Why Do Women Empowerment Movies Seldom Work in Bollywood?

Why Do Women Empowerment Movies Seldom Work in Bollywood?

The other day, I was watching Gulaab Gang.

It was a lonely Friday afternoon in the office, one of those rare days in IT Life when you don’t have any bugs left to fix. In such moments of pensiveness, the much cussed “F-word” (no, not the one that means sex) does wonders for me. It manages to pep up my mood in ways that even surprise text messages from my crush cannot. Thus, plugging in the ear-phones, I began scourging through recent Bollywood movies on the topic that I hadn’t watched already, when Gulaab Gang caught my attention.

Gulaab Gang

Set in a small, orthodox village named Madhavpur, Gulaab Gang is the story of Rajjo, a woman who is inflicted with a peculiar “disease” right from her childhood: she wants to study. Brutally snubbed by her cruel step-mother, and treated with black magic for supposedly being possessed, Rajjo stubbornly holds on to her passion for completing her education.

Years pass by. Now an adult Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit) has set up an Ashram, her own abode where she shelters distressed women and provides free education to little girls. Here, the inmates don pink (gulaabi in Hindi) saris and work as craftswomen for a living. Alongside, they are trained the art of self-defense to smack the hell out of wife-beating husbands and corrupt politicians. Rajjo is lovingly addressed as “Didi” by her girls, and together they are the Gulaab Gang.

 

The opening is quite interesting, to be honest. Heavily and unofficially inspired from real life heroine, Sampat Pal Devi and her “Gulaabi Gang”, with absolutely no credits given to them, the obvious “women empowerment” mood of the film is set in from the very first shots.

Nari Shakti is a ghisa-pita theme in Bollywood, with the central plot mostly woven around good, unblemished women fighting evil, incorrigible men. Fortunately, director Soumik Sen avoids such clichés here. He involves the fairer sex into the dirty acts of female oppression, making an important point that women are as responsible as men for the flourishment of patriarchy. This is beautifully captured as some 30-40 mins into the film enters the negative lead, Sumitra Devi, the quintessential evil politician played by Juhi Chawla. Heartless, ruthless and family-less, this woman can do or say anything to anyone with a lopsided smile on her lips and zero remorse in her heart.

Some loopholes in the plot notwithstanding, the first 60 minutes of the film are absolutely fantastic and whistle-worthy – especially for feminist viewers. Credit goes to the stunning performances of Priyanka Bose and Divya Jagdale, and some credible background score. But after the one-hour mark, illogical and pretentious sub-plots creep in, and the entertainment factor gradually diminishes till it becomes non-existent. The plot becomes stale and gloomy, and the film sinks into the abyss in the same velocity with which it had dreamed of soaring high.

It does resurrect itself in the end though, as the brave and selfless Rajjo walks into prison with a smile, having succeeded in her mission of installing a good school for girls in the village. But even the prison walls cannot hold her back from the reformation of the patriarchal system. In jail, she dons her “Didi” avatar yet again, spreading education among illiterate female inmates. Director Soumik Sen deftly uses the end credits to let us know about some amazing but unknown women who are struggling each day to make life better for the women around them. A very novel concept.

When the end credits began rolling, my first thought was – How could a touching movie with such a novel concept escape the attention of so many people? But that was my misjudgment. Put away all feminist sentiments for a moment, and the film appears to be nothing but a wasted opportunity.

Bollywood isn’t entirely incapable of producing good films with gems like Mirch Masala, Arth, etc to its credit. However, in recent times, the Bombay industry has become quite handicapped in capturing realism, and more so, on female-centric films that specifically deal with sexism. In a nutshell, there are 3 factors that contribute heavily for such failure: lack of plot, no believability and overt preachiness. Like Rajjo, Bollywood directors too are inflicted with a unique disease. When it comes to movies on Women Power, either they go all preachy with cheesy dialogues, dragging in Durga, Kali, Sita, Savitri and every other female from Hindu pantheon, or they transform the female protagonists into Mountain Ninjas. Such OTT action look relatable in Salman Khan’s Dabangg or Rohit Shetty’s car-flying Golmaal, but in a serious movie that deals with a grave and prevalent issue, and indirectly claims to be high-brow and authentic? Nope, not one bit. While some elements of Gulaab Gang are good, the movie never rises above from being a make-believe, masala potboiler.

Every time Rajjo and her team cracks a case or punishes a perpetrator, they break out into song and dance in typical Bollywood style, disrupting the flow and robbing off the seriousness of the issue. Divya and Priyanka are convincing in their respective parts, but Madhuri looks too fancy for a rural activist. Her eye-liner and foundation mostly remain intact even after she has just defeated twenty hefty men in a hand-to-hand fight. Her hair is rarely out of place. Neither is her city-like demeanour.

Sampat Pal Devi
Sampat Pal Devi of the real “Gulaabi Gang”

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The actress is capable of much more without a doubt. But somehow, in this movie, Dixit lacks the raw strength that one generally expects on the countenance of an activist like Sampat Pal or Rajjo. Despite hard-hitting dialogues like “Rod is God” in rural accent, she looks nothing more than a glamorous “Didi” clad in pink, hand-loom saris, occasionally indulging in Bollywood-style latkas and jhatkas in the middle of important scenes. And when the going gets tough, she takes up the axe to combat the evil. That brings me to the fight sequences.

Madhuri

Movies with fighter-women are indeed admirable and entertaining. But let’s face it. Rajjo and her team are not cousins of Wonder Woman hailing from Amazonia tribe. They are plain humans and self-taught fighters with no professional training at all. Yet, somewhere in the middle of the movie, when the girls in pink confront a gang of rogues stealing cereals from the village store, the former begin exhibiting stunts and skills as though they have been trained by none other than Mutants of the First Class. Rajjo becomes Rajni (beloved Thalaiva), as she and her girls fell men double their size as well number in no time with mere bamboo sticks and axes.

This is where the movie detaches itself from reality and the much-trodden cliches set in. Would it have taken too much effort to cut down the Matrix-like stunts and depict the moment with more women fighters and believable action sequences? In this context, I can’t help but compare it with Tapsi Pannu’s kickass face-off in the movie Baby. Now, that’s what I call a convincing girl-fight. Worse still is the penultimate action sequence where Rajjo alone overpowers a dozen evil goons on her way from the city with nothing but an axe.

No wonder, Indian audience don’t take Women Empowerment movies seriously these days. Thankfully Gulaab Gang avoids the sanctimonious dialogues, but the stunts clubbed with stereotypes and unnecessary song-dance sequences make the movie a wasted effort of a director who meant well.

Another “Women Empowerment” movie that comes to my mind at this moment is Mardaani. 

This one was a pretty good film starring a fantastic actress. But that was till the last 15 minutes. Because, when things were going just fine, director Pradeep Sarkar inserted an unnecessary one-to-one fight sequence between Rani Mukherjee and the kingpin played by Tahir Bhasin.   Preachy? Over the top? Make-believe? I am not sure, how to describe it, but it doesn’t seem to be the demand of the script, but rather a chance showcase to “woman power”. While the point of the director is good in the context of the plot, he loses the subtlety which makes such cinematic moments far more impactful that fancy dialogues like “Mard banke kitna uchhalta hain dikha!”.

Pink too steps into the borderline preachy category, but escapes narrowly from being yet another clichéd case, thanks to the realistic female characters, superb performances and most of all – good direction.

Back in the 1990s, a couple of sleazy “Women Empowerment” films had been released. Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat and Mehendi, both starring Rani Mukherjee.  But that was the 90s. Being loud and OTT was in fashion back in those days. Remember the much-spoofed last court room scene of superhit movie, Damini?  Meenakshi Sheshadri’s stunning performance had made it up, though.

But now, times are changing. Less is more. Smaller gestures make a bigger impact. Now, we need more movies like Lunch Box, Hindi Medium, Kapoor & Sons, Vicky Donor, Lootera, Kahaani, Masaan, English Vinglish – alongside, of course, the entertainers – that would approach human emotions and social causes with a little more nuance, precision, and dexterity. Here, I’d like to mention that though not really a masterpiece, Lipstick Under My Burkha scores high on this front, as it explores women’s sexuality and psyche without treading the moralistic road.

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4 Replies on “Why Do Women Empowerment Movies Seldom Work in Bollywood?

  1. EnglishVinglish happened to appear like a women-power movie too set in a dramatic world. What about Nil Battery Sannaata which is watchable for feminists like you and me even if its rather touchy feely and epic-like ? Kahaani 1&2 also were good(3.5* movies).

    1. Thanks Amith for mentioning English Vinglish. I missed mentioning that. Will surely do. Havent seen Nil Battery yet…as for Kahaani, yes they are FANTASTIC films. But they are thrillers with women in the lead. Not exactly on “women empowerment” in the light of sexism. Of course, Vidya Bagchi is a strong woman, but the movie has no connection with sexism as such. That is why I avoided mentioning it…:)

  2. Hi Amrita,
    I guess this is your first blog post under amritawrites cause I have not seen one earlier. I read the whole article. Though it is a bit long as compared to the others from different blog sites but it is full on engaging. Some of your thoughts are unique and genuine and I wish you all the best for upcoming articles.

    1. Hi Aranya,

      Thanks for your feedback. This is not my first blog post. I have written more articles…You can navigate through the menus…

      My last blogpost was a short story –
      “Thank you, My Ex” under Stories & Poems.

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