Bollywood was coined by journalist Amit Khanna in the 70s to describe the increasingly trending Indian film industry as Bombay’s Hollywood. The first Indian movie – Raja Harishchandra – was released in 1913. What is strange about the first Indian film experiment was that the women characters were all played by men. And what is even stranger was that it wasn’t a problem at all to the very engaged audiences. This ready acceptability of the compromised plot is not necessarily associated with a lack of concern for artistic integrity but with a prioritized concern for Indian traditions, where women in cinema initially were unthinkable (1). Alternatively, this could be seen as the place where the mutation started, producing a unique disease that would define Bollywood for almost a century – the disposable ladies syndrome (DLS). A strange disease where women are so expendable that they could even be replaced by the opposite sex.
In the 1920s, Indian cinema had already found a large, receptive audience. So receptive that the society was willing to rethink the initial impossibility of women in cinema. It was in the 1920s were the roles of women were finally played by actual women (1). Yet, the women who first arrived in Indian cinema were either of foreign descent or of the lower castes (1). The implied collective message was that it was okay for these women to be in cinema, not our women. By the 1930s, women of the upper classes and highly educated women began entering the cinema, challenging the idea that working as an actress was a dishonorable choice for a career (1). These early actresses included Zubeida in Alam Ara in 1931 and Durga Khote in Ayodheycha Raja in 1932. Strangely enough, India was willing to rethink yet another social norm of traditional society under the spell of its cinema.
During the 1940s-1960s, Indian cinema mostly produced movies that were mythological and inspired by Hindu theology (1). This was at a time where India was preoccupied with introducing notions of Indian-ness to a country recently independent and messily-partitioned1. The Hindu ideology is visible in Indian cinema in the form of Sanskrit terms, Hindu festivals, rituals and iconography (2). Even though Indian cinema has always shed the spotlight on Indians from other sects including Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims, they were always ‘othered’ (2). In fact, the ‘othering’ of all but one ideal narrative was so pronounced that multiple states created parallel film industries to represent narratives from their sidelined states. This includes the Tamil film industry – Kollywood, the Punjabi film industry – Pollywood, the Marathi film industry, and the Malayalam film industry.
During the 40s and 50s, Indian cinema was the main forum to examine domestic social issues such as dowry, polygamy in Hindu theology, and economic conditions that force women into prostitution (3). The movies of that time had a man around which the entire plot is centered, with the woman effectively filling in a supporting role. The female character was always an archetypal embodiment of the ideal Indian woman, either Ganga or Sita – the two female Hindu Goddesses (1). The definition of womanhood was always to be found in its fragility, voluntary self-sacrifice, and a willing subscription to live a life with second-hand happiness as the supportive wife or the sacrificing mother. Indeed, the woman in the story was nothing but a high-paid accessory. An affirmation of just how marginal women were to the plot can be seen in the difference of status that they occupy today compared to their male counterparts. For example, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, and Raj Kapoor have all been raised to god-like statuses, where their female counterparts are almost forgotten (1).
During the 1970s, things weren’t going economically well within India, with unemployment soaring. Indian cinema was able to mirror poor socio-economic conditions on the ground mainly by what Cinema scholars are now calling the ‘angry young man’ theme. During the angry young man era, Indian cinema was still largely socialist in its messages. Similarly, in the 70s another new trend arrived to problematically stay in Bollywood; item numbers (3). In Mumbai street slang, ‘item’ is an insulting term for an attractive woman that male harassers routinely use for cat-calling. An item number is a dance sequence where the item is obviously the actress, and the intention is to hyper-sexualize her. The camera – always male in its gaze – is seen to be zooming in and out of the item’s revealed body parts, with objectifying lyrics playing in the background (3). Initially, the actresses who were performing the item numbers weren’t even a part of the plot at all (3). They were only in the movie as a guest appearance for the duration of one item song. Item songs were so powerful at selling box-office tickets that production houses marketed entire movies on this one guest appearance.
By the 1980s, women started to become more central to the plot of the story and as a result, started to occupy more screen-time (1). It was also in the 1980s where women started to appear casually in fight scenes, challenging gender stereotypes and departing from the mandatory image of the woman as the victim (1). Any positive effects at challenging gender stereotypes were instantly negated when lead female characters started performing item numbers themselves.
In 1991, India opened its economy to the global market. It was this economic liberalization that marks the most noticeable shift in the narrative of the ‘Ideal Indian’ in Bollywood (2). Suddenly, the same rich men who were automatically the symbol of injustice, poverty, and corruption in the past became the glorified goal that Indian men should strive for. The narrative of the 90s centered men as the main patriarch of the family who was almost always powerful industrialists and business tycoons (3). The 90s also saw a revival for nostalgic Indian traditions such as the utopian joint family, gender roles, and what it means to be Indian (2). For instance, the plot of the most successful film of the 90s – Hum Aapke Hain Kaun – romanticizes the utopian joint family, wealth, the submissive female, the authority of the family, and sacrificing the personal desire for familial obligations (2). The revival of Indian traditions was meant to offer reassurance for the nervous traditional family that neo-liberalization wasn’t going to be a threat to their values. Bollywood was attempting to show India how to reconcile modernity with globalization, one film at a time.
Currently, Bollywood produces more films than any other film industry in the world, which also means it has a never-ending need for more actors and actresses (3). Yet, instead of holding on to well-established actresses, Bollywood has normalized pushing out female stars right at the peak of their careers when they either get married or hit 35, whichever comes first. Usually, they’re pushed out for a younger generation of new, inexperienced actresses who are no match for the acting superiority of their predecessors. This has been an ongoing trend that is becoming more visible now that Bollywood has acquired all its influence and international audience. In fact, the pattern is so acknowledged within Bollywood that two movies were made to highlight how female actresses are pushed out; Fashion in 2008 and Heroine in 2012. There’s certainly no shortage of evidence in the media provided by first-hand accounts on the way Bollywood pushes out the popular and the well-established for the younger and shinier. The history of women in Bollywood is depressing. And the present isn’t any more uplifting. The way Bollywood pulls the carpet from underneath symbols of the Ideal Indian woman surely sends a message to a young generation of Indian girls; that even the ideal woman, is after all a replaceable woman.
1. (Re) Thinking women in cinema: The changing narrative structure in Bollywood. Manzar, Benazir and Aravind, Aju. 1, s.l. : South Asian Popular Culture, 2019, Vol. 17.
2. Consuming Bollywood. Roy, Anjali Gera. 2, s.l. : Journal of Religion and Film, 2020, Vol. 24.
3. Objectification of women in Bollywood item numbers. Slatewala, Zahabia. Z. s.l. : Proquest, 2019.