From Mums to Monsters – Dissecting Female Roles in Indian Cinema11 min readReading Time: 8 minutes
Indian cinema is the largest producer of films around the world, with the highest ticket sales, compared to anywhere else in the world. They must be doing something right. However, how does the country that is constantly under fire for crimes against women represent their women on the big screen?
* This article contains SPOILERS.
Let’s kick off this exploration with the backbone of society – the mothers. There are many types of mothers that are prevalent in Indian cinema: the evil one, caring one, distressed one. However, these mothers I’ve picked are two characters that are, in my opinion, iconic and timeless.
English Vinglish (2012) – Shashi Godbole
The late Sridevi plays Shashi, a devoted homemaker that has a home-run business selling ladoos (an Indian sweet). Her world is tiny, revolving around her husband and two children, tending to their every need tirelessly, all while looking like a goddess. What else could her family ask for?
Shashi is constantly ridiculed by her husband and children for not being able to speak English. Her husband thinks he’s being witty by putting down his wife in front of others, all while chomping on her homemade ladoos. Her kids are embarrassed by her linguistics, all while wearing perfectly ironed clothes.
English Vinglish’s Shashi is a very restrained character. There isn’t any adultery or abuse. No shouting or screaming. However, it presents a very deep-rooted problem that many mothers would resonate with. Despite tending to her family – mouth and foot – Shashi is insulted and put down, mirroring many households in our society.
This portrayal of the everyday mother is sincere and necessary because of how sadly common it is. Seeing a mother’s self-actualisation journey while learning to demand the respect she deserves is what makes English Vinglish so special and makes Shashi a legendary mother.
Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) – Indira Thiruchelvan
If I had to choose one film that spotlights mothers and their love, this would be it. The title translates from Tamil to “a peck on the cheek” – and it’s exactly that for every mother that watches this film. The story revolves around a young girl, Amudha, and her tumultuous journey after discovering her adoption. Her adoptive mother, Indira, is played by Simran, who navigates the maternal chemistry effortlessly.
Like English Vinglish, Simran’s portrayal of Indira is extremely authentic. She is seen nagging and picking up after her children in dishevelled cotton sarees with messy hair, a sight that is common in almost every Indian household. However, Indira’s motherly protectiveness is put to the test when Amudha insists on meeting her birth mother, Shyama, played by Nandita Das. Battling her own fears and insecurities, Indira relents and supports her daughter on her quest.
Kannathil Muthamittal goes down in Tamil cinema history as one of the most raw portrayals of motherhood. Every mother’s worst fear is separation from their beloved children so understandably, Indira is seen breaking apart with every step that Amudha takes towards Shyama. To date, I don’t think any other mother character has left such a lasting impact on me.
What makes this film so special is the juxtaposition of two facets of motherhood. While we have Indira, pouring her heart and soul into keeping her daughter by her side, we also have Shyama caught in a war-torn region and being forced to abandon her new-born daughter. Both women struggle with their respective fears, helplessness and versions of motherhood, putting a cult-classic film together in the process.
There’s something powerful about female villains that we just cannot hate. Indian cinema is no exception, having churned out some purely evil women that are so bad that they’re wonderful. The one common theme across most female villains, however, is using their sexuality as a weapon. Normative female sexuality is almost unheard of in Indian cinema. Between objectifying women and presenting them in an over-sexualised persona, the notion that women too have desires and a sex drive is so foreign that they’ve made two iconic villains from the concept. Like the adage goes, there’s no woman like a woman scorned and these women take that saying to the next level.
Pachaikili Muthucharam (2007) – Smitha
Smitha aka Geetha aka Kalyani, played by Jyothika, is an expert con-woman who woos middle-aged married men into having illicit affairs with her and then proceeds to extort them. One of her victims is Venkatesh (Sarath Kumar) who figures out her grand scheme and is hell-bent on making her pay, even though he made the conscious choice to have an affair in the first place. The patriarchal irony writes itself.
Not only is Smitha (or whatever her real name is) a master con artist, she is the mastermind behind the entire crime ring, directing a group of men to do her bidding and extort unsuspecting men. In a heavily male-dominated Indian cinema space, a woman having a substantial role in a movie is rare in itself, let alone allowed to play a Don.
I love Smitha’s character – even though the movie did not do very well – because she is extremely unapologetic about how vile she is. She is not given a backstory or an excuse for her wickedness. She is presented just as – unabashedly vindictive. Even with a knife in her abdomen, she continues scheming, trying to get out of her predicament and stops only when she literally drops dead.
If there was a stock character that is an Indian femme fatale, Smitha would fit the brief. Starting out as a seductress, with all the right touches and feathery whispers, she is revealed to be a heartless villain. She does not even momentarily hesitate before hurting Venkatesh’s wife and child, as one would expect a woman’s heart to thaw when confronted with such characters.
Aitraaz (2004) – Sonia Roy
Speaking of femme fatales, Sonia, played by Priyanka Chopra, is the original and arguably first of its kind in Bollywood. She plays a power-hungry, promiscuous, supermodel socialite with a rather insatiable thirst for money and men. Don’t cast a disapproving look just yet, for she has an explanatory backstory.
Sonia meets Raj (Akshay Kumar) in her struggling supermodel days and falls head over heels in love. The two have a romantic relationship which leads to her pregnancy. She decides to terminate her pregnancy, in the best interests of her career, but Raj is hell-bent on marrying her and orders her to give birth to his child. She denies and is vilified (obviously) and he leaves her. Sonia comes back into his life years later as his boss and adamantly attempts to seduce a now-married Raj.
Aitraaz is a movie that is way ahead of its time. At the time, female villains were almost unheard of and Sonia set a daring precedence that triggered a series of female villains since. While the face value motivation behind her actions may scream lust, her animalistic hunger is the product of desperate vengeance. Chopra took a massive risk by agreeing to play this character, which went on to cement her place in the industry.
In many Indian films, the woman is only given the title of heroine for namesake. In reality, they are just there to show some skin and be nothing more than an accessory to the hero. This is especially so for movies where “love” is concerned. Indian cinema has a very long way to go in showing equal romance, which I know is not even a big ask. While the other two character types were powerful and badass, I saved the worst for last.
Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) – Leela Abraham
Despite loosely translating to “amidst the air”, there is nothing airy or light about this film. What Kaatru Veliyidai is, however, is a glorification of abuse, both physical and verbal. Leela, played by Aditi Rao Hydari, is a doe-eyed doctor who moves to Kashmir (while wearing thin cottons in blankets of snow, while the hero wears layers and layers of insulating clothing) and meets the initially charming fighter pilot, Varun (Karthi). The two fall in love, a term that I am using very loosely here.
What is initially roses and butterflies quickly turns into an extremely degrading and abusive relationship. Varun turns out to be extremely narcissistic and chauvinistic, with almost a God complex. He asks Leela to marry him and then forgets to turn up for it. He pushes her around (literally) and humiliates her in front of his friends. Logically, Leela should be bailing, right? Instead, she goes back to him over and over again, like a moth to a flame, knowing very well that she is bound to get burnt.
Leela is set up as an accomplished doctor who comes from a military family. However, she is portrayed as nothing more than a pathetic puppy that constantly runs after a man that walks all over her. This major disservice is not isolated to this film. Many Indian films attempt to make a point at the expense of assassinating a woman’s character. In Kaatru Veliyidai, Leela’s entire identity, intelligence and confidence is completely wiped out to make way for Varun’s massive ego and self-obsession.
Remo (2016) – Kavya
Like Leela, Remo’s leading lady is also a doctor. Kavya, played by Keerthy Suresh, fits the homely, traditional woman archetype to the tee. She is engaged and is simply going about her life when one day, Siva aka Remo (Sivakarthikeyan) spots her. He quickly figures out that she is engaged and is not interested in him but when has that ever stopped a lovelorn Indian hero?
Siva then disguises himself as Remo, a female nurse, and forges a close friendship with Kavya. Remo essentially cons Kavya into confiding all her deepest worries in “her”, just so Siva can use that information as ammunition to get closer to Kavya. Sounds like a psychological thriller right? Nope, Remo is categorised as a romantic comedy.
The problem with the portrayal of Kavya is essentially how unintelligent she is shown in the film. She is set up to be a doctor who saves lives yet she is portrayed as a deeply conflicted and fickle woman who cannot identify her stalker through a disastrous disguise. Makes me wonder if Indian cinema has a problem with female doctors.
The kicker is when Kavya finally finds out about all this towards the end of the movie and is somehow not revolted by the brazen manipulation, but is drawn to him regardless and the both live happily ever after.
The above examples are some of the good, the bad and the ugly examples that stood out to me over the years. Having said that, there are many progressive women-centric films that has hit the screens over the last couple of years. Aruvi, Chapaak, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Aram, Queen are some noteworthy movies that have tackled issues such as acid attacks, lesbian marriages and sexually transmitted diseases, effectively but slowly shifting the female representation to one that is more positive and less archetypal.
While Indian cinema is headed in the right direction, albeit at a snail’s pace, the chunk of the content continues to normalise abuse and misogyny. Glorifying stalker tendencies and the inability to take “No” for an answer is a deep-rooted problem in the country, with films like this not helping the cause. I’ll let you take a look at my social media direct messages, if you don’t believe me.
Banner Image Credit: Film Still of ‘Madhubala‘