A Great Year for Women-Centred Hindi Cinema

Hindi cinema is historically known for sidelining its female leads. But 2017 was different.

A still from <em>Simran</em>.

A still from Simran.

On the threshold of 2018, The Wire revisits some uplifting moments from 2017. Here’s 2017: The Year in Hope.

Praful Patel (Kangana Ranaut) doesn’t need her father or suitor’s help; she’d rob a bank instead. In the heist comedy drama Simran, Praful’s desperation, desire and imperfection intersect – resorting to gambling to buy a house, going bankrupt, committing crimes to pay off the loan – but they don’t degrade her; they define her. Hot-tempered and rash, Praful, like the heroes of many Hindi films, is restless about her wants. Hindi cinema is historically known for sidelining its female leads. They hold the spotlight, so that the men can shine. But in 2017, the women let go of the spotlight for the stage.

Not all were adults. Some, such as Poorna (Aditi Inamdar) in Poorna and Insia (Zaira Wasim) in Secret Superstar, were kids. Poorna, inspired by a real-life character, scaled Mount Everest; Insia became a singer. A sizeable number of other Hindi films – both fiction and non-fiction – gave their female leads inner-lives, agency and tics. Anaarkali of Aarah, starring Swara Bhaskar, told the story of an erotic folk dancer subverting patriarchal norms in small-town Bihar. Tumhari Sulu revolved around a housewife, Sulu (Vidya Balan), yearning for a professional life. Shubh Mangal Savdhan’s Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar) decided to marry her fiancé, suffering from erectile dysfunction, against her father’s wish. The women in Lipstick Under My Burkha, living in conservative Bhopal, held on to quiet rebellion romance, and lust.

A still from <em>Lipstick Under My Burkha</em>.

A still from Lipstick Under My Burkha.

These female leads steered stories, encountered conflicts and resolved them, even in such mediocre fares as Begum Jaan and Noor. Even the two notable documentaries of the year – A Suitable Girl, examining the impact of arranged marriages on modern Indian women, and Ask the Sexpert, on the life of a renowned sexologist, Mahendra Watsa, highlighting the importance of sex education and consent — were fine feminist dramas.

The fictional films’ protagonists shared a vital similarity. Constrained by rigid social mores and smitten by the possibility of independence, they lived double lives. Insia wore a burkha and uploaded her songs on YouTube; Praful intimidated bank tellers, negotiated with loan sharks; Lipstick Under My Burkha’s Shireen (Konkana Sen Sharma) worked as a saleswoman during the day. In some films, the change in identities were motivated by dread and desire. Anaarkali moved to Delhi after getting assaulted by a vice chancellor; Sulu was fascinated by the job of a radio jockey because it gave her joy and power.

These worlds threw plenty of roadblocks – not in the form of villains but purported well-wishers. In Simran and Secret Superstar, the fathers were hostile figures, refusing to recognise their daughters’ aspirations, believing they were only qualified for marriage. Sulu and Lipstick Under My Burkha’s women faced opposition from other members of the family – sisters, husbands, relatives of a potential groom – resulting in middle-class machinery snuffing out female desire.

But the heroines surmounted these odds on their own. Lipstick Under My Burkha’s leads, in fact, rejected men and a regressive social order. Insia, Simran and Sulu stuck to their decisions. They neither stepped back nor apologised for being themselves, forcing their fathers and husband to accept their mistakes. Anaarkali turned her vulnerability – her sex appeal – into her strength, luring and trapping the vice chancellor, emerging victorious, on her own terms, in the climax.

Merriam-Webster, tracking its readers’ lookup, chose ‘feminism’ as the word of the year. In a year marked by the Women’s March in Washington, DC, the allegations of sexual assault against the Hollywood bigwigs and the #MeToo movement, the word confounded many. Some Hindi filmmakers helped clear the confusion.