In the decades that have whipped past Indian cinema, women have gone from being portrayed as instruments of devotion and desire to agents of fate. And although the industry has a ways to go before it completely topples the dynamics of gender bias in storytelling, a few Bollywood movies showcase strong female leads, effectively acing the Bechdel test. We round up a list of a few that are iconic.
When it comes to cinema, the role of women has been largely informed by the social climate of the times. The dutiful, enduring mother of the 80s, for instance, was reflective of the era’s prevalent patriarchal beliefs, which relegated women to the kitchen and favoured submissive traits. The 90s saw economic liberalisation and greater spending power of the masses, which paved the way for big-budget action movies. While male characters showcased their fighting prowess, women were reduced to being damsels-in-distress.
Today, after years of societal evolution, women have gone from being plot devices to further the male lead’s character development to having considerable emotional depth and personalities of their own. And as more women begin taking their place both behind and in front of the camera, the narratives of films have shifted to address feminine struggles, sensibilities, strength, and complexity like never before. Several movies now pass the Bechdel test, producing raw and authentic performances.
In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we take a look at a few strong female leads whose journeys continue to linger in the minds of audiences.
Bollywood movies with strong female leads
Juhi Chaturvedi’s script brings to life an independent, quintessentially modern woman who lives life on her terms. Piku struggles as she juggles her romantic and professional lives while looking after her ageing, perpetually constipated father. Sexually liberated and unapologetically opinionated, there are layers to this female lead, whose empathy is well balanced by her stern disregard for being told what to do. And neither the characters nor the film itself labels her for it.
Raw, vulnerable moments that underscore the contemplation around selling the ancestral house or bearing the brunt of being a full-time daughter are both refreshingly relatable and memorable.
Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)
Four unique female characters are the leads of this movie, which chronicles their personal journeys as they untangle themselves from the shackles of patriarchy and societal norms. Small acts of courage shape the storyline, and some of the most memorable are that of Usha buaji. A character that often eludes the big screen, this 55-year old widow is a matriarch who’s got a secret crush on her young swimming teacher. But the fear of facing societal repercussions for having sexual fantasies at her age doesn’t shut her down, it merely leads her to create a parallel life. As she embraces erotic novels and has steamy phone conversations, she gets closer to stepping out of the mould that society places older women in, blossoming in a way that almost makes her forget her own name. Once she rediscovers her beauty and complexity, the film poignantly normalises much of what is considered shameful even today.
A cult-favourite that continues to garner praise for its brilliant depiction of how vulnerability and strength go hand-in-hand, Queen follows the life of Rani, who decides to go on her honeymoon alone after her fiance calls off the wedding. Sheltered all her life, she faces abandonment, heartbreak, and loneliness head-on, and her solo journey is lined with a certain innocence and wit that few other movies have been able to depict. As she learns to love herself and stands a bit taller, she makes a strong case for self-discovery and knowing your worth, both of which are important aspects of navigating the world, especially as a woman.
Margarita With A Straw (2014)
Exploring themes of disability and female sexuality, this movie looks at Laila, an opinionated woman with cerebral palsy who leaves the country to study in the USA, falling in love in the process. The themes of disability and female sexuality are underexplored in mainstream Indian cinema and this movie takes it a step further by introducing same-sex relationships into the storyline.
Laila doesn’t address intimacy in hush-hush tones and normalises desire, vehemently reprimanding her mother for walking in on her during an intimate moment. In doing so, she directly opposes the societal stigma around both subjects. Besides, despite living with a disability, the film does not extend sympathy to Laila, who chooses to live by herself, heading out of the country to have access to the right infrastructure for the same. Flirtatious and confident, Laila’s sensitive and powerful portrayal has the ability to release the pressure on women to keep their sexuality under wraps.
Dear Zindagi (2016)
An insomniac filmmaker with a tumultuous career and romantic trajectory meets an unconventional psychologist in Dear Zindagi. Kaira, the lead, is capable and driven but bogged down by life. Her mental health struggles are relatable, to say the least. And her courage in choosing to get help regardless of the stigma that it might bring is inspiring. Although therapy is not quite as cushy as depicted in the movie, her gradual acknowledgement of her tendencies and commitment to healing is motivating. And when she shuts down a room full of people for misunderstanding mental health, she echoes the thoughts of a generation of young women.
A policewoman on a mission to unravel a child-trafficking cartel, Mardaani is one of those rare female-led action films that leave an impact. The intelligent and honest lone wolf Shivani balances her relationship with her co-workers, orphaned niece, and the street child Pyari with sensitivity. And when Pyari gets abducted, her zeal to uncover the suspect is seen as honourable, instead of being condemned as emotionally charged. As she takes on goons and solves the case, making her way through each challenge, Shivani spotlights the work of many underrepresented women in the Indian police force.
Set in the 1950s, this movie looks at the life of Zubeidaa, an impulsive, courageous and stubborn woman who’s ahead of her time. The aspiring, ambitious actress marries a prince and has a rocky relationship, choosing to eventually break free and bear the consequences. Her rebellious spirit is depicted by her refusal to settle, either in her career or her relationships with men who let her down. This is evident when she chooses to shoot a movie despite being told not to by her father and sets out to find love after her first marriage fails. You can’t help but root for her as she navigates life’s challenges, refusing to alter her values for an easy way out.
Yet another highly celebrated woman-centric thriller that is carried by one pregnant Vidya Bagchi, who’s determined to uncover the mystery around her husband’s death. While Bollywood action sequences are known to feature a blur of fighting sequences and well-proportioned male leads, the vulnerability and strength that Vidya holds through the course of the events that transpire make this one a must-watch. Not only is she wise but a woman in charge, switching between different personalities to get closer to solving the case. Every other character in the story takes a backseat, merely supporting her in her pursuit. Perhaps the only thing more memorable than the final reveal is the trailblazing character who uncovered it.
English Vinglish (2012)
When it comes to raw, real portrayals on screen, few come close to Shashi from English Vinglish. Depicting the patriarchal threadwork of Indian families and the colonial hangup that continues to grip the subcontinent, the movie follows the journey of a housewife who’s often mocked for not knowing English. To reassert her value, she begins learning the language. Along the way, she gracefully dodges the challenges that come her way, learning not just to come into her own but also to expand her small social circle. In doing so, she spotlights many homemakers in the country who are undervalued for the work they put in. There’s nothing dramatic about her journey and while Shashi still fits neatly into the mould of a patient, loving wife and mother, her small acts of quiet rebellion make her inspiring.
Tumhari Sulu (2017)
Another story that looks at the life of a sidelined homemaker, Tumhari Sulu looks at Sulu, who’s painted by the same lens that the society paints married women. When she wins a contest and auditions for a night show, her intelligent, bold, and humorous sides come out of the woodworks. Traditionally, married women are deemed settled and content by Indian society, with the ambition being reserved for the few individuals who choose not to enter wedlock and spend hours cooped up in a swanky office space. However, Sulu reflects the hopes and dreams of several ambitious homemakers and dares to act on them. Vivacious and wise, the fact that she needs to lead a dual life to truly be herself is a stern comment on regressive societal sensibilities, and her blatant disregard for them stands out.
The supernatural story of a child bride who grows into a defiant woman, this film’s strength lies in what’s left unsaid. It managed to address several pertinent themes like a condemnation of female sexuality and the way the male gaze dictates the goings-on of the world. The lead, Bulbbul, is not a pushover and challenges male entitlement. Her casual defiance and disregard to the men around her are interspersed with instances of murder in the village, which are quickly attributed to witches since the victims are all men. The theme of witches is a Joan-of-Arc-esque metaphor for the way women are celebrated when they conform and vilified and demonised for having desires. And while there’s a lot to unpack with the storyline, the strong female lead is definitely a memorable one.
This highly-discussed, frustratingly relatable film follows Minal Arora who, after being molested by a politician’s nephew, approaches the legal system for justice. Her character mirrors many women across the country who move out of their homes, enjoy a good party and are sexually liberated. As the legal proceedings for her case against her molester transpire, she finds herself vehemently defending her way of life, a stark reflection of the judgement most women shoulder for taking the reins of their lives. The court proceedings spotlight male privilege and the importance of consent in sexual relationships, all highly prevalent subjects that society needs to confront. She’s unapologetic about the kind of life she wants to live. It’s not just this courage that makes Minal stand out, it’s her determination in the face of fear that lingers in the minds of viewers.
Feature and hero image: Courtesy Pink Trailer/YouTube