We have successfully completed two decades of the 21st century. These were indeed the decades of diverse on-screen representations of women. Read on for a quick recap.

Apart from the freshest-in-mind historic defeat of a long running political party and longer queues as a result of demonetisation and varied forms and issues of resistance, what these 20 years have also seen is a distinguished portrayal of women in Bollywood films. While most of these films continue to be driven by stereotypical characters and plots, off-centre sides of the feminine gender in particular have surfaced in their representations, much unfamiliar to the latter decades. One could possibly recap only some of the unconventional portrayals.

Earlier in the century, Preity Zinta’s character in Salam Namaste (2005) is shown to be in a live-in relationship, much to the surprise of Nargis or Nirupa Roy hungover audience. Boomers only. Her character was however based out of India, in Melbourne probably because a desi setting could have been too outrageous. Years later we see Kriti Sanon’s character in Luka Chuppi (2019) taking the live-in concept in the very desi Gwalior city. She is a headstrong reporting intern who later falls into a guilt trip. 

salam namaste aishwaryaa women and films

Men and women, both have been portrayed in stereotypical ways in the past. Men as strong headed, hyper masculine patriarchs, protagonists or babuji’s and women as moral anchors to them or damsels in distress. The audience’s fantasy with the ideal woman – sanskari ladki, was carried forward by films like Vivah and reinforced by the youth popular Cocktail (2012). Our eye-candy Saif Ali Khan chooses the super sanskaari Meera after gallivanting with free spirited Veronica. Things got worse when Veronica tries to woo him one last time in her modest salwar kameez. 

english vinglish aishwaryaa women and films

Films like English Vinglish (2012) talked about the Indian woman making space for herself in the modern world by ‘secretly’ learning English as a tool of empowerment. The director remarkably covered themes like emotional violence within a family, lack of acknowledgment to home-makers and ignorance towards women entrepreneurs through the legend Sridevi. 

Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi (2016) attempted to normalise that women need not always be the emotionally equipped ones in a society. It points out how they are made to feel inadequate for not being ‘ideal’ in a society that indulges in slut shaming. Movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) or Shudhh Desi Romance (2013) have successfully validated female desire within the patriarchal institutions of society. Movies like Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Bajirao Mastani (2015), Padmavat (2018) and Manikarnika (2019) did try to talk about historical women as well but it was mostly through a pro male gaze narrative.

lipstick under my burkha aishwaryaa women and films

With great scripts and narration, film makers have time and again normalised the nuance shades of women as an individual, be it Fashion (2008) or Queen (2014). They have brought topics like sexuality and female experience into the forum of public discussion. Be it Alia’s character in Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya (2017) or Vidya Balan’s Tumhari Sulu (2017), women are shown taking up professional spaces against the set standards while also outrightly questioning traditions of dowry etc. Under the umbrella of ‘women centric’ films, biopics of women characters like in Dangal (2016), Neerja (2016) or Mary Kom (2014) have additionally found space and recognition. However, these are only stories of renowned sportspersons, politicians or inspired by landmark court cases like in No One Killed Jessica (2011) that have the capacity to fill in profits pertaining to their thriller or inspirational narratives. The stories of ordinary women and their slice of life are yet to be shared. Nil Battey Sannata (2016) is one such story. The coming decade sees high hopes for this. 

dangal aishwaryaa women and films

It took the star of the millennium, the angry young man, now old but ever so charming Amitabh Bachchan in Pink (2016) to come forward and talk about consent and that no means no, irrespective. This extremely well enacted courtroom drama talked about virginity, importance of a ‘moral character’, victim blaming and women’s rights and dignity amidst the time of Nirbhaya and other rape cases, simultaneously pricking the vulnerability of the diehard patriarchal and judgemental society. A marvel in itself. 

pink aishwaryaa women and films

These two decades have also seen women take up charge off screen as well as scriptwriters, camerapersons, directors and producers. While the entire country is in a severe state of unrest, one could consider this recap as some ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. It leaves us yearning for good stories and better representations that not only delves deep into the intricacies of gender but also can transform the mindsets of the audience into a more sensitive and considerate one. Bollywood films continue to be the most popular means of entertainment and incessant strong portrayals can most definitely help the need. TV soap operas being the next in line could also try and cover more realistic issues of human lives other than evil naagins and reincarnations. I’m sure for example long distance relationships can be a Kasautii Zindagi Ki (Test of Life) as well.


Feature Image Credits: Cristina Bombolla 

Image 1 Credits: Bollywood Bio

Image 2 Credits: Pinterest

Image 3 Credits: YouTube

Image 4 Credits: Wacom Gallery

Image 5 Credits: Amul India

Aishwaryaa Kunwar

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After years of lamented echoes for equal rights, certain women still haven’t received acknowledgement, let alone echelon in their fields of work, where they are included only to be left excluded.

Little did we know that the omission of a woman’s efforts would be carried on post her existent life.  This is extended to the point where she would be kept away from being posthumously recorded in the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of farmer’s suicide. P. Sainath, a veteran Journalist and founder of PARI, People’s Archive of Rural India, at a National Conference of Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) took a jab at this agency by calling it, “a paradise for women,” where zero accounts of female farmer suicide is reported. He called Punjab and Haryana the “seventh heaven” where logistics seem to have flunk. These states have large numbers of female farmers but no documentation of their Harakiri. He goes on to voice a spine chilling question,”Where do they hide the corpse?” 

In decoding the primary reasons behind the aforementioned exclusion, it’s imperative to understand the methodology which is incorporated in computing the numbers. It’s fraudulent since it houses eight exclusions. Three of the largest amongst them are women, Dalits and Adivasis, with women being the single largest exclusion.

In economic jargon the terminology of ‘imputed cost is used to categorise or rather limit the labour provided by women since they are pushed in the bracket of ‘housewives.’ Although this concept acknowledges the work done by them, it fails to provide for a calculative mechanism to approximate the same. Consequently their contribution doesn’t make it to the calculation of national income. Sainath said, “Post 2014, the sins of omission have been joined by the sins of commission.”

According to the Oxfam Annual Equality Report, 12.5 billion hours of unpaid work is contributed by women and girls every day of each year across the world. This math equates to USD 10.8 trillion annually, which is five times India’s GDP and more than three times the size of global tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.

The problematic aspect of the prohibition lies in answering that how are we to solve to the problem of farmer’s suicide as a whole when we are busy ostracising another group from the records? The problematic aspect charges more when women themselves are made to realise that their labour devotion is secondary or relatively unimportant or doesn’t qualify as being worthy enough to get paid. This is a classic example of Italian philosopher Gramsci’s hegemony model, where the subordinate class would concur, willingly to oppression of the upper class with a little negotiation. 

It’s a dissappoinment that the NRCB is the best possible record data to show the menace of farmer’s suicide. Its bereftness when it comes to registering women- speaks volumes about the societal prejudices affecting economy and society. The cause is not inked therefore, it reinforces the perpetuated state of exclusion which therefore demands a dire need to be changed. This starts by eradication of the association of unpaid work with what we classify as a homemaker’s job. Acknowledging the imputed cost and ending of hegemony would in turn put an ending to the discrimination that happens in the agrarian economy and elsewhere in the socioeconomic forum.

References taken from P Sainath’s speech at his valedictorian address at the XVI National Conference of IAWS published by India Today: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/women-are-the-single-largest-exclusion-in-india-s-farmer-suicides-data-p-sainath-1642141-2020-01-31


Image Credits: PARI Network

Umaima Khanam

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Like many other spheres and domains of life, the literary space too worked on the politics of gender. It was long thought to be a space marked only for men, and women were always discouraged from writing or reading. But, there were some women writers who did not let anyone limit their potential. They wrote extensively and let their work speak for themselves.

1. Mary Wollstonecraft

Many of the ideas floating today about feminism and equality of genders were floated by Mary Wollstonecraft, an Anglo-Irish feminist, intellectual and writer, in as early as eighteenth century. She was born on April 27, 1759, in Spitalfields, London and had an abusive father who spent most of his fortune on a series of unsuccessful ventures in farming. Troubled by his actions, she set out of her household to earn a living for her own self.  In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), she talks about how women are not biologically incapable of reason, but as they are denied exposure to proper education, they’re made to think illogically. She realised the true potential of the female gender and appealed to the in-place institutions to not limit women as helpless adornments of the household. Some of the excerpts from her work are:


The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is passed and gone. Will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and cultivate her dormant faculties? or, is it not more rational to expect that she will try to please other men; and, in the emotions raised by the expectation of new conquests, endeavour to forget the mortification her love or pride has received? When the husband ceases to be a lover—and the time will inevitably come, her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps, the most evanescent of all passions, gives place to jealousy or vanity.”

(A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft)

Image Credits: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/
Image Credits: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/

 2. Ismat Chughtai

Ismat Chughtai was one of the Muslim writers who stayed in India after the partition. She was an eminent writer in Urdu who was known for her boldness, fierce ideology and impregnable attitude. She was born into an upper middle class family yet was subjected to stringent mindsets. When other girls were taught to be docile and dreamed about becoming the perfect wives, Chughtai took to books and educated herself with the support of her father and brother.  Her mother disapproved of her decisions and Chughtai writes, “She hurled her shoe at me but missed.”

Her works became representative of the feminist ideas in the 20th century. Lihaaf is one of the most celebrated short stories written by her which talks about homosexuality in Aligarh. It was leveled with charges of obscenity but she never compromised on her outspoken nature and never apologized for the same. She won the case in court and became nothing less than an inspiration for the future generations of intellectuals.

Image Credits: http://images.indianexpress.com/
Image Credits: http://images.indianexpress.com

3. Virginia Woolf

Known for her famous dictum, A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” from her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf was an English writer and one of the most talented modernists of the twentieth century. She was raised in a wonderful household where her father was a historian and author, and her mother had been born in India and later served as a model for several Pre-Raphaelite painters. She was also a nurse and wrote a book on the profession. Woolf was a happy child but soon was distressed after being sexually abused by her half brothers. She also lost her mother and her sister soon after, which led to a nervous breakdown.

But, despite all these challenges, she took up Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London. Her novels like Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) gained much appreciation and are still read enthusiastically.

Image Credits: https://upload.wikimedia.org
Image Credits: https://upload.wikimedia.org

4. Maya Angelou

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise

(Still I Rise, Maya Angelou)

Maya Angelou was a poet, novelist, actor, civil rights activist and what not. She had published seven autobiographies, three books of essays and several books of poetry. Her first autobiography called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) outlines her life up to the age of 17 and brought her much international recognition. Her works revolve around the themes of race, identity, society and culture and she was considered a respected spokesperson for black men and women.

Image Credit: https://www.poets.org
Image Credit: https://www.poets.org

Nishita Agarwal

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