The Indian film industry is enormous, with more than 1800 movies being released every year in over 20 languages. In fact, Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world! With top movies like Baahubali and Dangal earning a box office collection of over 300 crore Rs, it is evident that films are a big deal in India. People flock to theatres to see their favourite movie stars and enjoy their films. For years, the film industry has been considered a male-dominated workspace. But there have been several women who have broken through this pre-conceived barrier and risen to become some of the best in the industry. Fatma Begum is credited as the first woman feature director in India for her work in the silent film Bulbul-e-Paristan (1926). She was a director, actor and writer who established her own production company Fatma Films in 1926. Jaddam Bai, Protima Dasgupta and Shama Zaidi are some of the pioneering women directors and screenwriters in India. Women directors were not under the spotlight for a lot of years after then till unique and creative women started gaining attention for their directing and screenwriting skills in the last few decades.
A lot of female filmmakers and producers are going mainstream these days, many of them bringing their own fresh and interesting takes on filmmaking and storytelling. Anjali Menon films like Manjadikuru (2008), Bangalore Days (2014) and Koode (2018) are some of the most heartfelt and warm films in Mollywood. Soorarai Pottru in Tamil was also directed by the talented Sudha Kongara. Meghna Gulzar’s work in Raazi (2018) and Chaapak (2020) has been impressive as well. Gauri Shinde brought back the legendary actress Sridevi on screen in 2012 with the highly acclaimed English Vinglish. Rima Das is a director and screenwriter whose film in Assamese, Village Rockstars (2017) won many national and international awards. Zeenat Lakhani was the co-writer for the 2017 Hindi comedy-drama Hindi Medium. Mira Nair (Monsoon Weddings, 2001) and Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham, 2002) are directors who found fame outside of India for their work. Zoya Akhtar, the daughter of poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar, has directed and produced several hugely popular and commercially successful films. Her most recent work was with Gully Boy (2019) and she has announced a road-trip movie, Jee Le Zara featuring some of the female superstars of Bollywood like Alia Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif. This has been planned as a sequel to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) which was such a big success on its release it remains one of the most loved films in Bollywood by the masses. Top actresses in Bollywood like Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone have also taken up producing, with many of them establishing their own production houses.
Some of the most significant evolutions can be seen in the depiction of female characters in Indian cinema. For ages, these characters were simply the side pieces, simply pretty, too emotional and dependent on the male characters in the movie. Oftentimes, she was the “damsel in distress”, needing the “hero” to save her from the villains so that he could show off how strong and cool he is. Over the last 2 decades, there have been several films that showcased strong women characters – both physically and mentally. More female-oriented movies are being made like Kahaani (2012), Queen (2013), Raazi (2018) and the recently released Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), which showcase the diverse personalities and strengths of women. Even in some male-oriented films, women are represented as strong-minded individuals in their own right. Their characters no longer lack substance. Take the 2020 Tamil film Soorarai Pottru for example. Even though Surya’s Maaran is the central character, the character of his wife Bommi, played by Aparna Balamurali, is one of the highlights of the film. With her strong principles and ambitious personality, she impresses the audience by standing up for herself and supporting her husband. Films have a lot of influence on the socio-political stance of society regarding various issues. When there are movies like Kabir Singh (2019) still garnering a huge fan following for their depiction of toxic masculinity and abusive relationships, stories like that of Soorarai Pottru are required for providing a good example of what a healthy relationship should look like and how women are just as strong, funny, ambitious and efficient as men. Filmmakers these days understand how impactful cinema is as a communication medium and try to bring attention to the various issues faced by women like discrimination, abuse and acid attacks through their films.
Women have come a long way in Indian Cinema. Here’s to hoping we get to see more of their work and a lot more real and relatable female characters on screen in the coming years.