In this era where a huge range of content is available around the world for every group of viewers, our very own Bollywood doesn’t seem to move beyond the done-to-death topic of hero worship. The recent Salman Khan starrer Radhe: The Most Wanted Bhai confirms this, with the director and producer focussed only on cashing in on ‘Bhai frenzy’, reducing Disha Patani to a bimbo, though she proved herself a much better dancer than Salman himself in the Seeti Maar track!
The movie was trounced in almost all the reviews and managed just a 1.7/10 ranking in IMDB. “Diya (Disha Patani), the most dim-witted woman you would have seen on this side of the Equator. When Diya first meets Radhe, he pretends to be blind and makes a crass joke about how, if he had a sister, he would have named her Nadiya (or ‘na diya’). She meets him again, but doesn’t bother to ask him how he stopped being blind in a day,” wrote Priyanka Roy, critiquing the film for The Telegraph.
Meaty, strong roles written for women are so rare in Indian cinema that they can be counted on one’s fingers till date. A Mardaani, a Bulbbul, or a Thappad will come around once in two years in comparison with the Dabangg series, Housefull series, Laxmii, Simmba and many others — where, the actresses happily gyrate to item numbers and simply look appealing.
The general opinion is that the internalised misogyny in the industry creates a dearth of impactful female-centric roles, so much so that actresses are often shown on the silver screen as damsel in distress in need of rescuing, because that’s the way patriarchial society is till date.
That’s not entirely true, feels film critic Komal Nahta. “Katrina Kaif in Tiger Zinda Hai did death-defying stunts with superstar Salman Khan. There are many such examples. But yes, several films show heroines as dim witted, opposite superstars. That adds a comic flavour; people get an opportunity to laugh. A lot of people find it cute too. No offense meant to the fairer sex. After all, they are films, not reality,” Nahta explains.
It’s never enough to make a film like Raazi, which is about female courage, and leave it at that. In a typical Bollywood movie, women are objectified, they are treated as accessories to the male lead of the story, and some are even portrayed as weak, to make the man look stronger. According to film director Rahul Dholakia, who is helming Shabaash Mithu featuring Taapsee Pannu as lead character, “Unfortunately, it’s only about the star who does everything — they even do comedy. In Hindi cinema, we don’t give much importance to cinematography or production design. So according to me even technicians are marginalised.” He however, feels the bad guy gets to do something extra!
Talking of heroines / leading ladies, Rahul says, “They are eye candy for songs and there to please male voyeuristic audiences. It’s not about morality or anything else, it’s about commerce. We are a male chauvinistic society, like it or not, but the biggest Salman Khan followers are women!”
The scope of misogyny and male chauvinistic roles doesn’t end with Bollywood. It’s the same in Tollywood. “Big hero films are typically written for the masses and cater to the fans of that hero. So, most of the ‘meat’ in the screenplay is devoted to the hero and the heroine is reduced to a garnish, so to speak,” says film director Nandini Reddy. “The heroine’s sole purpose is to participate in the songs and in a scene or two in between the action episodes.”
Nandini however notes that there are some films of mainstream heroes in which the heroine’s role gives purpose to the hero’s character - for example Ghajini. “But even there, the drive is clearly towards the male protagonist. The film is marketed as the hero’s film and is written as such,” she adds.
Asked whether there is scope for a change in the near future, Nandini says, “No. It’s like asking whether we will get idli in a pizza store. Speaking purely from a marketing perspective, mass films are targeted at a specific audience to whom the female actor is not as relevant. So, until the audience starts rejecting stories that mindlessly cater to “heroism” alone, this won’t change.”