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Breaking role restrictions

The ease with which Indian film heroines switch from jeans to miniskirts to traditional saris, all as normal, daily routine, is an indication of role diversity allowed to them.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2004 14:49 IST

Bollywood keeps transmitting this message with perseverance: a woman need not be frozen into a stereotype. The ease with which Indian film heroines switch from jeans to miniskirts to traditional saris, ghagra cholis, tennis shorts and on to bikinis, all as normal, daily routine, is an indication of the role diversity allowed to them. The same woman who is crooning away in a jhatka thumka number in a nightclub one hour, will be shown singing a melodious bhajan with her family in the next, only perhaps to move on to becoming an efficient manager of her family business a few scenes later.

It is through Bollywood films that people are told that Indian women are able to assert their rights without leading to a breakdown of families; that every woman desirous of the recognition of her selfhood does not have to walk out of her home in order to win freedom; that a woman can win everyone over to her point of view rather than be despised for her assertiveness. In the few cases where a woman feels that her well-being lies in walking out of her home like Ibsen's Nora, Bollywood invariably puts a firm stamp of approval on her choice, rather than condemn her (for instance, Astitva and Arth).

Bollywood depicts Indian families in all permutations and combinations. There are those in which some women are the domineering matriarchs (for example, Deena Pathak in Khubsurat) and those where women have little or no say and are brutally oppressed (as with Raveena Tandon's character in Daman). We see wronged daughters-in-law as well as those who become tyrants for the whole family; there are domineering mothers-in-law who ruin the lives of their daughters-in-law, and also those who protect their bahus even against their own son's tyranny or caprice, as in Biwi No.1.

What we have here is a whole range of Mother Indias - women who are strong and resilient in the face of the greatest adversity while retaining the nurturing qualities and compassion associated with Parvati; Sita-like mother-goddesses who can, at a minute's notice, also turn into real Durgas. These multifaceted roops, or incarnations, of femininity, derived from mythology, history and legend and given contemporary coinage through our films, have enthralled audiences in many parts of the world, including those that have come to impose very oppressive and restrictive norms of behaviour on women.

In each of these varied incarnations a woman is reverence-worthy. It is Bollywood that gets the world to see that Indian culture allows for a whole diversity of roles and personae for a woman: a much larger range than is available in the writings of social historians and journalists. A woman can choose to be a steadfast spouse like Sita, or a besotted lover like Radha, who throws all social restraints to the winds, or be a fearless, awe-inspiring Durga. She could be a Rani Roopmati or a Rani Jhansi. She could be a Mirabai or an Indira Gandhi. It is through our films that the message is communicated that an Indian woman's role in life is not to suffer indignities and tolerate injustice, that it is in her to rise like Durga and destroy evil, that such a Durga-like woman is not despised for her strength but revered, even by men.

Even if she chooses to be a devoted and long-suffering wife, Bollywood is often at pains to point out that this is not because suffering is a woman's fate, but because she wishes to be the instrument of reform of unreasonable and tyrannical members of her family. We see Sita-like wives assume Chandi roop and stand up against wrong doers, even if that involves challenging their own husbands - as does Madhuri Dikshit in Mrityudand in a memorable confrontation with her husband, when she deals him the stunning verbal blow: "Aap pati hain, parmeshwar banne ki koshish mat kijiye!" (You are a husband, please don't try to play God)

(This piece was first published in Manushi – A Journal about Women and Society, New Delhi. Contact email –

First Published: Mar 16, 2004 16:53 IST