Women in Indian Cinema, Then and Now

~ Reetu Bajaj ’12

Currently, Indian cinema has been characterized for its enchanting costumes, catchy songs, foreign locations, and outrageous story plots. But the portrayal of women now seems to be the same as they were presented in the early days of India cinema, or perhaps even worse. The India Census of 2001 revealed how 21 percent of the women in urban and rural India work. While they have proven their skills in medicine, business, literature, and much more, these aspects are not reflected in Hindi cinema.

Although many movies have the typical love story plot, one should look at films by Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt of the 1950s, who portrayed their heroines homebound but empowered with a voice and opinion of themselves and their environment. The 1960s were filled with working woman, such as Rekha in Phool Bane Angare and Hema Malini in Andha Kanoon. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, heroines were shown not only as working, but also as sole breadwinners and fighters of several social battles.

Come the 1990s and 2000s, women had lost their space in the working sphere. Like majority of the world, India was becoming globalized, and as directors incorporated higher technologies and action packed films, women were just seen as mere appendages. Thus, as India went global, the filmmaking industry regressed back to the theory of women belonging in the gahir (home), not bahir (outside). Madhuri Dixit created the “trend of heroines who would never put their own dreams ahead of the aspirations and desires of their family or men” in Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kaun”. Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chata Hai and Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham all have women as pretty pieces and passive homemakers.

So why it that as the world modernizes, Indian cinema is reverting back to its history of social structure? It seems as if the filmmakers are only responding to the demands of their audiences. Is this stereotyping pleasing towards males, or do even women agree to go back to the traditional housewife role? Are the ideas of the outside now crossing too far into the boundaries of India’s spirituality, inner sphere? During an interview, legendary actor Shahrukh Khan says that “It is pointless to compare our films with those of the west because our society has its own limitations. Certain ideas will be unacceptable to our audience…. We don’t see women as powerful entities. Even today, most heroes will tell you ‘I want a homely wife who will take care of my kids and look after the house’. Only when women progress will the scripts progress too.” Well the women have advanced, but the scripts of the heroine of Indian cinema are [purposely?] lagging behind.

Raza, Shahla. “India Together: Bollywood’s ‘homely’ Heroines – September 2003.” India Together: The News in Proportion. <>.