Indian cinema appears to be trotting toward gender equality in 2014 with several films featuring women front and center turning into hits and several more in the pipeline.
Leading the charge is the sleeper of the year, Bollywood’s “Queen” by helmer Vikas Bahl, starring Kangana Ranaut as a jilted woman who decides to go on her cherished European honeymoon on her own. The $2 million budgeted film grossed more than $20 million worldwide. Ranaut also stars as a gun-toting politician with a boy toy as the lead of “Revolver Rani.”
“I think watching films with heroes was our comfort zone and it needed a substantial push for audiences to get comfortable watching a film with a female lead only,” Bahl says. “But the driving force behind this has been the story and screenplay that has made people realize that a woman-centric film can be as engaging, entertaining and worth the money spent. At the same time I would like to say that ‘Queen’ to me was never a woman-oriented film, it was a character’s journey and it could have been a girl, guy or a horse.”
Audiences also spun “Gulaab Gang,” in which Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla squared off against each other, and “Highway,” toplined by 20-year-old Alia Bhatt, into B.O. gold.
“Highway” was helmed by Imtiaz Ali, known for his blockbusters, with Bhatt as a woman trying to overcome the trauma of sexual abuse during her childhood. It struck a chord with audiences across India.
Mainstream Indian filmmakers — such as Ali with “Highway” — are increasingly tackling sensitive subjects previously brushed under the carpet or reserved for little-seen documentaries or arthouse films. Sanjay Chhel’s “Kill the Rapist?” is a response to the wave of sexual assaults against women in India in recent years. The film’s lead, Anjali Patil, says, “These new films break the image of this old woman who is always crying or seeking a man’s shoulder. They are strong, yet beautiful, they are not trying to be masculine but they celebrate their womanhood, they cherish being woman and all the things that come with it. They are emotional, funny, innocent and brilliant. They are real. And audiences haven’t seen them like this for so long on screen.”
The bastion of a typically male-centric film industry started to crack in 2011 with “The Dirty Picture” and “No One Killed Jessica,” and 2012’s “Kahaani,” all featuring strong roles by Vidya Balan.
Beyond Bollywood, India’s regional-language industries are also producing a slew of femme-centric movies. Meera Jasmine plays the lead role of a woman’s struggle to make ends meet after her husband abandons her in the Malayalam-lingo “Ithinumappuram”; Nayanthara interprets Balan’s “Kahaani” role of a woman in search of her missing husband in its Tamil and Telugu remakes; and Gauri Gadgil plays a Down syndrome-afflicted girl who discovers her metier in swimming in the Marathi “Yellow.”
The femme-oriented films made outside Bollywood aren’t just worthy subjects, they can be as mainstream as “Arundhati,” the Bengali remake of the 2009 Telugu hit, with Koel Mullick playing the role of a 19th century warrior queen reincarnated in the present day; or the Kannada “Gharshane,” where the male lead of 2011 Tamil film “Yuddham sei” was re-written to suit action leading lady Malashri.
“The more we start seeing characters as characters and not go by the gender, the more stories we’ll be able to tell,” Bahl observes. “Women make for very, very interesting characters. The way they deal with situations intrigues me. But I hope my films always have strong characters whether it’s male, female or a washing machine.”