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Indian movies across languages have portrayed feminist themes more sensitively than Bollywood – here are the top feminist non-Hindi movies in the past decade.
On the whole, movies beyond those being made in Bollywood, seem to be doing better when it comes to portraying feminism on screen. There is a greater leaning towards intersectionality, and a greater commitment towards social responsibility.
Over the past decade, every film industry in India has woken up to the fact that women want to see themselves on screen. In a previous post, we explored some of the prominent feminist Bollywood movies. This post looks at languages other than Hindi.
There is a greater focus on working with strong scripts, which makes for better films, that are also more socially responsible.
However, some of the issues that plague Bollywood, can be seen in other languages as well. Casual racism or body shaming are a part of even some otherwise progressive movies. Vigilantism is a popular idea too. The difficult questions around representation on screen have not even been asked yet, and so we still have cis men playing trans women, etc.
As with Bollywood, the hope is that cinema in every Indian language will learn, grow and become better in the coming decade.
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.
A National Film Award winning biopic based on the life of social worker and activist Sindhutai Sapkal, popularly known as “Mother of Orphans,” this Marathi language movie is truly inspirational. It stars Tejaswini Pandit, Jyoti Chandekar, Upendra Limaye, and Neena Kulkarni in leading roles.
Inspired by Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi, 22 Female Kottayam, starring Rima Kallingal as a nurse, Tessa, who is betrayed by her lover, is a thrilling revenge drama.
This movie stars Revathy as Molly, in an age appropriate role, Molly is an NRI who returns to India in order to fulfill some requirements for her voluntary retirement, and clashes with an egoistic revenue official. The movie is a must watch for Revathy’s performance as a woman who sticks to her principles and won’t back down.
In Thira, the immensely talented Shobhana plays Dr Rohini Pranab, a cardiac surgeon who also runs an NGO for young girls. When she find out that her girls have been kidnapped by human traffickers, she teams up with a young man, whose sister has also been kidnapped, to track them down and rescue the girls. It is flawed, but it is still a thrilling movie that keeps you on your toes even as it educates.
A multi-genertaional story that centers three women, and their changing relationship with a box full of gold jewellery, Goynar Baksho is an absolute pleasure to watch. With powerful performances by Moushumi Chatterjee, Konkona Sen Sharma and Srabanti Biswas, and impeccable direction by Aparna Sen, this movie, like its name, is indeed a box of jewels!
In Take One, Swastika Mukherjee plays actress Doel Mitra, who is shooting for the part of Sita in a movie. A raunchy sex scene from one of her international movies is leaked on the internet, and needless to say, she has to face a backlash from conservative Indian society. It thus draws a parallel between Sita, and Doel, both of whom are asked to prove their chastity and purity by a patriarchal world. Swastika’s real life daughter, plays her on screen daughter as well, and the movie has received praise for the way it has portrayed the mother-daughter relationship.
How often do we get to see a love story through the eyes of the woman? Om Shanti Oshaana, starring Nazriya Nazim as the fun, outgoing, Pooja Matthew is a hilarious romcom and coming of age story all rolled into one highly entertaining package!
Hailed as Maju Warrier’s comeback movie, How Old Are You? touched a chord with many women stuck in a rut in their middle age. It sensitively traces the struggle of a previously confident woman, who has set aside her dreams for her family, and who now realizes that she must find herself again. It was remade in Tamil, as 36 Vayadhinile, starring Jyothika, and this in turn was dubbed in Telugu as Ravamma Mahalakshmi.
In Rajkahini, a group of sex workers whose home falls on the Radcliffe Line, are asked to vacate it during the Partition. The film depicts their resistance, not only to the state, but also to patriarchy. It stars Rituparna Sengupta, Lily Chakravarty, Parno Mittra, Jaya Ahsan, Sudiptaa Chakroborty, Priyanka Sarkar, Sohini Sarkar, Saayoni Ghosh, Ridhima Ghosh, Ditipriya Roy, Ena Saha and others. It was remade in Hindi as Begum Jaan (2017) starring Vidya Balan, Flora Saini, pallavi Sharda, Priyanka Setia, Gauhar Khan, Mishty, Gracy Goswami, Ila Arun, Poonam Rajput, Raviza Chauhan, Ridhima Tiwari and others.
Who doesn’t like a road trip? When Padmini’s (Manju Warrier) husband takes off to the Himalayas suddenly, after signing a divorce petition out of the blue, she goes in search of him to demand answers. On the journey, she befriends Rani, played by Rima Kallingal, who is on the run from some goons. The performances by these two talented actresses and the interplay between them, make this movie, which warns women against falling for the “good girl” message, worth a watch.
Winner of the Kerala State Film Award for Best Film, Manhole depicts the life and struggles of a manual scavenger’s daughter. A scathing critique of casteism, Manhole is told through the eyes of a twelfth standard girl, is a brilliant example of the kind of socially responsible film making that we need more of.
Directed, produced, written, edited and shot by Rima Das, Village Rockstars was India’s official Oscars entry. It takes us into the life of Dhunu, a young girl in an Assamese village, who doesn’t have too many material possessions, but has a treasure trove of dreams. Watch this movie for the stunning visuals, for the touching story and for the heartwarming performance by Bhanita Das.
Since Godha is also about a female wrestler, comparisons to Dangal or Sultan are inevitable. What sets Godha apart from them however, is that at no point do the men in the movie (who have their own story lines) overshadow Waqima Gabbi, as Aditi, nor is her success ever attributed to them. They are simply allies who provide her with the support she needs to achieve her dreams.
A thriller, Durga Sohay is at heart, an unusual mother-daughter story. When Durga, the maid of an aristocratic family is caught stealing, she is given a second chance by the younger daughter-in-law of the family, leading to a close mother-daughter bond being formed between them. Do watch for Sohini Sarkar’s performance as Durga.
In Shuddhi, three women are on separate but interconnected journeys. Karlyn, an American photojournalist is on a secret mission in Bengaluru. Jyothi and Divya, are journalists who are fighting against the leniency of the Juvenile Justice Act. Meanwhile, the police are chasing a criminal. When these stories intersect we get a completely paisa vasool thriller. With mature performances by Niveditha, Lauren Spartano, and Amurtha Karagada, Shuddhi is definitely worth a watch.
Despite the similarity of the title to an earlier 1994 movie, Magalir Mattum is not a sequel, though it is just as feminist in spirit. A road trip movie that is both fun and thought-provoking, it revolves around three friends, who haven’t seen each other since college, being reunited by a progressive young documentary film-maker. Endearing performances by Jyothika, Urvashi, Bhanupriya, and Saranya Ponvannan, make this a wonderful ode to female friendships.
The first feature length Himachali movie, Saanjh is the story of a young girl, Sanju, who forced to stay with her grandmother in the village, after a fake compromising video of hers goes viral. Sanju’s own struggle with being slut shamed, and her bonding with her neglected grandmother form the crux of this globally lauded movie starring Aditi Charak and Rupeshwari Sharma.
In Ramante Edanthottam, Anu Sithara brings to life Malini, a woman whose confidence has been destroyed by her husband, who puts her down and cheats on her. The movie is a beautiful exploration of her journey of self-discovery, after she meets a man who treats her with respect and love. While this could easily have become a “male savior” narrative, the movie allows Malini to save herself, and thus becomes a must watch for its nuanced and layered performances.
In Mayaanadhi, Aishwarya Lekshmi plays Aparna Ravi, an actress in love with a criminal. It portrays her as a real, complex person, instead of as a caricature, and gives her real agency, which lifts this romantic thriller above the rest.
Superstar Nayanthara in Aramm plays a District Collector trying to save a child that has fallen into an illegal borewell, even as she battles bureaucracy and patriarchy. Even as it keeps us on the edge of our seat, it is filled with memorable and touching moments, that make it a pleasure to watch.
With names like Aparna Sen, Lilette Dubey and Shabana Azmi in the cast, one can be sure that a movie is feminist! This movie adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play revolves around three older women, all very different from each other, and their friendship.
Bulbul Can Sing, which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Assamese, is about three teenagers coming to terms with their sexualities. Starring Banita Thakuriya, Manoranjan Das, and Arnali Das, the movie is social commentary as much as it is a coming of age tale.
Aamhi Doghi, in one of those rare movies that is not afraid to have an unlikeable woman as one of the leads (Priya Bapat as Savitri). This itself is a triumph, but what makes this film truly lovable is the mother-daughter relationship between herself and her step-mother, Ammi, played by Mukta Barve.
Anushka Shetty is no stranger to supernatural thrillers, or to playing a queen. In Bhaagamathie, she gives us echoes of her strongest performances, as Chanchala, an IAS officer in prison for killing her fiancé. When she is brought into a haunted mansion to help on another case, she begins a cat and mouse game, that is at the heart of this thriller.
In Crisscross, Jaya Ahsan, Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jahan, Priyanka Sarkar, and Sohini Sarkar, play five women from different walks of life whose lives intersect, affecting each other. From the pressure to conceive, to the pressure of running a business, this film attempts to take on a gamut of women’s experiences in a modern world.
Nathicharami won 5 national awards including that for the Best Kannada Film at the 66th Annual National Awards, for its nuanced and powerful exploration of a woman’s sexual desires outside of marriage. Shruthi Hariharan sensitively essays the role of Gowri, a widow who is still in love with her dead husband, but desires sex.
In this comic thriller, Nayanthara plays an innocent looking but perfectly capable and shrewd woman, who inadvertently gets drawn into a drug smuggling ring. To say anything more would be extremely spoilery, so all I would say, is go watch it!
C/o Kancharapalem has an ensemble cast and it takes on many issues from casteism to religion, and feminism isn’t exactly its main focus. However, it has female characters that are so well-written and real, that it is their stories that one remembers for a long time after. None of the women are subjected to the male gaze, and are given agency.
Shonar Pahar revolves around the unlikely friendship between a fiercely independent seventy year old woman, Upama (played by Tanuja Mukerji) and a seven year old orphan boy, Bitlu, who she is tasked with taking care of. She is bitter, and estranged from her son and daughter-in-law, but as the presence of Bitlu adds sweetness to her life, unresolved issues with her son also find resolution. The movie functions as a commentary on parent-child relationships, and approaches the issue in a nuanced manner.
In Mahanati, Keerthi Suresh beautifully essays the role of yesteryear actress Savitri. She is presented here in all her forms –the accidental star, the capable actress, the “other woman,” and the heartbroken woman.
In Njan Marykutty, Jayasurya plays a trans woman, whose aim is to join the police. The movie is significant because even as it shows us the lows in Marykutty’s life, it also speaks of her triumphs, and presents her as a confident, undaunted woman. The one regret I have is that the role was not played by an actual trans woman.
Imago is a nuanced commentary on conventional beauty standards. It follows the life of a teenage girl, Namrata, played by Aishwarya Ghaydar, who suffers from vitiligo. Her condition makes her shy and reserved, but when a male teacher encourages her to come out of her shell, she finds new sides to herself.
Nude focusses on the life of Yamuna (Kalyanee Mulay) who arrives in Mumbai with her son, after escaping from an abusive husband. Encouraged by her aunt, Chandrakka, (Chhaya Kadam), she takes up nude modelling to earn an income. With the message that this is just as respectable a profession as any other, Nude critiques the double standards of a society that wants to “protect” women from such professions, even as it objectifies and sexualizes them.
Initially banned in India, partly because of its title (the movie was initially called Sexy Durga), this award winning movie was finally released on YouTube, in India. It explores the religious divisions in Kerala through an inter-caste marriage and also critiques the dual role of men in our society as protectors and predators, and the dichotomy of celebrating a woman as a “goddess” even as she is subjected to abuse.
In Firebrand, National Award-winning actress Usha Jadhav plays Sunanda Raut, a Dalit woman who is an unflappable divorce lawyer. However, her professional success does not prevent her from being plagued by the demon of a sexual assault she faced as a school girl. Even though she has a supportive husband, this struggle is hers to overcome, and the movie traces this journey of hers with great sensitivity and respect. Rajeshwari Sachdev, who plays one of Sunanda’s clients, also deserves praise for her portrayal of an unlikeable woman.
One of her finest, Parvathy’s performance in Uyare as an acid attack survivor is layered. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just focus on her fight for justice, but also on her drive to live her dream. It showcases spirit, grit and the power of sisterhood.
One doesn’t think of dancing as an act of defiance, but in Hellaro, that is exactly what happens. Focussing on rural women whose lives are so ruled by patriarchal traditions that they are even forbidden the simple joy of dancing, the National Film Award winning Hellaro, depicts women creating their own happiness.
Like C/o Kancharapalem, Super Deluxe too is not a movie that overtly aims to talk about feminism. However, impactful performances by Ramya Krishnan, Samantha, and Vijay Sethupathi (playing a trans woman), are what make this movie memorable. The women have a refreshing agency, and are unapologetic about their choices.
In Stand Up, starring Nimisha Sajayan and Rajisha Vijayan, a female stand up comedian Keerthi, who uses the platform to speak about a sexual assault perpetrated on her friend, and details her journey from victim to survivor. Rajisha Vijayan’s portrayal of a woman traumatized by an abusive relationship is particularly noteworthy.
Anandi Gopal is the inspirational biopic of Anandi Gopal Joshi, one of India’s earliest female doctors, and the first woman to earn a medical degree from the United States. The film is worth a watch for Bhagyashree Milind’s performance as Anandi.
In Ardab Mutiyaran, Sonam Bajwa plays a stubborn, tomboyish Jatti, Babbu Bains. When she marries into a family that disapproves of her lifestyle, Babbu rebels, taking on regressive ideas about gender.
U Turn stars Shraddha Srinath as an intrepid young reporter trying to solve a mystery. Told through her eyes it places her front and centre as the heroine in this suspense-horror movie.
I’m sure there are many that I must have missed. Could you suggest them if I have?
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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