While Bollywood has been often criticised by a section of intellectuals of the film community for propagating misogynistic ideas and lauded when it started coming out with films like ‘Queen’ in recent years, feminism has not been an alien topic for Bollywood.
For a country rife with women’s issues as well as LGBTQ issues, Bollywood had previously tried to represent the struggles of these groups.
During the ‘Golden Age of Indian Cinema’, Bollywood, much like, parallel cinema, attempted to represent the struggles of different sections of society through emotional and relatable narratives. While these films were mostly not based on women, they often had the starkest representations of women’s issues at the time. Mehboob Khan’s ‘Mother India’ would be the most obvious example of this while Guru Dutt classics like ‘Pyaasa’ and ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ brought these themes into play in his movies while dealing with male-centric narratives.
During the 80s and 90s, well after the ‘Golden Age’ had passed by, people spoke of how frivolous Indian cinema had become, but in its attempt to remain relatable while becoming more commercial, Bollywood still maintained socially driven narratives. Around the turn of the millennium, however, is when Bollywood lovers would see the last of feminism in films for more than a decade with movies like ‘Lajja’ and ‘Mela’.
If people thought women and minorities were wrongly represented before, enter the age of ‘serial kissers’ and Splitsvilla culture! Bollywood audience for another decade and a half would be relegated to male centric storylines with shallow female characters who have one token feminist dialogue in the entire film (Examples being ‘Veer Zaara’, ‘Main Hoon Na’, ‘Om Shanti Om’, coming down to the fairly recent ‘Student of the Year’).
Mainstream cinema would blatantly disregard women with ‘love triangle’ narratives such as that in ‘Cocktail’ and the idea of an LGBTQ positive film would be the extremely offensive ‘Dostana’.
During this time, ‘Aitraaz’ would be one of the more noticeably feminist films, albeit unintentionally, due to addressing concepts of sexual abuse towards men and featuring a powerful and ambitious female antagonist.
As people started to tire of such horrors, the scene of indie films started trying to make amends. Films like the ‘The Girl in Yellow Boots’ came up with female centric narratives, but their commercial failure didn’t leave much to be said. Films like ‘English Vinglish’ also stayed on the margins, although critically appreciated.
Madhur Bhandarkar’s ‘Heroine’ would be another failed attempt by mainstream Indian cinema to do justice to women, as the subject matter of the movie, ironically enough, addressed just that issue.
It’s not clear whether it was the rise of indie films that paved the way for feminism’s return to Bollywood, or the insistence of certain mainstream directors to represent women’s issues in their films, well masqueraded, or otherwise. But films like ‘Queen’ and ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ started to crop up around 2014-2015. It might have been the light-hearted tone that these movies followed or the gradual maturing of the audience that led them to like films such as ‘Masaan’, but Bollywood was becoming realistic again.
In 2016, with the release of ‘Neerja’ and ‘Aligarh’ in subsequent weeks, it is clear that Bollywood has changed again, and this time for the better. While a mainstream film like ‘Neerja’ became a commercial success with a female protagonist and no frills or item numbers, ‘Aligarh’ has finally given us a film about the LGBT community that is both realistic and not horribly offensive.
So, while we can be sure that there will be more atrocities like “Pyaar Ka Panchnama 2’ and tabloids will continue to laud offensive ‘Big F’ episodes just for having lesbian characters, those of us fighting the good fight can now look to discussing our beloved Bollywood with pride and appreciation once again.