Representation of Women in Bollywood

From bursting into a dancing sequence to having ostentatiously extravagant lifestyles, Bollywood has never failed to be over the top. Surprisingly, these are some of the things that we love about it. But every once in a while comes along a movie that transcends the boundaries of cinema, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) by Yash Raj Films was inarguably one such film. It wasn’t just a movie, it was a phenomenon and when something seeps into a culture so deeply, it is natural to expect it to pave the way not only for everything that comes after it but to be the very benchmark that defines an entire genre. It is safe to say, DDLJ is the very definition of romance in Bollywood, and Simran the quintessential female love interest. But does this blockbuster that took over everyone’s hearts really capture what those hearts wish for?

Representation of girls in Bollywood misses the mark by a long shot when it comes to idiosyncrasies but is surprisingly accurate on one of the most fundamental human predispositions: aspiration.

As a 21 years old girl living in Delhi, coming from a modest background and having a decent education, I don’t feel too far off from the image that is Simran. But unfortunately, the similarity ends right there. For many girls living in metro cities, finding ‘the one’ is not the only life goal, if it is a life goal at all. Having a career, maintaining a social circle, enjoying the gift of life, are some of the recurring themes in a 21-year-old’s life. In all fairness, becoming strong and independent was not always a choice women enjoyed, so it is unfair to expect that accurately represented in a romance movie that came 20 years ago, but it is Simran’s lack of character that is the object of contempt when it comes to portraying females in cinema. Strong and independent are not the only things that girls can be, they can be creative, assertive, intellectual, interesting, funny, competent, progressive among other things. It would be an interesting exercise to come up with an adjective that can be positively attributed to Simran. There is a scene in the movie where Raj and Simran have their first real conversation, and he asks her if she would dare to fall in love with a man other than the one she was to be engaged with, to which of course she does not reply, but something in her invulnerability makes Raj’s heart flutter. Incidentally, the only redeeming quality Simran is shown to have that made Raj Malhotra fall in love with her is her unquestioning obedience to her father’s wishes. And therein lies the problem because that is not representative of anyone.

If we take a more recent example of the movie 2 States, which is essentially an iterated version of the same “boy meets girl but parents are against their relationship” scenario, and it might be interesting to see the evolution of the character of Simran into Ananya. For starters, Ananya is actually a strong independent young woman and is shown to be assertive and intellectual as well. Good start, one would say. But it is only a start because Ananya is beautiful and was asked out by no less than 55 IITians upon her arrival to IIM A, one of the most prestigious management institutes in the country, not to mention, she was also a gold medalist in economics in her college. Finally, she is certifiably way out of Krish’s league. All in all, she has surpassed Simran by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, she has surpassed any realistic expectation of a female love interest as well. Which isn’t to say that girls like Ananya don’t exist, they most certainly do, but then again, girls like Simran exist as well, the problem is they are not the norm. It is already difficult being a young adult female constantly bombarded with expectations from parents, society, and friends that the added pressure of not being movie worthy is extremely unnecessary. As Hazel Grace Lancaster so eloquently points out in the movie The Fault in Our Stars, “I’m quite unextraordinary…” One doesn’t have to be prodigiously remarkable to be interesting or to be someone’s object of affection then why does it prove so difficult to reflect that in Bollywood RomComs? It is this flipping back and forth between being everything and nothing at all, that makes the representation of girls in Bollywood somewhat of a lost cause.

The scanty overlap between young females and their cinematic counterparts is definitely something that needs some fine tuning but it is only fair to bring to light where Bollywood hits the bull’s eye in representing its female audience. Coming back to DDLJ’s Simran, if there’s one thing that she encapsulates well, it’s wanting something with a burning passion. Ananya is not far behind. Daring to be aspirational and then standing by those beliefs, specifically the belief in the power of love, is a recurring theme in both of the movies. One might argue that desiring something, is by no means, restricted to females but in a society where being hopeful and aspirational wasn’t a liberty that women were given, depicting female characters that dared to dream was a step in the right direction. When Simran’s mother in the movie says, “mein galat thi Simran, meri beti apni khushiyon ki bali nahi chadhayegi” [I was wrong Simran, my daughter will not sacrifice her happiness], the idea must have been revolutionary at the time. No matter the melodrama, it is the thought that counts. Without a doubt, things have changed since the 90’s and Ananya didn’t have to face the same amount of opposition from her family like Simran did. Her family was, in fact, more supportive of her than Krish’s, the male protagonist. Then again, Ananya’s aspiration was not to simply fall in love but to be accepted as an equal in marriage by both her partner and his family.

Evolution of Simran to Ananya can be attributed to the real life evolution of “urban women” and even though stereotypes still plague Bollywood movies, the change has been for the better. Following the same example, we should continue to be dissatisfied with the status quo of Indian cinema and keep the dialogue on inaccurate representation open to bring about further improvement. Don’t be so easily placated with a liberated woman in a movie like Queen just because she went on her honeymoon alone, one can question why were a wedding and a honeymoon the only things on her mind? Because most of the young urban females these days no longer have the luxury to wait around for their lives to unfold of their own accord, they go out to work and make decent livings for themselves. So, if the disconnect that persists between Simran and the girl that’s watching her from the audience is left unchecked it will only grow worse. Understandably, it is easy to be a passive consumer of media because we indulge in it for “fun” but to think so reductively about something as massive and influential as Bollywood would be a real shame because of the sheer difference it can make.

There are glaring flaws and gaping holes in how younger women are portrayed on screen without even going into the problems like the gender roles and the culture of misogyny these movies perpetuate and Bollywood not exercising its power to influence a positive change. Simply being representative of the audience that these movies are directed at is the bare minimum that one could expect. Taking it with a grain of salt just because it is entertainment can be extremely dangerous. In conclusion, Bollywood has come a long way in tidying up the image of a 21-year-old female but there’s still a long way to go. The good news is picture abhi baki hai mere dost.

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