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In a May 2017 interview with Glamour Magazine, Priyanka Chopra confesses her amazement at the fact that people treat the word ‘feminist’ “as if it’s a bad thing.” She’s a well-known Indian actress who made the leap from Bollywood to Hollywood with Quantico in 2015. If you’ve been keeping up with Chopra over the past few years, you might’ve known that she previously shunned the word ‘feminism’, instead opting to replace it with an alternative such as ‘empowerment’ or ‘progress.’ Fortunately, Priyanka Chopra now seems content with throwing around this F-word of sorts: later on in the Glamour interview, she says that, basically, a feminist is simply a woman who says “Give me the ability, as a woman, to make my own decisions without being judged.”
Although, on a personal level, I use a rather different definition for the feminist movement, Chopra’s decision to embrace the feminist movement both thrills and interests me, particularly because of her background in Bollywood. Decades-old tropes of item numbers, doting housewives and sobbing matajis (older mothers) as well as their typically heroic, strong, intelligent and dreamy male counterparts don’t really fit many people’s definitions of gender equality. Recently, however, Bollywood seems to have taken a rather surprising turn with the release of several films with feminist tones woven into their plots. Could India - a country whose capital city is often referred to as the ‘rape capital of the world’ - be growing to embrace the emancipation of women? To clarify the importance of this, I’ll quote the German century playwright Bertolt Brecht:
‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality
but a hammer with which to shape it.'
If you’re South Asian, you’ll be fully aware of the cultural and social impact that a single Bollywood hit can create.
One of the most prominent films in this recent wave of onscreen feminism is Aamir Khan’s 2016 blockbuster biographical drama, Dangal (English: Wrestling Competition). The film is based off of the life stories of Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler, and his daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, who he trained to become world-class, Commonwealth Games medalist wrestlers. The first half of the film takes place in a relatively rural village in Haryana, India. Like many other villages, this one would seem relatively backward to the Western eye: child marriages are not uncommon, and, when Geeta and Babita’s cousin returns from the village covered in bruises, no one believes that the girls are responsible, since girls in the village typically spend their time helping their mothers cook or clean. Dangal’s main message can be summed up in the phrase “girls can do anything that boys can do, and they can do it better.” Throughout the film, the sisters overcome the jeers of their male counterparts by defeating them in wrestling matches, over and over again. Neither of the main (female) characters are ever portrayed as hypersexualised item girls, nor as completely sexless housewives; they are simply their own selves.
However, not all wrestling-themed Bollywood films are made equal. Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan, released in July 2016, was only a few places behind Dangal’s number one spot on the list of the highest grossing Hindi-language films ever, yet it felt decades behind in terms of progressiveness. The title character, Sultan, spends years pining after a young woman named Aarfa, a state-level wrestler whose father is a wrestling coach; when he finds out that she’ll only marry an accomplished wrestler like herself, he begins to train excessively in order to win a state tournament and, ultimately, her love. Aarfa marries him almost immediately and the two both go far with the wrestling careers, until they’re both announced as finalists for the Olympic Games. With the perfect timing that only a commercial blockbuster could muster, Aarfa realises that she’s pregnant, and therefore won’t be able to compete. Sultan goes on to achieve the couple’s dream of winning a gold medal for India. (You can read about the rest of the plot here.) Sultan appears almost feminist at first glance - before Aarfa marries Sultan, she seems passionate about crushing gender stereotypes in her village - but then turns sour, as her decision to end her career is glorified in the same way that female sacrifice in order to allow male success has been glorified so many times before in South Asian cinema.
Of course, a film doesn’t have to portray its female characters as uber-strong in order to be considered one with a feminist message. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (English: Toilet - A Love Story), released in August 2017, is a satirical comedy that aims to shed light on the issue of open defecation, especially in rural areas. Due to the lack of flushing toilets in villages and social ‘norms’ that are incredibly outdated, women must journey out into fields in the early hours of each morning to relieve themselves, while men are, frankly, allowed to relieve themselves anywhere. This is problematic for a multitude of reasons; it isn’t uncommon for rapes and sexual harassment to occur while women are out in the fields, and open defecation is obviously rather unhygienic. I particularly enjoyed the handful of hard-hitting monologues about gender inequality in India delivered by the female lead throughout the film. Although the film itself isn’t perfect - there’s an uncomfortable portion of the film filled with the male lead stalking his love interest, and, at times, it feels like an advert for Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign - it does wonders in terms of raising awareness of an issue that shouldn’t exist for women anywhere.
Despite the fact that the 21st century has been referred to as the ‘golden period for female actors,’, Bollywood has far to go in terms of feminism behind the camera. According to a study conducted by the Geena Davis Media Foundation along with the United Nations, there are 6.2 males to every one female working in the film industry; only 9.1% of directors, 12.1% of writers and 15.1% of producers are female. Although these numbers aren’t exactly wonderful, there has been a vast improvement in the number of women in Bollywood over the past sixty years. Overall, I feel like Bollywood as a whole is slowly (slowly!) getting better at preaching feminism on-screen, but there’s definitely work to be done behind the scenes. As a viewer, I think it’s definitely important to call out directors and writers for pulling the industry back in terms of progressiveness, since films like these genuinely do make a huge social impact upon even the most backwards of communities in India and elsewhere.
[Image description 1: a middle aged man bathes himself while his wife pumps water into a bucket for him, while saying that wrestling is for boys]
[Image description 2: the man replies ‘You think our girls are any lesser than boys?’ while rubbing soap across his arms and chest]