Has Bollywood Really Changed? The Evolving Portrayal of Indian Heroines

by Jayati Ramakrishnan

Staff Writer




Watching a Bollywood movie, it’s hard not to notice something that, for anyone who’s ever spent time in India, seems surprising: the blatant sexualization of females in those movies. But how has the changing role of women in Bollywood affected life for real Indian women?

The sexualization of women in Indian cinema always been present, but the role of women in film has changed. If you watch a movie from the 1950s to ‘70s, the heroine was typically portrayed as a demure, virginal character, often clad in white and conservatively dressed. She might avert her eyes coyly when in the company of her love interest, and was often portrayed as girlish and naive, giggling with her girlfriends about the hero in question, until he inevitably came and swept her away. Conversely, most movies would feature a dance number with a femme fatale writhing seductively around a room filled with mainly men. This temptress was a polar opposite to the pure, innocent heroine - but the latter always ended up with the film’s hero.

Now, watching a Bollywood film still means observing at least one sexually-charged dance scene, but the paradigm has shifted - these scenes now feature the female lead, often dancing with the male lead or even a group of admiring men.

In other words, Indian film no longer necessitates that the heroine and the vamp be two different characters. Indian actresses are now cast into lead roles where sexuality is a relevant, even overt, part of their character.

It would make sense that a shifting narrative to portray heroines as people who can express their sexuality, as opposed to pure, chaste idols, would be a positive step for women’s rights in India. However, women in India continue to experience acts of sexual violence in astonishing numbers.

The level of sexual violence in India has long been problematic, but observing the relatively recent shift in portrayals of women in Indian film, it’s hard not to wonder if the two are related. What does the change in portrayals of Indian women - or at least those considered “heroines” - say about India’s attitude toward females?

The sexualization of women in lead roles sheds light on a side Indian women are encouraged to repress - sexuality - but it does so in an incomplete manner. In most of these films, female sexuality is still designed for male consumption - and therein lies the real reason the shift in film depiction of women has yet to provoke a similar shift in India’s attitude toward real women.

First of all, Indian films are, largely, a departure from reality. Many popular films are set in middle-class or upscale urban locales where the attitude toward sexuality might have grown more liberal. Much of the country, though, is rural and shares little with the India portrayed on screen. Furthermore, in many circles, both rural and urban, sexuality is still a taboo topic.

According to Ruchika Tulshyan in the Forbes Magazine article “How Bollywood is Failing the Women of India ,“ only 30 percent of India lives in an urban setting, and therefore, most film portrayals are inconsistent with what life is really like for the majority of people who watch them.

“For most Indian men,“ Tulshyan writes, “Social interactions with the opposite sex are severely limited. What they see on screen guides much of their perceptions of women. Portraying women as sex objects has far-reaching ramifications, from normalizing eve-teasing and stalking to glorifying rape and murder. Women feeling a sense of safety in India is unquestionably endangered.”

Tulshyan’s point highlights a longtime issue in Indian culture. In many Indian households, boys and girls are discouraged from, or simply don’t have the opportunities, to spend time together. Therefore, the problem grows when these same men, who have little knowledge about the opposite sex, see women portrayed as objects of male consumption. Depicting women as sexual beings is problematic because many of the men who watch them on screen then view them as only sexual beings. Therefore, even though female sexuality is now a major part of many Indian films, it’s still a largely one-dimensional topic.

So how can India normalize sexuality through one of its most wide-reaching mediums?

One suggestion is to humanize female characters in Bollywood films. Giving a character a multi-dimensional role is an important part of making clear the idea that sexuality is only a portion of what makes a person.

Another is to create more realistic depictions of female sexuality in India that acknowledge some of the taboos that still exist.

Fortunately, India has begun to come out with films that do explore a realistic dynamic for women in India. The film “Queen” follows a young Punjabi woman from a traditional household who, after being dumped by her fiance the night before their wedding, decides to go on her European honeymoon alone, despite her conservative family’s concerns. The film does a good job of portraying Rani (the heroine) as a young, sheltered woman with little understanding of the rest of the world. From her fear of sharing a room with three strange men in a European hostel to her hesitance to drink and dance at a club, complete with flashbacks to her former fiance’s controlling behavior, “Queen” portrays a young woman coming out of her shell and eventually exploring some of the taboo things Indian cinema brushes over. She experiences her first kiss, her first time away from the cocoon of her family - even her first time visiting a sex shop - but all on her own terms. Unlike many films, “Queen” shows a situation where the man is not the goal, but the obstacle. Rani is gradually shown gaining confidence and spirit, eventually standing up to her ex-fiance.

Item numbers and overt portrayals of female sexuality in Indian film are not necessarily bad things. But there are certainly other ways to depict women in film that don’t limit them to one category, innocent or temptress, but allow them to be portrayed as multi-dimensional characters - like real people.