Much has been said and written about sexism in Bollywood movies. We can never tire of talking about it because the filmmakers can never tire of making movies with sexist undertones, movies from a ‘male gaze’.
The male gaze is defined as the perspective of a notionally typical heterosexual man considered as embodied in the audience or intended audience for films and other media, characterized by a tendency to objectify and sexualize women.
Movies, in order to win over or encash on the perspective of their considered or intended audience, portray heroes (men) who are masochistic and decision-makers, and heroines (women) who exist for the pleasure of, or the redemption of these men. Women in such movies are either type-casted in gender roles (as caring or nurturing or silly or awestruck), or are objectified, or not given enough space and dialogues outside the story of the hero.
The movies which show women in positions of power (which usually men occupy, but are reclaimed by women) or movies which tackle the burning issues of violence, repressed sexuality and gender discrimination are considered to be some kind of opposition to the above-mentioned trope. I enjoy the first set of ‘powerful female-led movies’, I root for them in fact! (Mardani, Dangal etc). I also see merit in the second type of hard-hitting films as I do believe that we ought to get a little uncomfortable from time to time if that is what brings our attention to the horrific gender-based issues in our society.
But what I detest is the subconscious binaries which decide that the ‘male gaze’ ones are the entertainers – to be criticized or to be not taken seriously but to be enjoyed nevertheless; and the so-called female-centric movies are some kind of serious genre of cinema, to be seen for education, not entertainment.
The binary, it seems, is not made by the audience alone, but also by the filmmakers. Consider the movies such as Lipstick under my Burkha which have succeeded in opening a dialogue on the injustices faced by women.
Do they focus as much on the lighter aspects, such as the aspirations, the dreams, the hobbies, and the fun of their female characters?
Lipstick under my Burkha tried to incorporate these things while portraying the life of its 4 women, and yet the focus stayed painstakingly on their victimhood. If this movie was claimed to be breaking the male gaze and giving the women their due spotlight, the question is, why did they not focus on celebrating their womanhood and everything that comes with it?
Do we as women really want this – the raw, realistic portrayal of the struggle that we every day go through anyways? Or would we actually prefer movies with ample and accurate representation of women and which are also entertaining and fun?
What indeed is the female gaze and how is it placed in opposition to the dominant male gaze? Is it something of the above or something else? Let us take the case of 5 such films, directed by women.
In Raazi (directed by Meghna Gulzar), Sehmat is trained by Indian Intelligence to spy on a Pakistani military family and deduct their secrets which will save the country from going into another war.
Now, female spies are often sexualized or even fetishized in action movies, Hollywood and Bollywood alike. They are typically represented as sexually attractive women and who use their charm and sex as a tool to manipulate men.
Sehmat also charms her way in the family and yet what stands out throughout the film is her abject sincerity to the cause she is leading and her vulnerability in a house full of strange men. The camera follows her movements and her expressions, as she inches closer to completing her mission. When she kills a man for the first time, she cries in the bathroom. Courage and humanity move hand in hand.
In English Vinglish (directed by Gauri Shinde), Sridevi self-helps herself in taking a class to learn English which she thinks will earn her a degree of respect in the eyes of her husband and children. Halfway through her journey though, she learns to respect her own self, above everything. When she stands up to make a speech on her niece’s wedding day, she emphasises just that. Not a lecture on gender equality or desi pride, something I dare say would have been included had this movie being directed by a man.
Also, the fact that she decides to skip her last class and make laddoos for the wedding, which she thinks is her best talent. The filmmaker does not let us condescend her because she turned back to the kitchen – rather she seemed to be reclaiming something which she always excelled at but which she never took real pride in. It is her voice that we hear in the end, and she decides what makes her happy.
In Tribhanga (directed by Renuka Shahane), the focus not only stays on the stories of the three women, but they get to uniquely interpret what feminism is from their own standpoints. They make their own decisions, and also take responsibility for it. The beauty of the movie is that it is unapologetic in its portrayal of women as imperfect human beings tackling their own issues.
Again, in Sir- is love enough? (directed by Rohena Gera), the camera takes us to witness Ratna’s life, not from the perspective of the ‘sir’ but from her own. We see her dreams, her struggles, her friendships, the lone time she takes for her own self, as much as we see her budding relationship with her employer.
In fact, these are the little things that make Ashwin fall in love with her. In spite of the vastness of the difference in their social positions, there is a quiet dignity in her movements and speech, and if she is overwhelmed by her rich employer’s advances or desirous of his company, the charge she has on her own life does not slacken.
While all of the above movies had strong female leads, Gully Boy (directed by Zoya Akhtar) has a male protagonist (Murad) and the heroine (Safina) is only the supporting cast. But, even here, while Safina supports Murad and dotes on him, she is herself fiercely independent in her career and her opinions too. In fact, one of the reasons she is crazy about Murad, in spite of coming from an affluent family, is that he gives her ‘the freedom to be herself’.
In all the movies, we see the female characters, not as the way others see them – but as they are or as they themselves aspire to be. They are all imperfect – we may not even want to befriend a jealous Safina or hysterical Anu in real life – yet they refuse to let the world control their narratives.
So, what indeed is this ‘female gaze’?
Movies where female characters navigate patriarchy, have their own likes, dislikes, dreams, insecurities, friendships, careers, mental issues even; where they love and support the men in their life but not to the point of losing their individuality, women who are beautiful for their minds and their bodies because they themselves think so. Films which are directed with the assumption that men and women both are part of the audience and both deserve equal representation.
One can argue that these films were different because they were directed by women, but then is it really so difficult for a man to understand these nuances?
These 5 films were all super hits (even Tribhanga and Sir, which were released on Netflix did feature in the top 10 list). Needless to say, they did entertain people. These films may have sent out a strong message for gender equality, but they were very much for the mainstream audience without any agenda to further any cause. The way they were crafted, infusing a sense of justice for all its characters which mattered to the story – male or female – is what made them different and so likeable.
We all identify with Sehmat, Shashi, Anu, Ratna and Safeena, they are our stories – right or wrong, good or bad. And they have certainly set a standard – we can only hope that others would follow.