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actors Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Alia Bhatt and Yami Gautam, supported
the common misconception that women pull each other down. Maybe they need
reminding about the many ways in which women lift each other up.
I always look forward to critic Rajeev Masand’s
year-end roundtables with the who’s who of Bollywood. These sessions are always
entertaining, insightful and a good indication of what to expect from cinema in
the coming year.
This year’s Actresses Roundtable
however, left me a bad taste in my mouth. Given the credentials of the actors invited
–Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Alia Bhatt and Yami Gautam; and
given that these are some of the most outspoken women in the industry, who have
demanded better for themselves, I was left rather disappointed.
Why? Because, in response to a question, they
pulled out that old patriarchal ploy to keep women separated –“we women are
against each other.” (Hat tip Sanskari
The question they were responding to was about
whether Taapsee and Bhumi should have played 60 plus year old women in Saand Ki
Aankh, or whether Bhumi should have played a dark-skinned girl when she isn’t
one herself. The responded to this criticism saying that they felt that it is
only women who criticize each other like that, while the men never do.
I have already in a previous post, written about
why it is wrong of Taapsee and Bhumi to play older
women, and many others have written about Bollywood’s problem with brownface
(and this includes criticism of male actors as well, so it’s not just the women
being targeted.) This post is not about that. This is purely a reminder, to all
these actors, that women lift each other up, far more than they pull each other
Firstly, let us get rid of the notion that men
are “more chill” and “minding their own business.” The men have their own
rivalries and ego clashes. Besides, why would men ask for Bollywood to become
more inclusive and progressive, when the status quo works in their favour?
Bollywood is the natural home of the “macho male
hero” in its current form. As it changes and evolves to include cis women,
trans people, and others who don’t fit into its fixed molds, they will have to
give up some space. So, they benefit by not asking too many questions.
If the men had it their way, most of these
actresses, who so proudly speak of their “layered roles” today, would probably
still be relegated to playing the hero’s arm candy or dancing to item numbers.
Female actors would do well to remember that some of their own success is at least partly due to the growing number of female writers, directors and producers pushing the boundaries in Bollywood today.
Would Alia have the role of Safeena to play, if it wasn’t written by Reema Kagti, and would that role have been given so much importance if the movie weren’t helmed by Zoya Akhtar? Yami spoke about how she was inspired by how Vidya Balan described success in an interview. Taapsee spoke in this very roundtable about how Neena Gupta was so gracious and supportive to her when they met, and how Shabana Azmi’s reaction to the film gave both her and Bhumi such a boost.
Women like Sona Mohapatra have been speaking up relentlessly for the safety of other women in the industry. If this is not sisterhood and solidarity, what is it?
Vidya Balan reminds us that change doesn’t
happen overnight. We are painfully aware of that already. What we also know is that
change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We don’t expect change to come right away but
we know that only if we speak now, can we expect changes to happen in the
In fact, that women in Bollywood today have
better roles than before (still few and far between, but better than before) is
due to the fact that many women, in the industry and outside it, have been
A few weeks ago, when the rape of the vet in
Hyderabad was on the news, I had written a poem that called out men for not doing enough.
A female friend shared that poem on her Facebook page. Another woman commented
on that post saying that more than men it is women who need to stop being mean
to each other, if rapes need to be reduced. That was all the opportunity a man
needed, to jump in and agree that yes, it is all the fault of women.
See now, how patriarchy uses, “women are against
other women” to further its agenda?
In Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s
Women, Deepa Narayan writes, “Women should be
other women’s natural allies. The fact that they are not is not accidental. It
is the genius of cultural design: to ensure that each woman stays alone and
isolated. If women come together to stand up for each other against unfairness
or misuse of power, whether in the home, offices or on the streets, it would
break the cultural, social, political and economic arrangements that prop up
the power and privileges of men, and the non-existence of women as full human
She also talks of how women are encouraged to see
other women as manipulative and competitive, reducing the opportunities for
them to come together and take on the more powerful group, i.e. men. As she
says, “When women distrust and dislike each other, there is no danger of unity
even with education and wealth.”
It is crucial to remember that sisterhood
doesn’t just mean being nice to other women, just because they are women. It
also means calling them out when necessary, and that doesn’t mean we don’t
cheer for their success.
We are not like men who will excuse anything
another man does simply because he belongs to the ‘bro club’. We know all too
well about the sort of toxicity that sort of ‘support’ breeds and are determined
not to let that happen within the sisterhood.
The aim is to create a better world, and a
better film industry for women as a whole. If these celebrities really want to
make Bollywood a better place for ALL women and not just themselves, they would
do well to listen to at least some of the women who they claim are putting them
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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