Are we finally accepting Bollywood heroines in lead roles?

Bollywood, India’s most celebrated movie industry, is more than just entertainment for Indians. It is the portrayal of India’s aspirations, and a vicarious celebration of life. Indians do not just blindly follow their favorite stars, they are deeply influenced by the messages, overt and subliminal, in our mainstream cinema. Bollywood has influenced everything from the way we groom (think of Aamir Khan’s goatee in “Dil chahta hain” or Salman Khan’s disheveled mane in “Tere Naam“), to the way we travel (3 Idiots literally killed Ladakh, ZNMD made Spain India’s most aspired holiday). It is needless to say that the portrayal of relationships, and characters, has a deep impact in what we consider ‘normal’ or ‘desired’ in real life. For the 90s Indian teenage girl ,”Raj” of DDLJ was ultimate life goals. He was the rich, charming NRI, who would always ‘save the damsel’ from all impending distresses in life. For ages, mainstream Bollywood celebrated the ‘abala nari’, regardless of her station, education, or modernity, who yearned for only one thing in life – the protection of a ‘good man’. But, have the Bollywood heroines evolved since?

Simran grows up and gets a life!

Through the ’90s and early 2000s, female leads were merely props in Indian movies. They served the purpose of beautification of the frame, with insinuating dances, skin show, and peripheral emotional support for the ‘larger than life’ hero. Handful of women-centric movies, like Mother India, Aandhi, or Arth, featuring some of the best talents (Nargis, Suchitra Sen, Shabana Azmi), were quickly labeled “arty”.

But a lot has happened since these ’90s kids’ have grown up. The millenial Simran doesn’t give two hoots for Raj’s protection anymore. 

No one killed Jessica, Kahaani, Mary Kom, Neerja, English Vinglish, Piku, NH10, Angry Indian Godesses, Queen, Margarita with a Straw et. al, have paved the way for female-led movies in Bollywood. These films are being widely accepted, and loved by the audience. 

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Numbers don’t crunch, yet

Of course, women-centric movies still don’t make as much money as those starring the big male stars.  As a result, there is a huge pay gap in the industry. But, it is heartening that, after being Salman’s arm candy forever, even someone like Sonakshi Sinha, shows the guts to handle two movies on her own able shoulders – Akira and Noor! Despite their lukewarm box office records, the movies show the road to a brighter future. Even in quintessential romantic movies, the women are standing up to obsolete patriarchy, and breaking the molds of ‘typical, sanskari’ female role models. Veronica of Cocktail, Naina of YJHD, Leela of RamLeela (played by Deepika), Ayesha of Wake up Sid (played by Konkona), Veera of Highway (played by Alia) are powerful, without being larger than life. That’s hopeful!

But, Item Number?

The normalization of item numbers, in the recent past, seems to be in direct contrast to this move against objectification of women in cinema. What we need to understand, though, is that majority of demand for Bollywood still comes from a segment of Indian population, who watch cinema to escape reality. Most are men, who are looking for release of sexual tension, after a hard day of work. They do not care about our feminist Goddesses. They pay their hard-earned dough to watch a seductress in action. And, Bollywood is following the trail of money that trickles in.

What the think tanks of Bollywood need to consider is that they have a powerful weapon to change mainstream consciousness. Cinema actually has a huge influence on how the less sophisticated gentry think, or the way they behave socially. We can use this media to influence the mindset of people, and combat the rape culture. It would mean making lesser money for a certain duration, an investment towards the country’s future that the big filmmakers can surely afford. It remains to be seen how many of them have the intent, and the risk-appetite to pursue that path. 

Our progress might be slow, but we are breaking the stereotype and heading in the right direction. Cheers to that!


About Nayana Chowdhury

Software Engineer by profession, writer by heart. I am a person who loves writing in her leisure time.



Nayana Chowdhury

Software Engineer by profession, writer by heart. I am a person who loves writing in her leisure time.

2 thoughts on “Are we finally accepting Bollywood heroines in lead roles?

  • June 28, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    nice article.hope we get more movies like queen, kahani or english vinglish in future.

  • June 29, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    English Vinglish and Queen are deeply ingrained in my heart. Yes, Bollywood is making a move towards better content, while the “masala” movies will also continue to get the moolah!

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