'Mamta' to 'Mary Kom': The changing face of women in India

By Aparna Mudi | Last Updated: Mar 08, 2015, 14:19 PM IST

Bollywood's woman – an entity of glamour, beauty, ideals, values and much more. The woman in Bollywood has changed over the century of filmmaking this country has seen.

From a time when only men played women’s characters, we have come a long way to having a female as the only central character in a movie. And yet, more things change, more they remain the same.

Even now, we are subjected to movies where the role of a woman is so trivial that her character could have been done without. 'Singham', 'Holiday', 'Kick', 'Entertainment', 'Humshakals', the list of hit movies without a sizeable contribution of a girl character is endless. Despite all that, the 'gentler' sex has established itself much more firmly than ever before.

Suchitra Sen, Ashok Kumar and Dharmendra starred in a movie called 'Mamta' in 1966 – the characters in the movie were quite forward-thinking for the time. Suchitra (in a double role) decides to escape from the shackles of an abusive husband, she also takes a strong step to bring up her daughter with a good education and a career. The daughter, who does fulfil her mother's dreams, is a commendable lawyer, who is competent among her contemporaries as well as seniors. She is a woman with opinions. A role that was rarely seen in Hindi cinema at the time.

A woman's part at that time was to be the ideal woman who looks up to her man. She depends on his love to keep herself alive. She lives to love him, and cry when he goes away. She, at most, took to stitching clothes to survive, the one thing she is good at. Even today, the depth of her persona is still limited to what the man thinks of her. She was and is supposed to always look good. She is supposed to dress up and stand out for the guy to fall in love with her beauty and not what is inside. This trait of a woman has hardly changed.

Even if the female lead has now evolved to a designer from a mere tailor, or even taken to journalism, or psychology, or is even a business tycoon – she would still dance to the tune of her hero. She also takes off her clothes at the drop of a hat to do a skimpy item number for ogling men making disgusting covetous faces at her - think 'Pinky hai paisewaalo ki' or 'Chikni Kamar'. They have nothing much else to do. They can only stand back and watch their 'better' halves take care of business, while they can sigh at their rippling muscles and high octane dialogue delivery.

We have had sporadic movies based on women. Perhaps, the most popular of them all has been `Mother India'. Nargis made the struggling farming woman, an icon of Bollywood – her stance of killing her own son rather than have him disrespect another woman has been reiterated several times in many movies – 'Vaastav', 'Fanaah' and even at one point the popular television serial 'Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi' had the same theme.

Art cinema or parallel cinema like 'Arth', 'Mirch Masala', 'Bhumika', 'Ijaazat' and 'Daman' had much more depth in their lead characters – women who had layers of nuances. Where their emotions were subjected to situations and not only love life, they had other struggles. These movies are women-centric not only because they talked about women issues – but also they had made their women think, react, express emotions that questioned the society and morals.

Remember 'Astitva'? The movie spoke about Aditi(Tabu) who has had an extra marital affair. The film was a deep insight to the woman's story – how everything we see is not black and white. How in a man's world, a woman's needs and wants are often secondary. The tragedy is mainstream cinema, which even today struggles with the concept. They still often make the ladies look vulnerable and glamorise that vulnerability.

But as a Bollywood buff, I find myself more optimistic than ever. Times have not altered much, but the wind of change has started blowing. More strongly than ever.

More and more filmmakers have started delving into the human side of womanhood. 'Cheeni Kum' had the female lead, Tabu, a 30 something who had the decision-making capability of choosing a life partner, almost double her age. 'English Vinglish' had Sridevi, who played the housewife, who takes her own stand with the help of her extended family to gain respect from her own. 'Kahaani' had a scorned woman out to avenge the death of her husband. 'Gulaab Gang' had a group of women, who fought the system and corruption. 'Queen' had a young girl who broke many societal norms to break free into a self-realised woman. There are many more big budget movies that have made it to the silver screen in the last decade.

With 'Mary Kom', the movement has taken a step ahead. Not only is the movie a Sanjay Leela Bhansali big budget production, the subject is also a real-life heroine. Female sports-persons have often been ignored by the people. That too an Indian who is from the North East – from an oft ignored sport like boxing. Mary Kom - who has represented the country on the world stage for so long now finally has become a topic of dinner time discussion in households across the country. Maybe others would aspire to bring more such heroines to the fore.

It is the power of Bollywood to have more people realise the worth of a woman – a responsibility and risk that directors and producers are now more willing to take. And hopefully the change would influence some others to break stereotypes and bring out the power of the feminine – 'Shakti'!