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In this decade Bollywood has really woken up to centering stories around women. The result is a wide range of movies that cover nearly every aspect of women’s lives.
Over the past decade, Bollywood has woken up to the fact that women want to see themselves on screen. While some like Mission Mangal or Veere Di Wedding take a feminism lite approach, other movies, like Margarita With A Straw, or Lipstick Under My Burkha take a more nuanced and inclusive approach. Either way, we have lot more choice now, than we did earlier.
That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Even some of the films listed below have some problematic aspects.
Where some movies do a great job of weeding out sexism, they sometimes still use casual racism or body shaming, usually to generate ‘humour’. Some others, while telling the stories of women, end up centering the man via a saviour narrative. There is still a tendency towards depicting vigilantism on screen –a valid expression on screen of how fed up we are with the callousness of law and order towards women’s safety –but perhaps something we should look deeper into, given recent events. Some resort to the stereotype that a strong women are ‘masculine’. The conversations around representation on screen have only just begun –so we still have young women playing the role of grandmothers etc..
All this is not ideal, no doubt. The hope, however, is that in the coming decade, we shall see Bollywood move even more firmly into a socially conscious, and responsible space.
For now, here are some of the best feminist movies of the 2010s. This list is by no means exhaustive, though an attempt has been made to be inclusive. It includes both entertaining, fun and light masala movies, as well as some more serious picks from alternate cinema. Box office performance has not been used as a criterion to make the selection.
Based on the shocking Jessica Lal case, this film is a testament to the power of sisterhood. Starring Vidya Balan, as Sabrina, Jessica’s sister and Rani Mukherjee as a journalist determined to bring justice to Jessica and her family, this film stands out for its power packed performances.
Yet another fictionalized biopic, this time based on the life of actor Vijayalakshmi Vadlapati, popularly known as Silk Smitha. This movie earned Vidya Balan high praise for her performance both as the uninhibited on screen siren and the complex and conflicted woman.
Starring Rani Mukherjee as a woman with a highly sensitive sense of smell, obsessed with a man, this is the rare Indian movie that so completely caters to the female gaze. Which is why, despite its flaws, and dismal box office performance, this fun, quirky movie belongs on this list.
Kahaani, starring Vidya Balan as a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in Kolkata, has cult status as one of the best thrillers ever to be made in India. A strong script and pitch perfect acting, make this an unmissable movie.
English Vinglish marked the return of the inimitable Sridevi to the silver screen. As a housewife trying to maintain her self-respect even as she is put down by her family members, she stole our hearts, and even though we are miffed that she didn’t just dump her wholly unworthy husband, we cannot leave this movie out of this list!
Can anyone really forget Queen? We all cheered for Kangana Ranaut playing an innocent and overprotected woman dumped by her fiancé on the day of their wedding, who decides to go on her European “honeymoon,” alone. Her friendship with the outgoing and bold Vijayalaxmi (Lisa Haydon) was one of the highlights of this supremely entertaining movie.
An intimate portrayal of the life and loves of Laila, a woman with cerebral palsy, Margarita With A Straw is one of Kalki Koechlin’s finest performances. The movie received much deserved praise for exploring the sexual lives of people with disabilities and a lesbian relationship with sensitivity and respect. The depiction of the mother-daughter relationship as essayed by Revathy and Kalki, is also worth noting.
Gulab Gang, (only loosely based on the real life Gulabi Gang), pits two of our favourite actresses, Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla, against each other, as it offers a lesson on how women sometimes are the footsoldiers of the patriarchy. It has been widely criticized for reducing feminist ideas to “masala” tropes, but Juhi Chawla’s superlative performance as a devious politician, makes this movie worth a watch.
Rani Mukherjee received much praise for her role as the undaunted cop, Shivani Shivaji Roy, who is in pursuit of a child trafficker. A very mainstream cat and mouse thriller, Mardaani brought the shadowy world of child trafficking to the attention of the masses.
Directed by Leena Yadav, and set in rural Rajasthan, Parched provides a thought provoking look into the lives of rural Indian women, as they battle patriarchy, in the form of child marriage, stigmas against infertility, alcoholic and abusive husbands etc. With powerful performances by Radhika Apte, Tannishta Chatterjee and Surveen Chawla, the sisterhood between these women who are parched for love and respect is unmissable!
Where Parched explored the sisterhood among rural women, Angry Indian Goddesses did the same for urban women. The movie not only offers us a peek into how even the lives of so called “empowered” women are affected by patriarchy, but also provides a canvas for their rage. The cast of women –Sarah Jane-Dias, Rajshri Deshpande, Sandhya Mridul, Amrit Maghera, pavleen Gujral, Anushka Manchanda, and Tannishtha Chatterjee, all deserve a huge cheer for their performances.
Nil Battey Sannata will always be remembered as one of Swara Bhaskar’s best performances. It beautifully depicts the journey of a single mother from a disadvantaged background, as she finds ways to encourage her daughter to get an education. It is a testament to the power and universality of this story that it has since been remade twice –as Amma Kanakku (2016) in Tamil, starring Amala Paul, and as Udhaharanam Sujatha (2017) in Malayalam, starring Manju Warrier.
Piku brought to light a very different side of Deepika Padukone, as she essayed the role of the titular Piku. It sensitively depicts a daughter’s struggles to balance her personal and professional life, even as she acts as caretaker to her cantankerous old father, in this road trip movie full of intentional toilet humour.
Chalk N Duster is that rare movie that has at its centre an older woman protagonist. It is an inspiring story of a committed senior teacher who is forced to retire early by a change in management who prefers profit over education, and the way a sisterhood supports her through all that follows.
Dear Zindagi is among those rare films that brought the conversation about mental health to living rooms across the country. The movie is worth watching for Alia Bhatt’s deft and realistic portrayal of Kaira, a successful career woman, from a privileged background, who seeks therapy to manage her depression and anxiety.
Based on the real life story of Neerja Bhanot, the Indian air-hostess, who gave her life protecting passengers, on the hijacked Pan Am flight 73, Neerja is a moving watch. Sonam Kapoor wonderfully portrays Neerja –with all her fears and all her courage.
With superb performances by Taapsee Pannu, Kriti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang, Pink, despite its flaws, can be credited with making the idea of consent understandable to everyone.
Following four women in the same neighbourhood, from different walks of life, this sensitively made movie explores taboo issues like marital rape and the sexual desires of women, through a bold and uninhibited lens. Banned for being too “lady oriented,” this movie, with strong and relatable performances by Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sen, Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur, should not be missed!
An inspiring and heartwarming tale of a daughter who attempts to rescue her mother from an abusive marriage, Secret Superstar is a must watch for the interplay between Zaira Wasim and Meher Vij.
Waiting stands mostly on the shoulders of two powerful performers, Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah. Kalki’s character, a modern young woman, reaches a hospital when her husband meets with an accident, where she meets Naseeruddin’s character, an older man whose wife is in a coma since years. The unusual relationship that develops between these two very different people while they are just waiting for something to change states that there can be relationships other than romantic ones between a man and a woman.
In Anarkali of Aarah, Swara Bhaskar plays a folk singer who sings raunchy songs. She has plenty of fans in her tiny Bihar village, steeped in patriarchy, but not much respect. When she is molested in public by a powerful man, she refuses to be cowed, even when her very life is threatened. Like Pink, this movie too is a powerful commentary on consent.
Poorna is a biopic based on the 13 year old Telanga village girl Poorna Malavath, who became the youngest girl to scale Everest. That in itself is an inspiring story, but it is taken to new levels by Aditi Inamdar’s convincing portrayal of Poorna.
Chitrangada Chakraborty and Vibhawari Deshpande wonderfully essay the titular Tikli and Laxmi, in this fabulous film about sex workers forming a co-operative that strives to ensure that none of them are abused or taken advantage of. This movie is a true expression of sisterhood, where the women bond, not only over shared trauma, but also in the interest of protecting each other.
In Ribbon, Kalki Koechlin nails her portrayal of an urban career woman as she tries to balance work and home, and a patriarchal husband. A realistic social commentary, Ribbon is an underrated must watch.
Geetika Vidya Ohlyan and Saloni Batra, play female cops grappling with sexual offenders in this movie about the patriarchy within the police force. With layered, nuanced story telling, Soni is a movie that should not be missed.
Rani Mukherjee came back to screens after a hiatus with her role as Naina in Hichki. While not perfect, Hichki is notable for its depiction of a woman with Tourette’s syndrome, who is driven to achieve her goals and to help her students realize their potential.
One does not immediately think of feminism, when one thinks of this horror movie starring Anushka Sharma. However, the way it subverts the idea of “good” and “evil” and raises questions about who the real monsters are is notable. In an India where feminists have been compared to pisachinis, Pari is relevant and needed.
Alia Bhatt, in Raazi, gives a powerpacked performance as a naïve girl who marries into a Pakistani household with ties to the Pakistani army so that she can spy for India. Be it as the dutiful daughter, the intrepid spy or the conflicted wife, we feel for her. This film, which breaks a number of stereotypes, is an absolute must watch.
An older couple with grown-up sons gets pregnant. After that the story is about how everyone in the family and others realise that it is not wrong for older people to have sexual desire and act on it consensually, and also have a baby.
Stree is an extraordinary combination of horror and comedy, this movie comes with a message – don’t mess with women – a timely reminder to treat women well. The movie highlights issues like – a woman is a person, her identity isn’t limited to her body, and she has a right to her choices.
Starring Sonam Kapoor and Regina Cassandra as a lesbian couple, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga is a fun, light romcom, that challenges stereotypes about gender and sexuality.
The Last Colour spotlights the plight of widows in Varanasi through the friendship between a young girl (Choti, played by Aqsa Siddique) and an older woman. Veteran actress Neena Gupta has won many accolades for her performance as Noor, including Best Actor at the Indian International Film Festival of Boston.
Layered performances by Zaira Wasim and Priyanka Chopra, as a teenager who knows she is dying, and as a grieving mother, make The Sky Is Pink an emotional, but important watch. Based on the life of Aisha Chaudhary, The Sky Is Pink is a story about family, love, and the importance of working together through grief.
A fictionalized biopic based on the real life “shooter dadis” Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, Saand Ki Aankh is a heartwarming portrayal of sisterhood across generations.
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Shows like Indian Matchmaking only further the argument that women must adhere to social norms without being allowed to follow their hearts.
When Netflix announced that Indian Matchmaking (2020-present) would be renewed for a second season, many of us hoped for the makers of the show to take all the criticism they faced seriously. That is definitely not the case because the show still continues to celebrate regressive patriarchal values.
Here are a few of the gendered notions that the show propagates.
A mediocre man can give himself a 9.5/10 and call himself ‘the world’s most eligible bachelor’, but an independent and successful woman must be happy with receiving just 60-70% of what she feels she deserves.
As long as teachers are competent in their job, and adhere to the workplace code of conduct, how does it matter what they do in their personal lives?
A 30 year old Associate Professor at a well-known University, according to an FIR filed by her, was forced to resign because the father of one of her students complained that he found his son looking at photographs of her, which according to him were “objectionable” and “bordering on nudity”.
There are two aspects to this case, which are equally disturbing, and which together make me question where we are heading as a society.
When the father of an 18 year old finds his son looking at photographs of a lady in a swimsuit, he can do many things. What this parent allegedly did was to dash off a letter to the University which states: