Feminism in Bollywood: Where are the Women Behind the Camera?

[Featured Image: Wonder Woman/Facebook, Dear Zindagi/Facebook]

by Fatima Ahmed

It seems that Bollywood has embraced a new trend in filmmaking. In recent years, we have seen an increased number of feminist films arguing for gender equality in Indian cinema. Movies like “Pink,” “Gulaab Gang,” “Dangal,” and “Begum Jaan” are just a few that make up a wave of new, modern feminist media.

While there was a lot of support for the message of these films, many of them ended up disappointing audiences and critics. With one-dimensional portrayals of women, watered down messages of gender equality, and preachy speeches, the films failed to make an impact. Not like, say the huge, recent success of the Hollywood film “Wonder Woman.”

[Read Related: ‘Dangal’ and Bollywood Feminism: Real vs. Reel]

When taking a closer look at these films, it’s obvious what the issue is: a lack of women behind the camera. With mostly male crews, a script written by male writers, and a story told through male directors, is it any surprise that Bollywood’s attempts at feminist cinema are mostly misses? Yet, instead of focusing on representing women in the film industry, Bollywood instead chooses to cash in on the feminism trend and take credit for being progressive, all while making little change for gender equality.

One major problem for these self-declared feminist films is casting big name male leads as the protagonist in a film that is supposed to be about female empowerment. Take “Pink,” a film written by Shoojit Sircar and Ritesh Shah and directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, who all happen to be men. In “Pink,” Amitabh Bachchan plays a troubled ex-lawyer who comes out of retirement to fight the case for three girls who have been entrapped in a legal battle with their sexual harassers. On the surface, the premise sounds like a feminist dream.

For the first time in Bollywood, a film stood against slut shaming and rape culture, which is commendable. Yet, in Bachchan’s spotlight stealing lengthy speeches in the courtroom, the film readily re-victimized the girls. In the film, Bachchan’s character actively barrages the victims over and over again to prove a point and expects them to endure in their traumatized state. While the movie does condemn sexual harassment and encourages a culture of consent, it does so while focusing the story on its male protagonist and at the expense of female trauma. “Pink” depended on Bachchan’s character, the man, to speak for the women and they are not heard until he does so.

This is a recurring issue in these “feminist films” where the women are mistreated and berated just so the film can prove a point. And this isn’t limited to just the women on screen but in real life as well. When “Gulaab Gang” initially came out, everyone rejoiced at the concept. A film led by two Bollywood superstars, Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla – both women over 40, playing powerful and complicated characters.

They were to tell the real-life story of the Gulabi Gang, an actual group of female activists working in North India to defend women against oppression. However, the creators failed to get the real life Sampat Pal Devi’s permission before making the film who consequently filed a case on them. They disrespected her work and reputation while feeling no remorse for making money off the gender equality bandwagon.

Written by Anubhav Sinha and Soumik Sen, the latter also being the director, “Gulaab Gang” seemed to have very little female influence. With one-dimensional characters, overwrought and melodramatic writing, and no sense of being grounded in reality, “Gulaab Gang” demonstrated its lack of understanding of feminist issues. The novelty of seeing Madhuri beating up men in a pink sari only lasted so long when one realized that underneath it all, none of the people felt like actual people. “Gulaab Gang” proved that one cannot make money off the backs of women while not giving them their due credit.

When compared to films that actually depict strong women with fully realized characters and motivations, the difference in quality becomes obvious. Take Priyanka Chopra’s character Aisha in “Dil Dhadakne Do.” In this film with story, screenplay, and direction by Zoya Akhtar, Chopra portrays a businesswoman and a wife. Aisha is a modern woman with modern goals and ambitions. But this does not stop her husband from treating her like his property. She struggles to manage her duty as a wife, a daughter, and a career woman. In the end, she defiantly asks for a divorce so that she can maintain her independence. Even when Farhan Akhtar’s character Sunny is making a speech about husbands feeling entitled to their wives’ lives, the camera lingers on Aisha’s face and her emotions permeate the scene.

It was in this small decision that made all the difference. Instead of a contrite scene full of hypocrisy where two men discuss gender equality, “Dil Dhadakne Do” centered women when it mattered – something films like “Pink” couldn’t do despite having numerous multiple female protagonists.

Having multiple women in your cast or even having an exclusively female cast does not mean that a film will represent women well. Often, having one well-written female character can be enough to portray women in a progressive way. That is exactly what films like “Piku,” a film with screenplay and script done by Juhi Chaturvedi, proves. “Piku” portrayed a realistic depiction of the modern South Asian woman – a woman who can juggle a demanding career and an independent life as well as familial and traditional obligations expected of her. Piku is a woman unlike one we’re used to seeing in Bollywood. She is practical, unemotional, straightforward, and headstrong.

She isn’t cute or likeable, at least not as first glance. Yet, she is also a woman of her time – she painstakingly interweaves a life that involves a demanding career with crazy hours and a demanding father with crazy requests. Her views on marriage, sexuality, and relationships felt current and fresh. Her discussions with her father about her future seemed reminiscent of what many brown women go through today. She rejects her father’s choices for her and embraces her own. We are so often shown one-dimensional female characters like Rajjo and Sumitra Devi in “Gulaab Gang” who basically consists of hefty one-liners to be used in trailers, that it’s refreshing to see a female character like Piku who actually has a personality.

When we compare films like “Dil Dhadakne Do” and “Piku” — or even more recent ventures like “Dear Zindagi” and “Neerja,” both of which were penned in part by women — to “feminist films” like “Gulaab Gang” and “Pink,” a pattern starts to form. Neither “Dil Dhadakne Do” nor “Piku” marketed themselves to be feminist and none boasted a feminist female power symbol as a lead. Yet both somehow managed to be more feminist than the ones that set out specifically to be so. Each featured female characters that grow, develop, and learn throughout the film. None dwell on the trauma of being a woman. Yet, they tackle the subject in a nuanced way.

It becomes abundantly clear that the inclusion of women behind the camera drastically improves the quality, not only of the films, but also of the realistic and progressive portrayal of women.

Despite this, there are still many Bollywood films still being made that attempt to feature powerful and fearless women on-screen yet they consistently forget to include them behind the camera. There is a huge lack of women writing, producing, and directing films in all film industries but Bollywood seems to have an especially large problem with the lack of female representation.

[Read Related: What Bollywood Taught me About Sensuality and Spirituality]

In a society where feminism is now becoming a global cultural force and even Hollywood is attempting to rectify their glaring lack of women behind the camera after the blockbuster results of Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” how is no one pushing for this in Bollywood?

fatima AhmedFatima Ahmed is a 1.5 generation Pakistani working on her degree in English Literature in Vancouver, Canada. She has an interest in human rights activism, social justice affairs, literature and art as well as excessive chai drinking. You can find her on twitter @FattyA123 or read more of her articles at schemamag.com.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

‘Thank You For Coming’ Unapologetically Begs the Answer to a Very Important Question

It’s never a dull moment with your girl gang; some shots and conversations about sex, right? If you agree, you’re in for a treat with Karan Boolani’s directorial venture, “Thank You For Coming,” which had its world premiere at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival. This coming-of-age story unapologetically begs the answer to a very important question: Why should women be left high and dry in bed?


Kanika Kapoor (Bhumi Pednekar) is a successful, 32-year-old, Delhi food blogger who makes a huge revelation on her 30th birthday: She’s never experienced an orgasm. This dirty little secret (no pun intended!) has now become detrimental to her self-esteem. She feels so down and out that she even accepts the proposal of a very boring suitor, Jeevan-ji (Pradhuman Singh Mall).

[Read Related: Meet Fashion Blogger and Media Star Dolly Singh]

Thank You For Coming

But, it’s not like she hasn’t tried. Kanika’s been a monogamist since her teenage years, starting with puppy love in high school — unfortunately, their sexual endeavors coined her as “thandi” (cold) by her first boyfriend — all the way to dating in her adulthood. But, regardless of how great any relationship was, nobody had her achieve the big O. All until the night of her engagement with Jeevan, when the drunk bride-to-be leaves the party for her hotel room and gets into bed. What follows is her very first orgasm. Ghungroo, finally, tute gaye! But, with whom?

The morning after, an initially-satisfied Kanika works herself into a frenzy of confusion and frustration as she makes her way through the list of potential men who could’ve been in her room the night before.

Thank You For Coming

Was it one of her exes? She’d simply invited them to come to wish her well.

Was it her fiance?

Or, God forbid, was it actually the rabdi-wala (ice cream man)?

Boolani takes a straight-forward and on-the-nose approach to drive the point home. There are no cutting corners, no mincing words, and no hovering over “taboo topics.” The dialogue is raunchy, the characters are horny, and no one is apologetic. It’s important for a film like “Thank You For Coming” to be so in-your-face because the subject of women achieving orgasms can’t really be presented in any other way. Anything more conservative in the narrative would feel like the makers are being mindful of addressing something prohibited. And there is no room for taboos here.

But, there is room for a more open conversation on the reasons why many women feel the need to suppress their sexual needs in bed; how generally, women have been brought up to be the more desirable gender and hence not cross certain boundaries that would make them appear too brash. The fight for the right of female pleasure would have been a little more effective if the modesty around the topic was addressed. But, that doesn’t mean that the point is remiss.

The plot moves swiftly along, never lulling too long over everything that seems to be going wrong in Kanika’s life. “Thank You For Coming” is full of all the right tropes that belong in a comedic, masala film, too; the direction very seamlessly takes classic fixings like the abhorrent admirer (enter Jeevan-ji) and effectively plugs them into this contemporary feature that will remain perpetually relevant.

Thank You For Coming

And now, let’s come to the star of the show: the well-rounded characters.

Producer Rhea Kapoor has mastered the formula of a good chick flick and her casting is the magic touch. She’s got a knack for bringing together the right actors — cue, “Veere Di Wedding.” So, just when we think that it doesn’t get better than the veere, Kapoor surprises us with a refreshing trio — they’re modern, they’re rebellious, and they say it like it is. Thank you, Dolly Singh (Pallavi Khanna) and Shibani Bedi (Tina Das) for being the yin to Kanika’s yang — and for the bag full of sex toys your homegirl oh-so needed!

To complete Kanika’s story, we have her single mother, Miss. Kapoor, brilliantly portrayed by Natasha Rastogi. She is the face of a headstrong and self-assured matriarch and a symbol of the modern-day Indian woman. Rastogi’s character exemplifies the fact that with access to education, and a stable career, women do not need to mold their lives around men.

I love the fact that Miss. Kapoor is almost villainized by her own mother (played by Dolly Ahluwalia) in the film because she had a child out of wedlock in her yesteryears, she chooses to remain single, and she brings her boyfriends around the house to hang out with. But, there’s a point to be made here. The fact that Kanika’s mother is being antagonized just highlights that she is challenging the norms and pushing the envelope for what is socially acceptable for women. Miss. Kapoor definitely deserves an honorable mention.

Pednekar’s unexpected yet impeccable comic timing is the highlight of the entire film. Everything from being a damsel in sexual distress to a woman who unabashedly chases self-pleasure, Pednekar puts on a genuinely entertaining act for the audience. From being portrayed as a high-schooler to the 32-year-old, independent woman, Pednekar is fit for each role. Her naivety as a teen wins you over, as does her gusto as a full-blown adult with a broken ankle and some very messy relationships. This also speaks volumes about the versatility of her looks.

And, of course, Pednekar is not new to films that address social topics, but “Thank You For Coming” challenges her to balance Kanika’s droll with the responsibility of delivering a very important message to the viewers. Mission accomplished, Ms. Pednekar!

Thank You For Coming

“Thank You For Coming” is a through-and-through entertainer. Everything from the casting — a huge shout out to the rest of the supporting cast including Anil Kapoor, Shehnaaz Gill, Karan Kundra, Kusha Kapila, Gautmik, and Sushant Divkigar, without whom this roller coaster would have lacked the thrills — to the homey locations and even the glitz and glamor in the song sequences, they’re all perfect pieces to help drive home a powerful message: Smash patriarchy!

All images in this article are courtesy of TIFF.

By Sandeep Panesar

Sandeep Panesar is an editor, and freelance writer, based out of Toronto. She enjoys everything from the holiday season to … Read more ›

‘The Romantics’: Revisiting the Legacy and Grandeur of Yash Chopra With Filmmaker Smriti Mundhra

The Romantics

If you are a South Asian, born in the ’80s or the early ’90s, chances are your ideas of love and romance are heavily influenced by Hindi films — that first gaze, the secret love notes, that accidental meeting somewhere in Europe, over-the-top gestures and dancing around trees. While reality may have been far from what was promised on reel, you still can’t stop pining over a hopeless romantic, with chocolate boy looks, chasing you across the earth and many universes; in the life here and the ones after. Somewhere deep down, you still dream of that possibility despite your husband sitting and sipping his morning coffee right next to you. And much of the credit for weaving this dreamland, that we can’t resist happily sliding into, goes to the legendary Yash Chopra. Award-winning filmmaker Smriti Mundhra’s docu-series, “The Romantics,” that released on Netflix on February 14, chronicles Chopra’s prolific career; offering an illuminating look into the highs and lows of his journey, his unblemished vision for Hindi cinema and sheer love for filmmaking. 

I wanted to look at Indian cinema through the lens of it being a major contributor to the global cinema canon and Yash Chopra seemed like the perfect lens to explore that because of the longevity of his career and the fact that he had worked across so many different genres. His films, for so many of us, defined what Hindi cinema is.

— Smriti Mundhra

As “The Romantics” unveils, in a mere episode — a challenging feat in itself — Chopra did experiment with multiple genres as a budding filmmaker, initially under the shadows of his elder brother B.R. Chopra. From the religiously sensitive “Dharamputra” and the trendsetting “Waqt” to the action-packed and iconic “Deewaar.” It wasn’t until later on in his career that he set a precedent for a Hindi film having a wholly romantic narrative; though “Waqt” did offer the perfect glimpse into what would go on to become Chopra’s cinematic imprint. And then came “Chandni” which ushered in a new era for Hindi cinema; defying the formulaic approach to box office success and making love stories the golden goose.

In the words of more than 30 famous faces, a host of archival videos and interviews, and personal anecdotes, audiences get an extensive insight into the life and career of Yash Chopra and the evolution of his vision through the business acumen and genius of his polar opposite son and a famous recluse, Aditya Chopra. “The Romantics” is not a fancy portrait of a legendary filmmaker but an exploration of what goes into making a successful film family and a path-breaking production house. As viewers, we not only get a peek into the making of a fantasy creator but also learn of the many failures, hurdles and uncertainties that the business of filmmaking comes packaged in, the impact of socio-political shifts on the kind of content being produced and demanded, and just how much control we have as an audience over the fate of the film and the filmmaker.

For both the uninitiated and fanatics, there are some interesting revelations like Shah Rukh Khan’s lifelong desire to become an action hero as opposed to a romantic one and the creative conflict between Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra on the sets of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge” — a project that, surprisingly, did not seem too promising to the latter. Mundhra penetrates deep into the family’s history and industry relationships evoking some really candid conversations; almost as if these celebs were eagerly waiting for their moment to speak. With one appraising interview after the other, it’s a panegyric that does border on being a tad tedious but there is enough depth and fodder in there to keep one hooked. Kudos to Mundhra for managing to achieve cohesion despite there being more than enough material to chew on. In the process of bringing this project to life, Mundhra also ends up achieving a number of milestones: one that the series features the last of actor Rishi Kapoor’s interviews and two, it brings Aditya Chopra, who, it appears, can talk a blue streak contrary to popular belief, to the front of the camera after almost two decades. The moment when he puts the nepotism debate to rest by referring to his brother’s catastrophic attempt at acting is quite the show-stealer.


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A post shared by Smriti Mundhra (@smritimundhra)

At some point during the four-episode series, you might question if it’s fair to credit the Yash Raj family for being the only real changemakers of the Hindi film industry and for picking up the baton to get Hindi cinema the global recognition that it has. But then there is no denying the Chopra clan’s body of work, their ability to understand what pleases the crowd and their commitment towards growth and progress amidst changing times and technology — Yash Raj Studios is in fact the only privately held and one of the biggest, state-of-the-art film studios in India. Chopra’s career and legacy are in no way under-lit that Mundhra can claim to throw new light on with “The Romantics.” But what she really has on offer here are sheer nostalgia, some fascinating discoveries and an ode to a cinephile and his art with a bit of fan service.

In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Mundhra discusses why it was so important for Chopra to be the subject of her docu-series, her own learnings during the series’ research and creative process and her accomplishment of getting Aditya Chopra to talk, and that too, at length.

By Nida Hasan

Managing Editor at Brown Girl Magazine, Nida has worked and written for several publications in a journalism career spanning almost … Read more ›

Bhumi Pednekar on ‘Thank You For Coming’: “It Celebrates Various Themes Around Womanhood”

“Thank You For Coming” is a one-of-a-kind Bollywood film that is not only a through-and-through entertainer but also an inspiring story about a young woman, Kanika Kapoor (played by ace actress Bhumi Pednekar), who sets out to seek pleasure in bed; and, she’s not settling for anything less!

The film premiered at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival to an audience that was impressed with so many facets of the film — the comic timing of the impeccable cast, the subject matter of female pleasure, and the fantastic direction by debutant Karan Boolani — just to name a few!

[Read Related: ‘Thank You For Coming’ Unapologetically Begs the Answer to a Very Important Question]

Brown Girl Magazine had the pleasure of chatting with the lead actress, Pednekar, while she was in Toronto for the uber-successful premiere of “Thank You For Coming.”

Here is our exclusive interview with Pednekar for you to watch! Check it out!

The feature image is courtesy of TIFF.

By Sandeep Panesar

Sandeep Panesar is an editor, and freelance writer, based out of Toronto. She enjoys everything from the holiday season to … Read more ›