Women’s History Roundtable December 2019: “Examining the Rise of the Female Protagonist in Indian Cinema” by Dr. Uma Vangal

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Uma Vangal is a film professor, columnist, critic, filmmaker, film curator, media scholar, archivist, and gender activist. Primarily though, she sees herself as a Teacher/Transformer. A Fulbright Nehru Scholar, she has taught Film Studies at Kenyon College, Ohio, and is an Adjunct Faculty at the Asian College of Journalism, where she teaches Film, Gender and Culture. She has also made a number of notable documentary films. Her most cherished moment was when one of her films paved the way for the Supreme Court to rule in favour of two Dalit women whose struggle she had documented. As a Founder-trustee of the MIRA Trust, she works with young people, especially young girls and women, to create opportunities for empowerment, employability and enhanced livelihood choices.

Dr. Vangal began her talk by discussing the film Baahubaliand its portrayal of female characters. She noted that while the movie depicted women as being powerful figures, it also denied them agency on numerous occasions throughout the movie and reinforced negative stereotypes about women. The character Avantika, for example, who resembles the warrior Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Gamesin many ways, was also subjected to what Dr. Vangal described ironically as the ‘most aesthetic rape scene’ in Indian cinema. She also spoke about the #MeToo movement in the Hindi and Tamil film industries, observing that many men in power escaped media scrutiny, while others who were called out did not face any long-term consequences. She added that while it caused some ripples in these industries, it ultimately felt like a token movement due to how little has changed. She continued, however, to note that the rise of bona fide female superstars, like Kangana Ranaut and Nayanthara, presenting stories of women and their lived realities in modern India, was a positive trend.

Dr. Vangal then described various tests to determine how inclusive a film is from a gendered perspective, and to examine its broader gender dynamics. These included the Bechdel Test, where a film should have at least two female characters having a conversation about something other than a man; the Mako Mori test, which prescribes that at least one female character should have her own character arc that does not simply bolster male characters’ stories; and others such as the Furiosa Test and the Sexy Lamp Test. She also described a test she had devised for Indian films specifically, known as the FItMuS Test. Short for ‘Female Integrity, Male Utility, Cultural Sensitivity’, this test determines if films move beyond a tokenistic approach. According to this test, female characters should have clear and consistent narratives and should not exist only for ‘male utility’. Moreover, they should be culturally relatable, coherent and credible. She reflected that these tests are important because films are often used as a yardstick by audiences to judge their own actions, especially when it comes to romance.

The session proceeded with a feminist analysis of Indian cinema from the 1930s to today. Dr. Vangal demonstrated how cinema reflects the zeitgeist of its times. She noted that early films passed many of the gender equality tests, with female actors often being given strong roles on screen and depicted as being in touch with their sexuality and desires. The 1940s witnessed women continuing to be cast in strong roles, but given the prevalence of the civil disobedience movement, these were more nationalist in character. With the 1950s, films such as Mother Indiadepicted women as resilient characters contributing to the task of nation-building. This decade also included films that spoke out against restrictive gender practices such as dowry. The 1960s reflected Nehru’s vision for an industrialised, modern India, with women shown as working together with men to achieve these goals. This period, however, was also when a transition to more regressive portrayals of women onscreen commenced.

In the 1970s, the arrival of new wave cinema resulted in a monopoly on strong roles for women in these films. As a result, while powerful films on gendered themes were being made in parallel cinema, mainstream movies were declining in this aspect. This decade also featured a number of films on courtesans, and by extension, on the ‘fallen woman’, while the ‘angry young man’ trope became more visible. Dr. Vangal emphasised that this distinction between parallel and mainstream cinema was not so visible in South Indian film industries during this period. The 1980s and 1990s saw a further decline, with female roles becoming unidimensional across languages and industries. The 1990s, according to her, was the worst period for female representation in Indian cinema.

In the 2000s, most films continued to reinforce unrealistic expectations about women, who were reduced to visual motifs through these depictions. The behaviour of young, modern women was rendered as a series of tropes through this decade. She went on to note that the current decade has seen the entry of foreign studios, with their own conceptions of female agency that are not always replicable in an Indian context. Moreover, films are increasingly marketed as feminist because this is now seen as a selling point. However, while these movies are ostensibly women-centric, many of them continue to fail gender equality tests. Recent decades, she added, have also included progressive films that have challenged patriarchy and portrayed female desire sensitively, but such movies are not as prevalent as in earlier decades.

The talk concluded with Dr. Vangal tracing the career trajectories of Nayanthara and Kangana Ranaut, and the positive and negative trends that can be observed in the rise of female-centric films in India. She described the positives as including audiences becoming more accepting of women playing lead characters and the mainstreaming of female-centric films, breaking the myth that these movies have to be exclusively about ‘women’s issues’. She reflected that they can provide women agency through positive role models, while also demonstrating that age is no longer a barrier for strong female characters, as evidenced by Neena Gupta’s character in Badhaai Ho. The negatives, according to her, include writers and directors promoting films as female-centric as a marketing strategy, without always understanding feminism or aiming for true gender equality in these productions. These films might also normalise negative stereotypes about women around sexuality and criminality. She added that casting women as leads can also be used as a cost-saving tactic by paying them less than a male lead while leveraging their star power.

Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

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