Looking back, 2019: The Woke Women of Bollywood

Some of the top performers and characters written for women, by women, pushed the envelope on gender in Bollywood in 2019.

ByNiraja Rao
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Looking back, 2019: The Woke Women of Bollywood
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At the end of November 2019, there was a flurry of excitement in India. Radhika Apte had just been nominated in the Best Actress in a Drama Series category at the International Emmy Awards. Apte was nominated for her role in Lust Stories (aired on Netflix), a compendium of short films made on lust — the first Indian actress to be nominated. 

Apte had burst onto India’s film scene in 2015 with Sujoy Ghosh’s Ahalya. It was a film that also opened the doors to the biggest shake up of the decade: independent short films and, later, streamed international content, also known as OTT content, first by Netflix, then Amazon Prime and now Apple TV and Disney+. 

Today, the quality of content — including streaming services from all Indian broadcasters and producers like Alt Balaji — has created a variety of accessible entertainment that threatens the monopoly of television and mainstream films. There is a new way of presentation and distribution, and a whole new set of stories waiting to be told to an audience more exposed to and aware of content across the world. 

In some small way, Radhika Apte shone the torch and it seems fitting that she was nominated for a show called Lust Stories! A title and theme that Bollywood has never mainstreamed or allowed a woman to helm. Until now.

So, this nomination is a sort of win in itself. 

In an interview to The Indian Express, Apte had said in 2015: “I don’t have any barrier of language or medium. I don’t care for an image, so I don’t have to think about what to do or not to do. Being a Maharashtrian, I got Marathi films, then Rahul Bose saw my play and offered me a Bengali film and then Ram Gopal Varma offered me Rakhta Charitra in Hindi and Telugu and that’s how I ended up doing films in all these languages. But I thoroughly enjoy international films and that’s something I’m always on the lookout for.” In April 2019, IB Times called Apte “the millennial Indie actress Bollywood had been waiting for”!

This fluidity of language and content over the last decade is a special quality that actresses in Bollywood now epitomise. They are no longer defined by their heroes or camps or image. They work on films and projects they enjoy doing and can contribute to equally.

An actress who has ridden the waves of success with such fluidity, both in the South and Bollywood, is Tapsee Pannu. 

Pannu made her debut in 2010 with a Telugu film Jhummandi Naadam and in 2013, she acted in the Tamil film Arrambam. From 2013, when she made her Bollywood debut with a remake of the classic Chashme Baddoor, there has been no stopping her. Pink (2016), Judwa (2017), Mulk and Manmarziyaan (2018) gave her salience and in 2019, Pannu has had four interesting releases across different genres. 

In March, she had two thriller films release simultaneously: Badla (with Amitabh Bachchan) and Game Over. Badla was declared a super hit and Game Over did average business. Her next film was Mission Mangal where she was part of an ensemble cast headlined by Akshay Kumar. It was a huge hit earning ₹290 crore. Her final release of 2019 was Saand Ki Aankh ,where she shared screen space with Bhumi Pednekar, both of them playing two sharp-shooter dadis who win championships and change their village’s patriarchal mindset. The movie did worldwide business of ₹ 30 crore.

Talking to Zoom, Pannu said, “I have been advised by people in this industry that you should let men take the centre stage now. You are only doing women-centric films. When I tell them that I also did Mission Mangal, they say but that’s again a strong female character. Toh kya karu? Kuch bhi flimsy sa role kar lun (Then what should I do? Should I do flimsy roles)?” 

She added that she doesn’t like being put in a box. “Today, I am in a position that when I do a commercial film, the character will have something for sure. That I can command today.” 

This, then, is the new Bollywood heroine who will bring something to the table and add value to a project, both commercially and in terms of content. It has been the biggest achievement of the decade. 

2019 was a year when women-led films had heart and unique content. Priyanka Chopra came back to Bollywood for The Sky is Pink, a story about family and bereavement told with the lightest touch. Sonakshi Sinha continued her mainstream old Bollywood run with Dabangg 3 but she also did the fantastic Khandani Shafakhana, where she took over a sex clinic from her sexologist uncle and urged India to talk about sex. Rani Mukherjee came in strong with Mardani 2, taking over from old Bollywood heroes as a cop delivering strong justice. Kareena Kapoor Khan played it safe in Good Newwz, a strange mix of openness to ideas about fertility and family, and yet propagating old stereotypes of the loud buffoon Punjabi and motherhood as a boon.

Kangana Ranaut marked an aggressive presence throughout the year on social media and in the news. She started out with Manikarnika, a beautiful and lavish production of the life of Rani Laxmi Bai that earned ₹132.95 crore. She also starred in Judgemental Hai Kya where she played a woman with a multiple personality disorder. The film made almost ₹45 crore. Ranaut is now one of the most commercially successful female actors of 2019.

Some of the newer actors made a mark for themselves this year, especially in mainstream old Bollywood roles. Kiara Advani (Kabir Singh and Good Newwz) and Kriti Sanon (Luka Chippi, Arjun Patiala, Housefull 4 and Panipat) gave Ananya Pandey (Student of the Year 2, Pati Patni Aur Woh) company in roles that could have been more original or better written.

Three films, however, broke the mould in 2019 in terms of content and the performance of their lead female actors.

The first film was Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Directed and written by Shelly Chopra Dhar, the film starred Sonam Kapoor and Regina Cassandra (an actress in Tamil and Telugu films, making her Bollywood debut) along with veterans Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla and Rajkummar Rao. The movie’s screenplay was reportedly selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Library for its Core Collection, undoubtedly for its choice of subject. 

Sonam played the character of  Sweety Chaudhary, a lesbian in love with Kuhu (Cassandra). She’s unable to act on it because her brother, Balbir, discovered her sexual orientation and is determined to “fix” her “illness” by marrying her off to any man, however unsuitable, including his friend Pankaj. Even though the film treated the subject of same-sex love gingerly (the lesbian angle is hidden well into the first hour of the film, and misdirected into a Hindu-Muslim problem), when it did raise the issue, it was done with ease and sensitivity. One only wishes the film had been braver and tread more forcefully but the fact that it made almost ₹50 crore worldwide shows the attention it got. Maybe we will see more such stories told more authentically.

The second film, Sonchiriya, was more mainstream in its theme and story, but the female character was strong and well written — an equal partner in the fight for justice throughout the film. Bhumi Pednekar played an upper-caste Thakur’s wife, Indumati Tomar, who is helping her teenage maid Khushi, raped by her father-in-law, reach medical help at a hospital across the Chambal ravines. On the way they encountered a gang of dacoits or Baaghis and fell in with them. Their causes aligned and in the final denouement, justice was delivered. Bhumi was widely appreciated for her performance by the critics and the audience.

Finally, the most impactful film — and India’s entry to the Academy Awards — was Gully Boy.Written and directed by Zoya Akhtar, it starred the biggest talents of Bollywood Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh. 

Alia Bhatt has an effervescent presence in the film. She played the role of Safeena, the love interest of Murad (Ranveer), who is a part of his journey of self- discovery and angst leading to the breakthrough moment of his success as a rapper. But it was her feisty character and flamboyance that added heart to the film.

As Sonali Kokra pointed out in Firstpost: “We’ve applauded and empathised with the angry young man trope for decades, but Gully Boy’s audaciousness is in reversing the formula we’re so familiar with — while Murad is quiet, hesitant and wary of attracting attention, Safeena, or ‘Danger Aapa’ as she is nicknamed, is all rage and rampage. For a change, it is a young woman, not a man, who expresses her anger, asserts herself and tries to regain control of situations she finds herself helpless in. Sometimes she gets away with it, other times she does not. Just like real life, Safeena’s violence has consequences, and she must face them….In a world filled with romances that blossom in sarson ke khet and the Swiss Alps, with women prancing around in impractical pneumonia-inducing clothing and unencumbered by the demands of education or occupation, along comes Safeena with her efficient approach to love and life, anchored in practicality and common sense.” 

“In an instantly iconic film, it’s the ‘gurl’ whose actions define the streets,” said Parthasarthi Arora in Vice. “No one has ever written a part like this for a woman in mainstream Hindi films.”

In The Indian Express, Arushi Jain wrote: “Kudos to Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti who didn’t craft Alia’s character as just a demure young girl who enables the story of Gully Boy. When it comes to her ambition of being a doctor, it takes the top place. Be it with Murad, or without him, it doesn’t matter for her. She yearns to be an independent young woman who is ready to challenge the societal norms and fight her parents to live life on her own terms.”

All these ecstatic commentaries and reviews of Bhatt’s Safeena show us how much potential good writing has to enable a female performer to deliver a knock-out performance. Gully Boy is the year’s fifth highest grossing film worldwide and made ₹245.21 crore at the box office.

2019 was a year when some of the top performers and characters written for women, by women, pushed the envelope on gender in Bollywood. It was a breath of fresh air and may well dislodge old Bollywood.

Going forward and looking ahead, one can only hope the momentum sustains. Bollywood 2.0 needs to be more inclusive, open and sensitive to social issues, especially those of gender. The first step has been taken in 2019. Gently.

Now, go woke, Bollywood. The gurls are ready!

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