pressed the trigger herself. 


Sridevi in Chaalbaaz

At her prime in the late-1980s, Sridevi acted in several films that centred on her but nothing exemplified her ability to steal the limelight than Chaalbaaz, where she acted opposite two of India’s biggest superstars – Sunny Deol and Rajanikanth. The film could have been just another remake of Seeta Aur Geeta but Sridevi’s manic energy took it to just another plane. As the two sisters who were separated at birth and came together after a multitude of crises, Sridevi made the most of the footage that was given to her.

A lot of people had wondered what would have happened if Sunny Deol and Rajani came together in a North-South Death Match. Well, Sridevi won.

Honourable Mention: Mr India, a film produced by the hero’s brother, named after the hero and boasting ofHindi cinema’s second most popular villain. And we are still enamoured by Miss Hawa Hawaii.


Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela

Why is this standard-issue-Bollywood-love-triangle a woman-driven film? Because despite the presence of two major stars – Aamir Khan and Jackie Shroff – it was Urmila who decided whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. In Bollywood love triangles, it is always the two heroes who decide on who gets the girl and the girl is just expected to meekly agree. Rangeela was different.

The entire contour of the film was built around backup dancer Mili’s quest to become a filmstar and the two leading men – one a tapori and one a star – just adjusted their lives around her. And then finally when one of them decided to sacrifice and exit her life, she refused to accept his decision. She went out and brought him back in her life.

And yes, her film within the film was a monster hit too! 

Honourable mention: Ek Hasina Thi, Urmila Matondkar, in a deglam avatar, sought revenge after being cheated in love by a slick con-man. And she got it, in the most gruesome manner possible. Ewwww… I get the creeps just thinking of it.


Bipasha Basu in Jism

With her bronzed back and never-ending legs dominating the posters and the most popular scenes of Jism, Bipasha Basu was the true blue femme fatale in the classic film noir style of Hollywood. Throughout the film, she literally toyed with John Abraham and got him to do her bidding, which would get her money and freedom. This was not a story in which the hero and heroine conspired to pull off a heist. This was a story where the more intelligent (and more ruthless) person manipulated the other to get what she wanted.

As the famous line goes, “Her body was the weapon, her body was the killer, her body was the scene of crime.”


Tabu in Maqbool

Tabu has acted in several women-centric films like Astitva and Chandni Bar but nowhere has she dictated the characters around her and controlled the circumstances as much as Maqbool.

As a desi version of the iconic Lady Macbeth, she was the Mafia don’s mistress – apparently living under his thumb, helpless and insecure. But her insecurity became a weapon when she used the don’s main henchman to fuel a rebellion and wrest control of the gang. It was Irrfan who pressed the trigger and ascended the throne but it was Tabu who spun the macabre web in which all her adversaries were caught.

She was not just the villain’s moll. She had blood on her hands. Literally.


Madhuri Dixit (and Huma Qureishi) in Dedh Ishqiya

The promos focused on Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi probably because they were the connecting link from the earlier film but there was no doubt that it was Begum Para and her associate who held all the puppet-strings. Soon, they had the two heroes and pretty much the entire cast eating of their hands – revealing a game bigger than what we had expected.

SPOILER ALERT: As the two rag-tag heroes ran into a wall of guns and goons in the climax, they realised the two damsels were stringing them along all through. And what completely broke all conventions was the distinctly romantic relationship between the two women, who rode into the sunset with each other as Naseer and Arshad looked on longingly.


Parineeti Chopra  in Hasee Toh Phasee

A PhD in Chemical Engineering. Works in Shanghai on high-density polymers. Is back in India to steal money to fund further research. A Bollywood heroine couldn’t get more anti-stereotypical than this in what is a very stereotypical movie. The same old ghisa-peeta theme of the hero realising his true love is not the one he is getting married to was given amazing twists throughout the movie as the heroine rescued the hero in distress, came up with the save-the-day ideas and then decided that happily-ever-after needed to be pushed back a bit… because there was a small matter to be settled with irate German debtors.

Honourable Mentions: Parineeti Chopra and Vaani Kapoor’s acts as the cool, sassy, sexually liberated, small-town girls in Shudh Desi Romance.

Kangana Ranaut’s crazed turn as the nearly-runaway bride in Tanu Weds Manu


The tragedy of actresses in Bollywood is that we have to think and make up a list of women-driven films. For each of the films I have named, there are a hundred mindless blockbusters where the heroine just wiggles her bottom and daintily waits to be rescued by her leading man.

With Dedh Ishqiya, Hasee Toh Phasee, Gulaab Gang and Queen coming in quick succession, this is probably the thickest concentration of heroine-driven films in hero-driven Bollywood. One hopes and prays that all these films will make truckloads of money and Bollywood will start making more of these.

And Boss II will not star Salman Khan, but Katrina Kaif. *fingers crossed*


Recommended Reading (AKA Not-so-subtle Plug):

          The worst clichés in depicting women in Bollywood

          Some ‘real women’ in Bollywood

          Some of the best dialogues by women.

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