Queen, Highway and Mardaani: Why Bollywood gave hope to feminists in 2014

Deepanjana Pal

Dec 31, 2014 12:43:41 IST

Perhaps it was the fact that 2013 ended with R...Rajkumar and What The Fish, but the early releases of 2014 were the stuff that warmed the cockles of all those who have been waiting for Bollywood storytellers to figure out how to write a clever, complex woman character. Finally, after what seemed like forever, instead of nubile nymphs, we saw a succession of charming, independent and grown up women on screen.

In January, Abhishek Chaubey's Dedh Ishqiya gave us two wonderful female con artists who thoroughly outwitted their male counterparts. This was followed by films like Miss Lovely, Highway and Queen, all of which allowed their lead actresses to shine brightly. Niharika Singh gave a riveting performance as the aspiring actress who is both manipulated and manipulative in Miss Lovely.

Alia Bhatt proved she's more than a pretty face with her mature and charismatic portrayal of a kidnap victim in Highway. Kangana Ranaut's incandescent Rani in Queen established her as one of Bollywood's finest and she has the credit of being one of the few actresses to deliver a hit film without the help of a male lead. Even an unabashedly masala entertainer like Gulaab Gang offered Madhuri Dixit, who was luminous in Dedh Ishqiya, a chance to show she can do fight scenes with as much panache as song and dance sequences.

So far, so groovy. It's almost enough to imagine 2014 fondly as the year when a new wave of feminism washed over Bollywood. After Fearless Nadia and Mother India, perhaps we had a new icon in Bollywood: the Feminist Fatale. Were we finally at the threshold of a new era in which actresses would have real roles, rather than glorified special appearances in commercial Hindi films?

Queen, Highway and Mardaani: Why Bollywood gave hope to feminists in 2014

A screengrab from the film Queen.

It's tempting to think so because there's no denying that the roles for actresses have been steadily improving. This year saw an unprecedented number of films in which actresses, rather than actors, were the headliners — Queen, Mary Kom, Bobby Jasoos, Khoobsurat, Mardaani, Creature 3Dand even Ragini MMS 2 (no one bought a ticket to see Satya Kumar or Parvin Dabas), to name a few. Even in films where actresses played the more conventional role of a romantic interest, there was an effort made to show these women as independent professionals rather than women waiting to be swept off their feet by Prince Charming. Priyanka Chopra played an undercover cop in Gunday. Alia Bhatt was a marketing professional in 2 States. In Bang Bang, Katrina Kaif played a bank receptionist and Anushka Sharma as Jaggu the journalist is one of a tribe of women media professionals in Bollywood stories. (There was a fair number of actresses playing journalists last year too, in films like Satyagraha, Cafe Madras and even Singh Saab the Great.)

Yet all this looks shinier and more progressive than Bollywood actually is because most of the roles written for women are still either incidental or lazily conceived. Take for example Imtiaz Ali's Highway. Veera, who is kidnapped, doesn't only imagine herself in love with her kidnapper, the film ends with Veera imagining her and her kidnapper as frolicking kids. Because apparently that's what kidnapping is: child's play. What this ending achieved was redemption for the kidnapper. And so, we had a film with an actress in the lead but one that nonetheless focused its attention upon redeeming the man who behaves obnoxiously with the heroine. With very few exceptions, this was a pattern that played itself out repeatedly in 2014's releases.

More troubling, however, is the resurgence of '80s' machismo and its effect of rendering the heroine either irrelevant or as a device that builds up the hero's awesomeness. Sure, she appears to be a contemporary, modern young woman in films like Bang Bang and Happy New Year (so what if Deepika Padukone's character is a bar dancer? It's a job that pays bills like any other). However, it quickly becomes apparent that the heroine exists only so that the men in the audience have a woman at whom they can ogle. This is particularly true of every film of Sonakshi Sinha's, who has clearly decided after Lootera's dismal box office performance that she will only play the part of a bimbo.

Hrithik and Katrina in the film Bang Bang. Courtesy: Facebook

Hrithik and Katrina in the film Bang Bang. Courtesy: Facebook

Sinha and Padukone were among those actresses who were in the news this year for demanding to be treated with respect and not be reduced to sexy body parts. While they have our unstinting support on that account, it would help their case if they didn't cheerfully do roles that portray them as nothing more than sex objects. Had these heroines played parts that were integral to the films' plots, perhaps one could have dismissed how all the attention is upon their vital statistics. However, most heroines were entirely incidental and the films were interested only in telling the hero's story, which had little to do with anyone but the lead actor. The actresses appeared only to prettify the scene from time to time and once that was done, the writers virtually forgot these roles. This happened quite literally in Ungli — Ranaut all but disappeared halfway into the film. In Kick, Jaqueline Fernandez's character (a psychiatrist) existed only to shake a leg and do a Beyoncé impression in a couple of songs.

Even in the few films where the heroines were important to the storyline, their characters and roles were either troubling or half-baked or both. For example, Padukone's Angie was the narrator and the one holding the plot of Finding Fanny together. By the end of the film, however, you would be hard pressed to remember anything other than how pretty Padukone is because there isn't much else about her that informs the plot.

Parineeti Chopra, who is undoubtedly one of the more gifted actresses we have in Bollywood, appeared in roles that were prime examples of how Bollywood keeps stereotypes alive even while appearing to give women better parts. In Hasee Toh Phasee, she played the role of an inventor, which is a refreshing change. However, she was also afflicted with a strange and unexplained psychological disorder that had her blinking manically and popping pills. The focus of the film wasn't her brilliance or her being able to enjoy a regular life despite her mental health issues, but rather on how a man fell in love with her despite all this and how it was the love of a good man that "cured" her. Daawat-e-Ishq was even more ill-conceived, with Chopra playing the role of a woman who accuses an innocent man of demanding dowry. Of course, he falls in love and marries her anyway, which makes him the hero while her character lives up to all the paranoid fears of the "men's rights" brigade that insists laws like the anti-dowry act are there to victimise men.

Still, despite all this infuriatingly inept writing from Bollywood, it's heartening that films like Queen are being made and finding favour with audiences. There aren't enough roles in which actresses can showcase their talent instead of their figures, but at least there are a few scriptwriters imagining real women instead of fantasies and stereotypes. In the bevy of sex objects who pouted and thrusted their way through Bollywood hits and flops in 2014, there were more real and powerful heroines on screen than we'd seen in 2013. So maybe, just maybe, the age of Bollywood's Feminist Fatale isn't too far away. Twenty fifteen, here's looking at you, kid.

Updated Date: Dec 31, 2014 12:43:39 IST