Films scripts in India have been constructed around male actors for a long time. 2014 however, witnessed a shift.
Cinematographic displays by Lumiere brothers were the presage to a phenomenon which would grip India in the years to come. Nothing transpires to be as popular and as enticing with a fan following in billions for Indians within and outside the borders of the sub-continent films churned out at a hectic pace. Ranging from frugally budgeted to multi-million projects, they fascinate and impress their audience at a rate which is amazing.
One thing that has sadly remained dim in the dazzling film industry dishing out more than 900 movies a year, is the skeletal roles of female lead character. In all the popular money minting films the female lead characters are sadly lacking in depth. For a creative industry with films being made in every possible language, the universality of absence of female superstars anything akin to their male counterparts is a limiting factor smacking of a lack of both intent and content.
One would think that in a country where Hunterwali, a 1935 movie produced by Wadia Movietone Company with Nadia in lead role had a record success on the basis of stunts performed by the actress, a little more care will be shown to the sketching of women characters. But, over the years it has proved otherwise. From la Madhuri Dixit of Bollywood to Hansika and Pooja Gandhi from the Tamil and Kannada film industries, strong roles for women in Indian Cinema has remained elusive over the years. The industry has produced one or two odd films with female characters in the lead but it would be difficult to find a female counterpart for superstars such as Amitabh Bacchan and Mohanlal. Even though actors such as Vijaya Shanthi have pulled off hits, such icons remain few and far.
It is a rather strange phenomenon because popular cinema has conventionally adapted itself to the changing times when it comes to themes, props and characters of male artists. The ‘Shravan Kumar’ of the 30s transformed into the ‘angry young man’ of 80s but women have for a long time remained in their roles of either support systems or glamorous vamps and performers of item numbers to add glitz to glossy films. In the real world outside, women got educated, took the reign of their lives in their hands, became economically independent and those women who chose to became homemakers started taking crucial decisions for their families but inside, the film industry there was a different story. It still kept on casting women in the roles which were either of an ultra-glamorised Sita or the vicious evil lady clad in skimpy clothes.
Another favourite avatar that the celluloid religiously stuck to was that of the sacrificing mother. Three dimensional and meaningful roles of women were restricted to films steeped in gender issues and that too with a handful of directors. Strangely, even the female producers and directors of popular cinemas have shied away from strong female leads. Farah Khan, one of the most successful female directors of Bollywood safely sticks to the male leads for jingling cash registers and Zoya Akhtar did stick with the pattern for quite some time. Apart from Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, who cannot exactly be termed as makers of popular cinema, there are few who had ventured into the murky waters of casting female characters with dominant roles in the films. There is nothing wrong with women directors making films with dominant male characters but one would expect that they would be more sensitive to plight of women in the industry.
Of late however, there has been a subtle shift in the characters being doled out to women. 2014 was a year, especially in Bollywood which witnessed directors and producers re-focusing their attention. Films such as Kahani and Mardani with Vidya Balan and Rani Mukherji as the protagonists dished out by Bollywood have done well at the Box Office. It was also the year of Priyanka Chopra doing a Mary Kom and newcomer Alia Bhat taking over a strong role in Highway. Interestingly, these films managed to give jam packed halls despite the absence of a male superstars. Some critics are saying that the spate of women centric films in Bollywood has been the result of the success of films such as Dirty Picture.
This line of thought may not be entirely refutable as Hindi cinema has been known to harbour souls who treat films as replicable products rather than production of creative expressions and independent imagination. But, it is heartening to note that each of these films released in 2014 have been refreshingly different from others. While Dirty Picture portrays the yesteryear actor Silk Smitha, Kahaani was the story of a woman trying to find her husband. Khoobsurat was the light hearted romantic comedy carried on the shoulders of Sonam Kapoor and Mary Kom was based on the true life of the boxer. These films explored sensuality, vulnerability, strength, fighting spirit and enthusiasm women have for life rather than just having them hang around as cardboard cut outs placed to please the eye.
Films with strong female characters might also be the result such scripts becoming commercially more acceptable with audience willing to pay for them or it might simply be that the old formula of casting a larger than life male character might not be working as well as it used to once upon a time. Does it mean that the perception towards women in the society is changing? It would be too colossal to make such an assumption based on a year where female characters were given a serious thought. Nevertheless, it a welcome change if the trend continues. Films are very much a part of the cultural fabric of a nation. Icons and images that they create remain imprinted on the minds of many and it would not hurt if the 70mm finally starts to portray women as the living and breathing creatures with multi-faceted personalities and a life beyond being the male leads’ love interest.