Dangal, Pink, Piku to Queen: How does Hindi cinema fare on the Bechdel Test?
Traditionally, women in Indian cinema have served decorative and/or ancillary functions. Roles written for women are either as relatives or love interests of male protagonists, or require actresses to gyrate to item songs. The recent spurt in women-centric cinema brings hope to view women as diverse, multifaceted, and as humanly flawed as men.
There is some ambivalence regarding what “women-centric” means. Academic literature discerns between movies which feature women protagonists (like that in Kahaani, Gulaab Gang, Piku, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, or Finding Fanny) and movies that explore feminist concerns, female lead notwithstanding (such as Dangal, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Pink). Yet more definitions of women-centric Bollywood could be from the perspective of women’s representation in the process of film production, if we count movies directed and written by women, or otherwise had substantial numbers of female crewmembers.
To evaluate women’s representation in media, a popular media test called the Bechdel test is often used. Also called the Bechdel-Wallace Test, it was created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel based on inputs from Liz Wallace and the writings of Virginia Woolf. To pass the test, a film must have 1) at least two female characters, 2) who have names and speak to one another, 3) about anything other than a man. Despite the bar being set so low, so very few movies pass this test. For instance, even though they were marketed as women-centric movies, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Highway, Revolver Rani, and Bobby Jasoos do not pass the Bechdel test.
It would help to remember that the Bechdel Test wasn’t formulated to discern between feminist and non-feminist films, but only as a litmus test to demonstrate the lack of screen-space allotted to female characters in movies. It doesn’t elaborate the nature of female interaction beyond its independence from male-centric topics. Its purpose was not to provide a solution to the lack of meaningful representation in movies, but to better illustrate the problem. Hence, there are movies (for instance, this one, or even this one) that pass the Bechdel test, but cannot in any way be said to portray or market female characters and bodies realistically. The issue of tokenism comes into play as well. Movies that barely pass the test generally do so on a technicality, such as female-female conversations not being specifically about men, but might still be centred around gender-stereotypical topics (such as about mothering, care-work, fashion and appearance).
The corollary of this is also true. A film that otherwise depicts strong female protagonists with robust and well-rounded character development might fail the test, simply due to a lack of additional named female characters. For instance, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), did not pass the Bechdel test for lack of named female characters other than Lara Croft. A critique of Tomb Raider (2001) that could well apply to Dangal is that such films portray strong female heroes that are bereft of any sort of femininity, as if to proxy the absence of a male hero with that of a badass (read: masculine) heroine. As pointed out here, Dangal in particular unambiguously portrayed a trade-off between femininity and ability when Geeta’s character loses matches seemingly as a consequence of growing her hair out and painting her nails, but starts winning as soon as she reverts to the masculine, disciplined version of herself. This, despite the fact that the real Geeta Phogat dominated her opponents in pony-tails. In the movie, Geeta’s success is attributed to her obedience and subservience to her father, and she is punished the first and only time she exhibits agency of her own. Such criticisms are well outside the scope of the Bechdel test.
In studying gender stereotypical portrayals in Hindi cinema, Kapoor, Bhuptani, and Agneswaran (2015) analysed dialogic content of male and female characters within three categories — top grossing, women centric, and parallel cinema. For this, they tweaked the existing Bechdel to increase its relevance to Hindi cinema, and formulated a reverse Indian Bechdel to assess male character depictions in these three genres. To qualify a reverse Bechdel, a movie would need to have “at least two men, who talk to each other, about something other than a woman, and other than stereotypical topics such as their profession, recreation such as sports, games, sex, cars, and world news such as politics or talks related to technology.” Same sex conversations were coded as typical, stereotypical and non-stereotypical for males and females. On analysing male representation using the reverse Bechdel test, men enjoyed a fairly balanced representation in all three genres of films, where the content of their conversations were not dictated by gender.
On the other hand, it was interesting that there were no non-stereotypical female conversations in top-grossing movies, because there wasn’t a second female character to have the conversation with! Good ol’ Smurfette principle. Women centric and parallel cinema fared relatively better, depicting men and women’s same sex conversations more non-stereotypically of their genders. However, overall men were clearly given a better deal across the genres, at least dialogically, with male-male conversations occurring almost thrice as many times than female-female conversations, and non-stereotypically to a greater degree than women’s conversations.
Hollywood doesn’t seem have it together either. Based on 3 year old data sourced from a data and statistics subreddit, 45.8 percent of Hollywood movies failed the Bechdel-Wallace test while only 9 percent failed the reverse Bechdel. However, the math on this hasn’t been independently verified. Readers can check more details here.
While the Bechdel test does provide a baseline to assess frequencies of gendered representations in media, it does not tell us anything about the heterogeneity of women represented therein. While the West has evolved to creating more tests that examine diversity and inclusion from an intersectional and nuanced perspective, no such test exists for us to dissect stereotypical class, caste, religion, sexuality and gender identity, and other minority representations specific to Indian society. With commercial Hindi cinema increasingly churning out more diverse plots and complex characters, and audiences rewarding women centric and parallel cinema with their patronage, perhaps it’s a good time to refine the metrics we use to classify “good” cinema, and how they represent people.
Saloni Diwakar is Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala. Monk Prayogshala is a not-for-profit academic research organisation based in Mumbai that works in the social sciences.