As the year ends, we look back at how Bollywood treated its female characters in 2023 and analyze what it implies for the movies as well as us.
In 2022, Bollywood saw the release of impactful movies such as Gangubai Kathiwadi, Darlings, Gehraiyaan, and more. Women took center stage and portrayed multifaceted characters, showcasing happiness, messiness, trauma, strength, drama, and various other dimensions of human experience. This positive shift was largely attributed to the efforts of female filmmakers who crafted these narratives and characters. But let's talk about 2023. When it comes to gender in movies, there were still female characters all over the place, but the growth factor? Not so much. Surprisingly, it was a bit of a dude-fest at the box office this year. Masculinity was the reigning champ.
The year started with Pathaan, where Deepika Padukone's glamorous spy avatar, Rubai, stole the show. In my review, I pointed out lingering sexism – Rubai was sexualized and played a secondary role, relying on Pathaan to save her. While Pathaan showed progress from the damsel-in-distress trope, other action movies didn't fare any better for women. In Jawan, despite being a senior cop, Narmada was sidelined, and Aishwarya fell prey to the trope of women dying to spur men into revenge. Azad's 'girls' were portrayed as looking up to him as their savior. (Read more about it here.) Zoya, a strong character, was sidelined in Tiger 3. Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan had Bhagya as a decorative lamp, and despite Manu being strong-headed, she was treated like a child in Dunki. In Pippa, while the brothers worked in the field, the sister was confined to a desk because, apparently, women still didn't belong in the field. Movies like Gadar 2, Shehzada, Ganapath, and more continued the trend of women being practically invisible. These films were all about men treating women as mere accessories.
Conditions were worse in movies where women were degraded. In Tu Jhooti Main Makkar, Tinni ends up giving in to a guy who just can't take no for an answer and settles with his family against her wishes, pushing the tired idea that women who don't live with their in-laws are the bad guys. And seriously, it's 2023, can we not question why only women are expected to leave their families after marriage? Then Tiku Weds Sheru paired 21-year-old Avneet Kaur with 49-year-old Nawazuddin Siddiqui and weirdly normalized domestic violence. Satyaprem Ki Katha started with a noble cause, justice for a rape victim, but somehow ended up making it all about a male savior. In Bawaal, a disabled Nisha struggled to get attention from a husband who couldn't care less. And the grand finale of bad choices, Animal, where the protagonist pulls his wife's bra strap, points a gun at her, and shames her for period pain. Women in the film have no authority and no dialogue. They just stand there while the hero plays the superior yet victim card.
Yet, amidst the challenges, there were beacons of positivity. Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway showcased a woman fiercely challenging international law. Afwaah shows Nivi courageously opposing majority politics despite the risks to her life. Rani and her mother, Anjali, from Rocky and Rani Kii Prem Kahaani shattered stereotypes at every turn, with the lingerie shopping scene being a standout moment of the year. Thank You for Coming might not have been the most feminist movie, but it granted women the freedom to just be. Sukhee, too, stood against the stereotypical narrative that mothers must always sacrifice. Choosing her happiness and leisure was a courageous act in a society accustomed to expecting unpaid labor from women as the norm. In films like Goldfish and Three of Us, women were given the space to grieve, portraying two women grappling with memory loss and grief but with sensitivity and authority.
Examining the array of films, it appears that 2023 took a step back, falling into the trap of assigning stereotypical roles to the majority of its female characters, with a few exceptions. Yet, whether this is a passing trend or a lasting trope is a question that only time will answer.
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