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Women in Hindi Cinema in Post-Colonial India

June 10, 2019 | By

Exploring the representation of women in popular Hindi cinema within the broader socio-political landscape of post-colonial India, Tumpa Mukherjee probes the impact of women’s movement on the roles essayed by female protagonists in Hindi cinema. The exploration looks at the portrayal of gender-based violence especially projection of domestic violence /sexual assault on-screen in Hindi cinema. The representation of women on-screen from subordination to agency within the canopy of overbearing patriarchal societal structure and attitude prevailing in the society is also examined.

Dilip Kumar and Nimmi (Pic: Twitter)

Dilip Kumar and Nimmi (Pic: Twitter)

In the early decades of the post-colonial Indian society the Indian state followed the conventional models of development – industrialisation, central planning, expansion of science and technology. It was assumed this model would deliver the same results as elsewhere in the developed world – that is, raising aggregate well-being for delivering benefits to all. There was no women’s platform in which women’s issues could be voiced or fought.1 Women were regarded as a  welfare component and viewed from the same perspective. As cinema reflects society, the portrayal of women in reel life echoed the dominant discourse of the era. There was a stereotype portrayal of woman in Hindi cinema in binary terms. The ‘heroines’ had to be physically beautiful, with feminine aesthetics and sensibilities. They were portrayed as docile, submissive, weak, inferior, powerless seeking help from their male counterpart, and having to submit to male authority. They mostly wore the conventional oriental attire such as saree and salwar kameez. In contrast to the ‘heroine’, women as vamp were aggressive, muscular, with high sexual innuendos and wore western attire. Women in films as in real life had no independent identity and were presented from the male point of view. Women were regarded as sex object. Rampant objectification and commodification took place on-screen whereas the male protagonist’s muscular body and physical aggression were valorized. This promotion of hyper-masculinity is endorsed by patriarchal norms.

Mother India poster (Pic: Google Image Search)

In the decade of 1950s in films such as Mother India, Nargis Dutt as Radha belonging to the sub-altern class, was portrayed as an ‘ideal’ wife, responsible daughter-in-law, who struggled to bring up her sons after her husband committed suicide. The film Mother India metaphorically represented India as a nation in the aftermath of independence and alluded to a strong sense of nationalism and nation building.2 The good woman, the chaste wife and mother empowered by spiritual strength became the iconic representation of the nation.3 The film followed the conventional trend of regarding women as the honour of the family/ community  – a woman’s body is presumed to be the repository of male honour and community values; women are carriers of national/cultural identity. The protagonist ‘Radha’ in the film expressed her ‘agency’ when she fired upon her own son, who had abducted the landlord’s daughter and was on the verge of humiliating her. In the film it was shown that respecting the honour and prestige of a woman was more precious and valued than defending an errant/deviant son. This trend of symbolising mother as an embodiment of morality, sacrifice, selfless love continued in the era of 1970s and was very well portrayed by Nirupa Roy in films such as Deewar, Amar Akbar Anthony etc.


Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai

In the 1960’s Vijay Anand directed Guide based on RK Narayan’s novel by the same name. The film focused on the issue of adultery. In the film Rosie, the protagonist, sang the song Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, aaj phir marney ka irada hai bringing out the innate desire and unfulfilled wishes of a woman. In films such as Aradhana, Mamta, the female protagonists within the canopy of protective male, were projected as strong, powerful women having an agency.

The portrayal of courtesans in Hindi films such as Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan, was ‘soft’. They were portrayed as women who are dignified, with virtues of chastity, morality, who demonstrate their skills – art of singing and dance to their masters – the emperors, or the nobles. But they do not sell their body and soul to the ordinary classes of citizens.

Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh as the angry young man in Deewar

In the decade of 1970s, in the aftermath of Indo-Bangladesh war, the declaration of Emergency by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, large scale refugee migration, poverty, hunger, inequality and injustices defined society. This decade witnessed the emergence of Amitabh Bachchan as a young, angry man who posed a challenge to the injustices meted out to common citizens in our society. The role he enacted in films in 1970s and early 1980s symbolised the protest of a common man against an unequal, unjust, and biased society.

The women’s movement in that era took a radical turn because of several incidents and events happening at the national and global arena. The United Nations urged nation states to submit report on the condition of women in respective states. The Indian Government appointed a Committee on the Status of Women. The famous report titled, ‘Towards Equality’ focused on gender inequality prevailing in our society. Gender disparity widened in every sphere – education, health, employment, and political participation.4 Yet no such corresponding ‘female angry voice’ emerged in the domain of Hindi cinema.

Women mostly played second lead to male protagonists, romancing with male lead actors and supporting them towards the cause of social emancipation. However the trend started changing from the late 1980s.  It was a crucial juncture when the super stardom of Amitabh Bachchan was spiraling down and the Khans had not emerged as superstars in the Hindi film industry.5 Sridevi emerged as the leading lady of the Hindi cinema with powerful roles in films such as Mr. India, Chandni, Lamhe, etc.

Sridevi in Chandni

Sridevi in Chandni

Meanwhile the women’s movement focused on a struggle for an egalitarian society. The second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 1970s brought women from the margins to the centre of their text and focused on subjectivity. In the 1970s, the incidents of Mathura, Ramazeebai, Bhanwari Devi rape cases had shaken the conscience of the Indian society. Feminist activists created public furore which lead to the Criminal Law Amendment of 1983 and inclusion of provisions of sections 376 A, B,C,D.

Hindi films have generally portrayed heroines who are stalked, eve-teased, molested in the process of romantic courtship by their male heroes. Innumerable Hindi films have focused on rape and sexual assault. As in society, in films too women are blamed for victim precipitation.



Bawandar was based on the real life rape incident Bhanwari Devi suffered in the hands of upper caste landlords. The film depicted the account of the personal trauma and public humiliation the helpless woman had to suffer while seeking justice.

Damini highlighted the plight of a woman – a daughter-in-law, who dared to speak on the rape of a subaltern girl by her own family member. The film focused on how patriarchal powers both in private and public domain are ‘used’ to ‘silence her voice’ and push her aside. But she fought to provide justice to the victim/survivor of sexual assault.

Women negotiating patriarchal values, caste, class religious inter-sectionalities, recast themselves from a ‘victimised’ image to an ‘empowered’ human being in their own right. In the 1990s, Astitva depicted a woman who realises her potential as an individual, not merely as a housewife and a mother. The character played by Tabu took her own decision in the end, leaving her ‘undignified status’ in the family behind, thereby taking a new path towards life.

The film Daman spoke of domination, domestic violence and marital rape. In Daman the female protagonist takes the decision to leave her home to bring an end to the abuses she suffered at her husband’s home. She becomes Mother Durga, the warrior Hindu Goddess, who is the destroyer of demons signifying the victory of good over evil. She kills her husband rebelling against the image of a dutiful wife who tolerated domestic abuse and marital rape. Madhuri Dixit’s character in the film Anjaam revealed that women were no longer silently suffering the violence meted upon them and would seek revenge. Thus women having an agency emerged on-screen. Kya Kehna was another sensitive film which explored the issue of teenage pregnancy without wedlock and how such a teenager, victimised by the society, fights her ‘own’ battle in this patriarchal world. All these films reflected female dynamism.

kya kehna

Kya Kehna explored the issue of teenage pregnancy without wedlock

The early decades of the twenty-first century witnessed a sea-change in the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema. Films such as Paa projected the struggles and sacrifices of single mothers. In the film Vicky Donor the mother was unapologetic about drinking life to the lees. So every evening Dolly Ahluwalia and Kamalesh Gill would uncork the bottle to show how a bickering saas-bahu can actually be like a mother and daughter after they are drunk. Motherhood was redefined by debunking the concept of negation of self, with a ‘voice’ expressing unabashed desires.

The ever sacrificing archetypal image of the Indian mother changed when films started addressing the sexual desires of middle-aged woman and widows. The film Badhaai Ho depicted the story of a middle-aged woman, who gets pregnant much to the disappointment and mockery of her adult son and extended family. The ‘mother’ emerged shedding internalised societal inhibitions – from being, all sacrificing, romantically barren, asexual woman to woman who can explore her sexual urges.

In the film Parched, the sexual urges of a young widow in remote Indian village was crafted sensitively. Tannishtha Chatterjee as Rani marries off her son (Riddhi Sen) to a child bride, but does not shy away from receiving calls on her mobile phone from a stranger. In the film she starts bonding with her daughter-in-law and finally helps the daughter-in-law to reunite with her lover.6 Thus an image of a woman who has her own desires, who expresses her own will against the dominant, patriarchal structure, shuns the societal dictated roles to craft her own destiny emerged.

Femme fatale as lead characters emerged in films such as Corporate, Aitraaz etc. In the twenty-first century, innumerable films have been devoted to appeal to the development of women, upgrading their self-esteem. There has been a spate of films where projection of women has been powerful and sensitive. Films such as Queen, Mardani, Kahani, No one Killed Jessica, Piku, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Mary Kom, portray women who can speak their mind and assert themselves in the social arena.

No One Killed Jessica

No One Killed Jessica

In 2012, the brutal gang rape of a twenty-three-year-old paramedical student in a moving bus in New Delhi, created a public furore throughout India. The Government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of retired justice J.S Verma. Finally the Criminal Law Amendment took place in 2013, making punishments for rape, sexual assault, voyeurism, and stalking more stringent.

For the first time in the annals of Hindi cinema the film ‘Pink’ focused on the concept of consent in sexual relationships and female subjectivity. The catchword of the film ‘No…..No means No’ – gave voice to the unheard trauma as well as plight of women whose bodies have been silent sites where patriarchal power is imposed. For the first time in the history of Hindi cinema plight of victims/ survivors of sexual assault were viewed from the human rights perspective. However even in these new era films such as Dangal or Pink, the agents through which the liberal values are communicated in society, have always been a male.


It can be concluded that in recent times the storyline, the content of the films have broadened to include issues of same-sex love etc, thereby changing the landscape of Hindi cinema. However certain trends remain the same . The operation of camera mostly by men projects as well as extends male gaze upon women in both real and reel life. The misogynist dialogue, accompanied by sexist lyrics of the songs aggravates the rampant commodification and objectification of women in our society. This period is a critical juncture where trends of continuity with the conventional norms, traditional gender roles and changes are taking place simultaneously.

Hopefully as more and more women enter the domain of film making in all spheres, they will bring their humanitarian values which will make Hindi cinema gender sensitive and rich in content.

Notes and references

    1. Sen, Samita. 2000. ‘Towards a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective’, Policy Research Report on Gender and Development, Working Paper Series No.9. pp.25.
    2. Wikipedia
    3. Sen, Samita. 1993. ‘Motherhood and Mothercraft: Gender and Nationalism in Bengal’ in Gender and History, 5,2, Summer.
    4. Sen, Samita. 2000. ‘Towards a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective’, Policy Research Report on Gender and Development, Working Paper Series No.9. pp.25.
    5. As expressed by Dr.Urvi Mukhopadhyay, Associate Professor in History, West Bengal Barasat State University, at a State Level Seminar on History and Films : An Ongoing Dialogue, organized by the Department of History, Diamond Harbour Women’s University, on 10th May 2019.
    6. Dasgupta, Priyanka. ‘On–screen mothers shed their inhibitions’, Calcutta Times, The Times of India, 12th May 2019, p.8.

More to read

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Cinema & Sexuality: On the Death of the Desiring Woman

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Tumpa Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor in Sociology, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata. An alumnus of Presidency College, University of Calcutta and Jadavpur University, she completed her doctoral studies on Women in Police in India. Her areas of research interest are Gender Studies, Police and Prison Studies. She is invited to deliver lectures at different Government institutes including the police academies. Her book Community Policing in India: A Sociological Perspective was published by Progressive Publishers, Kolkata in 2006. She also co-edited a book Indian Prisons: Towards Reformation, Rehabilitation and Resocialisation published by Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, in 2014.
All Posts of Tumpa Mukherjee

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