Even as most formulaic Indian movies tend to either glorify women as goddesses or treat them like set property in the background for larger-than-life heroes, there have been many commendable attempts at sensible, women-empathetic story-telling on Indian screen. Here’s my selection of fifteen such films, cutting across a cross-section of Indian languages.
Mother India (Hindi, 1957) – Mehboob Khan
The story is a metaphor for India in the aftermath of the Partition. Radha is a poor village woman who struggles to raise her sons. Her marriage to Shamu was paid for by a moneylender. Shamu goes away from the village after his arm is crushed by a boulder. Radha’s youngest son and mother-in-law die even as floods destroy the harvest. The moneylender tries to exploit Radha. She loses another son. One of the surviving sons, Birju becomes a bandit who kills the landlord. He is eventually killed by his own mother. The other son Ramu is a do-gooder. Radha is regarded as the ‘mother of the village’. She inaugurates a canal and its reddish water flows into the fields. Mehboob Khan who wrote and directed the film was inspired by American writer Pearl. S. Buck’s The Good Earth. The title was chosen as a rebuttal for Catherine Mayo’s disparaging book on India by the same name. Mother India was India’s first ever entry in the Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars but lost to Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria by one vote. Sunil Dutt who played the heroine Nargis’s son in this move later became her husband in real life.
Aval Oru Thodarkkathai (She is a Never-ending Story, Tamil, 1974) – K. Balachander
Kailasam Balachander is probably the most feminist of Indian filmmakers. His films are empathetic of women and their issues. To pick out one from them is arduous and an early work qualifies as a strong contender. Aval Oru Thodarkkathai is about a working middle-class woman Kavitha who sacrifices her desires to support her large family including her mother, widowed sister, spinster sister, blind brother and an alcoholic brother and his family. She even chooses not to marry her boyfriend for this reason. The latter goes for her sister Bharathi. A young man sacrifices his love for Bharathi after learning of this development. Kavitha accepts a marriage proposal and quits her work but has to swap her unmarried sister as the bride in her place after the drunkard brother dies. She resumes her job and continues to support the family. The film which saw Sujatha essay the role of her lifetime was remade in many Indian languages.
Bhumika (The Role, Hindi, 1977) – Shyam Benegal
The debut film of legendary actress Smita Patil is based on the memoirs of Marathi stage and screen actress Hansa Wadkar, Sangtye Aika (Listen and I Will Tell). Wadkar led an unconventional life, and the work focuses on the individual’s search for identity and self-fulfillment. Usha is an actress from Goa’s Devadasi community who goes to Bombay with family friend Keshav to audition as a singer after her abusive and alcoholic father dies. She becomes a star and marries Keshav. He is her manager and also a jealous husband who suspects her of having an affair with a leading actor. Usha is forced into two relationships to escape her abuse, with a director with whom she plots a double suicide and with a wealthy businessman with a bedridden wife who keeps her as a mistress in his estate. Despite the newfound respectability, she has no freedom and goes back to Keshav. The businessman’s wife tells her as she leaves, ’The beds change, the kitchens change. Men’s masks change, but men don’t change.’ Smita Patil won the National Award for Best Actress for playing Usha. This is one of several women-centric movies from the prolific Benegal.
Arth (Meaning, Hindi, 1982) – Mahesh Bhatt
Pooja learns about the extra-marital affair of her husband and successful actor Inder with his co-actor Kavita. When Inder leaves Pooja for the actress, she leaves the apartment that he had gifted her and goes to live in a ladies’ hostel. Interestingly she had advised her maid who suffered domestic abuse, on tackling her alcoholic husband. Pooja is helped by a singer called Raj and they become friends. Kavita is a possessive woman who suffers from mental instability. The maid finds that her husband had stolen her hard-earned money and finding him with his lover, kills him. She surrenders to the police but also entrusts Pooja with her daughter. Pooja assures Kavita that she is not interested in life with Inder but the actress is ridden with guilt and she too breaks up with him. Pooja spurns Raj’s proposal of marriage and continues to live an independent life, taking care of the maid’s daughter. The film is autobiographical for its maker Mahesh Bhatt who exorcised his demons about his affair with the actress. Parveen Babi. It is one of the films where two of India’s greatest actresses rattle sabers. Shabana Azmi won one of her record-making five National Awards for playing Pooja.
Umbartha (The Threshold, Marathi, 1982) – Dr. Jabbar Patel
Umbartha is the story of Sulabha, a woman who dreams of stepping out of the narrow confines of her house and creating a change in society. Her desire to do something constructive for the abused, assaulted, neglected and traumatized women of society lands her the job of Superintendent of a Women’s Reformatory Home in a remote town. Her lawyer husband and conservative mother-in-law object to her move but her sister-in-law offers support and takes care of her daughter. At the Home, she uncovers frauds and tries to take action against offenders. She educates the women and also marries off one of the inmates. She locks horns with the legislator who sexually exploits the inmates. When two girls run away, they are forcibly brought back. But when they kill themselves, Sulabha faces an inquiry. She quits and heads back home to find that her husband was involved with another woman in her absence. His betrayal changes her mind as she again sets out to follow her dream work. Starring Smita Patil, the film was simultaneously made in Hindi as Subah. The screenplay is by playwright Vijay Tendulkar.
Adaminte Variyellu (Adam’s Rib, Malayalam, 1984) – K. G. George
A staunchly women-centric movie, Adaminte Variyellu examines the lot of women through the lives of a female protagonist each from rich, middle-class and poor sections of society. The wealthy Alice is married to a cold businessman and seeks relief in an affair. Her family is dysfunctional and the husband rapes the maidservant Ammini. Alice’s liberation is in her death. Vaasanthi puts up with a drunkard husband, an insensitive mother-in-law and takes care of her son and a clerical job. She finds liberation by slipping into madness and escape in a mental asylum. Ammini is the abused maidservant who ends up in a shelter home. However, she finds it suffocating and runs away to her freedom along with the other inmates. K. G. George employs several surrealistic techniques in the movie including a scene of Vaasanthi daydreaming of her benevolent but strong father-in-law coming out of the framed picture in the living room and taking control of the household. Actors Srividya, Suhasini and Soorya put in stellar acts as the lead women.
Parama (Bengali, 1985) – Aparna Sen
Parama is a masterpiece from the stable of veteran filmmaker Aparna Sen. Raakhee plays Parama, a 40-year-old married woman whose identity is submerged in a traditional family with many members. She has an affair with a younger photojournalist called Rahul who chooses her to pose for his photo essay for a magazine. Parama’s feeling of liberation is short-lived as she discovers his betrayal, the publishing of her private photos without her consent. Rejected by her family and disillusioned with her lover, she finally decides to become independent, all the while not feeling any sense of guilt for her choices. Aparna Sen appears in a cameo role as the heroine’s friend while her future husband and science writer Mukul Sharma played Rahul.
Rudali (Professional Mourner, Hindi, 1993) – Kalpana Lajmi
Rudali is based on Mahasweta Devi’s short story about Shanichari, a woman abandoned by her family in a Rajasthani village. She is a rudali who gives vent to the grief of people whose social status do not allow them to display emotion in public. The superstitious villagers blame Shanichari who was born inauspiciously on a Saturday, for all the ills of the place. Her only support is son Budhua, a bit of a loafer. She makes friends with another rudali named Bhikni who is waiting for a landlord to die. The landlord’s son offers her a job at the haveli and teachers her to empower herself and understand her rights. She moves to another village. Bhikni dies from the plague but in her dying moments reveals that she is Shanichari’s mother. The film is an instance of how a woman manipulates the deeply patriarchal culture while staying firmly within it. Dimple Kapadia the National Award for Best Actress for her title part. It is a musical delight with Gulzar’s lyrics set to music by the Assamese great Bhupen Hazarika.
Fire (Hindi, 1996) – Deepa Mehta
The first of Indian-Canadian Deepa Mehta’s trilogy which includes Earth and Water, Fire raised a storm among moralists for its depiction of lesbian love. Radha and Sita are two women trapped in marriages to indifferent spouses who are also brothers. While one brother is under the spell of a holy man and abstains from conjugal love under the latter’s advice, the other is secretly dating a Chinese girl. Shunned by their husbands and driven to desperation by their unfulfilled longings, Radha and Sita seek solace in each other and become lovers. The film is loosely inspired by Ismat Chughtai’s Urdu short story Lihaaf (The Quilt) in which a neglected Begum of a rich Nawab finds physical comfort in the arms of her masseuse girl.
Gulabi Talkies (Kannada, 2008) – Girish Kasaravally
Based on a short story by Vaidehi, it is about a midwife called Gulabi in a fishing community of Karnataka who is passionate about cinema. She is lonely after her husband abandoned her for a second wife with whom he has a child. A family gifts her a television in return for her agreeing to attend a difficult delivery. The television ushers in a revolution in the sleepy village as women start gathering at her house during daytimes. One of them, a girl called Netru, gets closer to her. The Kargil War starts and the village is gripped by communalism. Tension arises between the villagers and a Muslim businessman. Netru disappears. Gulabi is urged to leave by all but she refuses. Her home is attacked and she is forced out. The television, however, remains intact. The film won Umashree the Best Actress National Award.
The Dirty Picture (Hindi, 2011) – Milan Luthria
The multilingual movie is based on the life of South Indian actress Silk Smitha who was known for titillating roles. Reshma goes from her village to Chennai to be in films. She auditions for a dancer role in a movie directed by Abraham. Although the film flops, the producer likes her dance and gives her the name Silk to indicate exotic. She lands roles after endearing herself to her childhood idol and senior actor Suryakanth. His younger brother Ramakanth is also enamored by her. If Suryakanth’s attraction for Reshma is largely carnal, Ramakanth is the one who has real feelings for her. As she continues to be a big star of erotic ‘dirty pictures’ a prominent lady journalist brings up a scandal against her. Suryakanth drops her from his projects. She survives on small-scale movies and drinks, chain smokes and gains weight. She goes to Abraham who sees no use of her. Having run up a huge debt, she approaches a filmmaker who shoots a pornographic film of hers after intoxicating, her despite her disinterest. Reshma overdoses on sleeping pills and die. Vidya Balan picked up a National Award for playing Reshma.
Ozhimuri (Document of Separation, Malayalam, 2012) – Madhupal
Ozhimuri is based on the autobiographical book Uravidangal by Nagercoil-based bilingual writer Jeyamohan. He had undergone the trauma of seeing both his parents take their lives within a month of each other. In the matrilineal system, the property was enjoyed by successors of the women in the family and the mother was stronger than the father. Women were free to divorce their husbands if they did not have a good relationship, by means of palm-leaf documents called ozhimuris. This gave way to a system where women lost their powers and became virtual slaves in a male-dominated society. Thanu Pillai is a tyrant caught between his submissive wife Meenakshi, strong mother and suffering son. Well past her middle age, the wife is now seeking an unusual divorce. Writer, actor and director Madhupal evocatively brings out the milieu of southern Travancore, dialogues and all, in this work. Lal plays Thanu Pillai and Mallika is Meenakshi.
Queen (Hindi, 2014) – Vikas Bahl
Vijay tells his fiancee Rani that he wants to call off their wedding as his lifestyle has changed after living abroad and that she seems too conservative for him. She then embarks on a honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam by herself. In Paris, she experiences adventures with Vijayalakshmi who works at the hotel where she stays. During an outing, she sends a selfie picture to Vijay instead of Vijayalakshmi by mistake. She goes to Amsterdam where she shares a room with three men and befriends a Pakistani pole dancer called Ruksana. Rani takes control of her life, selling sweetmeats. She finds Vijay, who now wants to bond with her again, waiting for her. Back in India, Rani visits Vijay’s home, meets his folks, hands him her engagement ring, says ‘thank you’ and walks away. The film won Kangana Ranaut the first of her two National Awards for the lead role.
Pink (Hindi, 2016) – Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury
Three independent girls meet some guys at a party. The guys try to molest the girls. The girls hit one of the guys Rajveer with a bottle. They file a case against the guy and his friends. He belongs to a political family and so uses his clout and gets one of the girls Minal arrested on a case that he files backdated. The other girls take the help of retired lawyer Deepak Sehgal to free Minal. During the trial, Rajveer’s lawyer tries to portray the girls as prostitutes who are out to extort money. Deepak criticizes the regressed views of the society with its rape culture where women cannot come home late, move out of their home or have a drink but men can do whatever they want. He makes a loud and clear statement about consent and gets the girls acquitted. Amitabh Bachchan played the lawyer Deepak.
Lipstick Under My Burkha (Hindi, 2016) – Alankrita Shrivastava
Usha is a 55-year-old widow who is ‘aunty’ to everyone, Rehana is a college girl who sews burkhas, Leela is a beautician who dreams of traveling the world with her photographer lover and Shireen is a door-to-door saleswoman with three children whose selfish, dominating husband forbids the use of contraceptives. Usha who is fed on erotic pulp fiction novels fantasizes about a young swimming instructor who turns about to be a chauvinist when they eventually meet. The brilliant debut film of Shrivastava beautifully explores the threads of repression in the well-etched lives of the leading females, which try to enslave them at every corner. The film won rave reviews at many international festivals.