India’s is a hugely patriarchal society and, as may be anticipated, its premier popular cinema, the one in the Hindi language, provides a much more important place for male stars.
If one were to distinguish between films on the importance given to the female and male protagonists, one could even propose that in a majority of films the role of the female star is often merely decorative – as inRaees and Jagga Jasoos.
One way in which one can identify the female-centred film in Hindi cinema is to look at whether it is the heroine or hero whose past is dealt with in greater detail and her viewpoint seemingly taken. Among the classics HAHK (1994) and DDLJ (1995) are evenly balanced here while Deewar (1975)
and Sholay (1975) are male-centred.Among female-centred classics the ones that stand out are Mother India(1956), Dhool Ka Phool (1959) and Aradhana (1967), which all answer to this test.
It is not often that a female-centred classic features a leading male star since male stars are hesitant to surrender the spotlight.Andaz (1949) with Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor appears an exception but the male stars were still in the early part of their careers.
A recent female-centred film to attract notice is Queen (2013), about a young woman dumped on the eve of her wedding, who decides to go on a ‘honeymoon’ on her own.
The female-centred film may be a welcome phenomenon in a male-dominated society but one must be wary of seeing them as breaking with patriarchy. When the women are strong – as inMother India, they are not strong as individuals but, rather, their roles in male-dominated society are celebrated. Radha is a mother and it is motherhood and its sanctity that is celebrated.
When the women are placed in disadvantaged positions as women they are not really allowed to fight. Dhool Ka Phool is about a seduced woman (Mala Sinha) who becomes pregnant but cannot get the man Rajendra Kumar) to marry her. The film might have used the occasion for the woman to demonstrate her strength or become a critique of patriarchal society, but it does neither. The woman’s good-hearted boss (Ashok Kumar), who is shown to neither harbour nor receive any sexual/romantic feelings marries her; her child who has been abandoned in a forest is looked after by another good man. The conflict now moves to the man and woman, who are both childless, fighting for custody of the child they both abandoned.
The point here is that in these films where women are the focus, they are still not ‘strong’ women taking bold decisions as individuals which go beyond role-playing.
This is also true of Queen in which the woman (Kangna Ranaut) who has been unceremoniously dumped never considering a liaison with another man although she is thrown into the company of several. She, in fact, remains open to her former fiancé’s change of heart. Although she refuses him eventually, the onus is on her to explain.
John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, suggests that strength/power in men and women are perceived differently in patriarchal society. A man’s strength implies what he is capable of doing while a woman’s lies in what cannot be done to her. If anything, the motif of the strong woman in Bollywood films likeQueen bears this out.