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Monday, December 11, 2023

International Women’s Day: 12 Powerful Bollywood Films that Champion Female Empowerment

International Women’s Day is pivotal since it is a focal point in the movement for women’s rights.

When it comes to movements, India has been going through quite a few positive changes.

Last year, was a breath of fresh air since the #MeToo movement gained momentum in India, during which several victims of sexual harassment spoke out against their perpetrators.

Plus, there seems to be an on-going trend in which popular female-centric Hindi movies have emerged as critical and commercial successes.

In a special tribute to Women’s Day, Filme Shilmy reflects on 12 Bollywood movies that exude female empowerment in various ways!

Mother India (1957)

At a time when female actors were merely reduced to love-interests, Mother India became a path-breaking film of its time.

It is considered to be one of Nargis Dutt’s most impressive and iconic performances.

Nargis as Radha is a poor villager who fights all odds to raise her two sons.

Despite living a life that is engulfed by tragedy, she rises above all hardships to make her life work.

She is looked upon as the epitome of justice and a god-like figure by the villagers.

Staying true to her principles, she assassinates her immoral son (Sunil Dutt) for the sake of prevailing justice.

Bandit Queen (1994)

Whilst the Shekhar Kapur movie was criticised for the strong profanities and explicit content, it which truly chronicles a shocking true story.

The film is a biopic based on an Indian dacoit, Phoolan Devi’s life and portrayed by Seema Biswas who was sent to prison in 1983.

Phoolan was prosecuted by the Indian police and turned into a legend by the people.

It highlights how a woman who fights all the mayhem done to her by the men, from the police to the goons.

Ultimately she overpowers them all and emerges as a formidable woman.

Lajja (2001)

Rajkumar Santoshi’s hard-hitting outing which highlights the patriarchal Indian society.

Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala) gets married to Raghuvir (Jackie Shroff), an NRI.

Suffering the agony of an unhappy marriage, she decides to run away from him when she learns that she is pregnant and he wants to take the child away from her.

In her pursuit for freedom, she meets Maithili (Mahima Chaudhury) a bride-to-be, Janaki (Madhuri Dixit) a theatre artist and Ramdulari (Rekha) a village midwife – all of whom are victims of male chauvinism.

They, however, refuse to be put down and fight for their rights.

Interesting all the female character names are synonyms of Goddess Sita.

Using female empowerment as a backdrop, the social drama tackles other rampant subjects like female foeticide, dowry system, rape and domestic violence, to name a few.

English Vinglish (2012)

Empowerment doesn’t necessarily mean fighting for your rights, it also means finding ways to improve yourself.

English Vinglish is a story of an Indian housewife Shashi Godbole played by the late Sridevi.

It beautifully exhibits how the housewife, who is a brilliant homemaker, wife and mother, is looked down upon and mocked by her daughter/husband because she cannot speak fluent English.

A hurt Shashi Godbole turns things around as she learns the language on her America trip to her niece’s wedding.

Gauri Shinde’s simple yet effective narrative is impressive as the woman overcomes her shortcomings.

Plus, it will make you crave ladoos!

Kahaani (2012)

A pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in a vibrant city like Kolkata.

If we look at the poster of Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, we see Vidya Balan standing in front of Durga Maa’s murti. This denotes her as a deity-like character in the film.

Like the goddess, it gives the impression that she too is a symbol of truth and ‘Shakti’ (power).

This representation is affirmed, especially during the final moments of the movie.

We see Vidya wearing a white sari with a red border and red blouse.

Plus, she has a red, round bindi on her forehead. These colours are traditionally worn during Durga Puja.

During the climax, we see her expressions change from a timid and vulnerable woman to an enraged vigilante.

Her untied hair, black fierce eyes and tall body language, mirrors the goddess, sans the trident.

Queen (2014)

When things don’t go right, take a left and this exactly what Kangana Ranaut does in the film.

A Delhi girl Rani (played by Kangana) from a traditional family sets out on a solo honeymoon after her marriage gets cancelled.

The Anurag Kashyap production exhibits an uplifting self-discovery story of a woman who finds her lost confidence in a foreign city.

We also witness two parallel female characters:

Rani, a timid and typical girl-next-door and Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon), a free-spirited woman of French-Spanish-Indian descent, who works at the hotel in which Rani stays.

Furthermore, rather than being overwhelmed by the culture shock of Europe, she embraces it with open arms and adapts to the lifestyle.

Mardaani (2014)

It is very rare that we get to see formidable female police officers exhibited on celluloid and it is quite sad because we think they are truly the best.

Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukerji) is a cop like no other. She is ruthless, fearless and stops at no cost when it comes to pursuing the truth.

After her niece gets kidnapped, Shivani sets out to confront the mastermind (Taahir Raj Bhasin) behind a child trafficking mafia.

Throughout the movie, we see a female actor beat the bad guys typically like how male actors would as cops in films like Dabangg and Singham.

In her first action film, Rani trained in Krav Maga, a street-fighting, self-defence system developed for the Israeli military.

Rani also met the Mumbai Police Crime Branch chief as part of the research for her role.

Pink (2016)

Pink is about three Delhi girls: Minal (Taapsee Pannu), Falak (Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang).

They are on the edge after one of them escapes a molestation attempt by the rich and chauvinistic, Rajveer Singh (Angad Bedi).

The narrative makes the audience go ‘pink’ with sheer anger.

Why is it that girls always have to ‘watch-their-backs’ on a night out? Why do they (even in modern society) suffer such atrocities?

The movie powerfully raises these questions, especially through simple, moving dialogues like that NO means NO.

Given that the #MeToo movement has finally kicked off in India, Pink is the most relevant female empowerment films in Bollywood.

Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017)

Lipstick is a masterpiece that embraces female sexuality, though this film is on a smaller-scale comparatively to another all-female cast film, Veere Di Wedding.

It unites some of the finest female actors in Bollywood – Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sen Sharma, Ahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur.

Set in the crowded by-lanes of small-town India, the film exhibits the secret lives of four women in search of a little freedom.

Though stifled and trapped in their worlds, these four women claim their desires through small acts of courage and stealthy rebellion.

Ratna Pathak Shah plays a 55-year-old widow rediscovers her sexuality through a phone romance.

Padmaavat (2018)

Padmaavat is a hauntingly beautiful tale of valour, honour and sacrifice.

One feels a sense of helplessness whilst watching the group of Maharani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) Rajputi women jumping into the pit of fire to perform ‘Jauhar’.

It leaves us speechless and in horror. We subsequently think, ‘did this really happen?’

Whilst many objected to the ending, but it has been documented in history that the women gave up their lives to avoid capture by the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh).

Hence, women preserve their honour and culture.

Bhansali’s masterpiece is a harsh reminder of the pain and suffering suffered by Indian women at the hands of foreigners.

Raazi (2018)

If we ever saw Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) in real-life, no one would ever imagine to view her as a spy.

Despite not being a professional espionage, she bravely trains herself to become one and fulfil her duties for her country.

But even though Sehmat becomes espionage, that timidity within her remains consistent throughout the film.

Besides the whole ‘spy’ aspect, we also see Sehmat essaying the role of a daughter-in-law, wife and a daughter, which exhibits how a woman can juggle so many tasks with ease.

Since the movie is based on a true story, it begs the audience to ponder upon how many anonymous women there are within society who are dedicating their lives for their country.

Plus, this woman-empowerment sentiment is enhanced further due to Raazi being directed by one of the finest female filmmakers in India, Meghna Gulzar.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (ELKDTAL)(2019)

A pivotal aspect is also about accepting one’s identity.

Shelly Chopra Dhar’s ELKDTAL is a brave endeavour in showcasing same-sex relationships at a mainstream and commercial level.

Sweety (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) comes to terms that her family and society may not accept her for being a lesbian and being in love with Kuhu (Regina Cassandra).

The movie is a brave endeavour in breaking the stereotypes regarding conventional love-stories.

Furthermore, the fact that Sweety herself stands up to her traditional father (Anil Kapoor) in a confrontation makes this movie progressive.

ELKDTAL is emblematic of how equality can easily translate into empowerment.

Final Word

On the whole, these are just a few Bollywood films which truly champion woman empowerment.

However, the virtues displayed by each female protagonist, in our view, amounts to a formidable lady. 

Also, the year 2019 commenced with the period film Manikarnika starring Kangana Ranaut.

The historical drama is symbolic of how much sacrifices women have given for their nation and honour.

So, given that female-oriented movies are on the rise, one hopes that this progressive turn in Indian cinema continues.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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