My Voice - 2019

The Bollywood Effect: Women Portrayed in Bollywood

By Jahnavi Patel

Bollywood, the Indian film fraternity, which has featured women from the iconic Saira Banu to the contemporary Sonam Kapoor, has been a part of the Indian Society for more than a century. In recent years, though, Bollywood has become an integral division of Indian society. It has become a source that plays a large impact on the thoughts, dreams, and goals of the Indian population.

Traditions are another device that influences the Indian community on a monumental scale. Traditions have been the backbone of Indian society for millennia. They symbolize the rich history and the culture India has to offer to the world. Traditions influence many aspects of society today, like clothing, foods, television, and even politics. But the influence Bollywood has had on our traditions is fascinating. Films have become an important source of outlook. The citizens of India have begun to view and create films in a modern manner. Movies such as Lust Stories, a film which released in 2018, features four women diving into a journey of rediscovering their sexualities. Another film would be Talvar, directed by Meghna Gulzar, which exposes the audience to the incriminating facts and truths on the rape culture that exists in India.

Films and, subsequently, traditions have begun to become modernized and display feminism within them. They have been created to educate the audience of the Indian population and expose them to the hard truths the Indian society carries. Still, a large portion of Indian traditions revolves around arranged marriages and the misogynistic views of women. The patriarchal society is and was reflected in films. Demeaning perspectives and traditions were often a part of daily life and were more likely encouraged within Indian society. The perspectives were demeaning because they viewed women as objects instead of human beings. Bollywood played a large role in creating and expanding such viewpoints. One example of the misogynistic perspective would be the film Vivah, directed by Sooraj Barajatya, which had the main actress, “typified as a girl who would wake up early, sing bhajans (hymnals), worship her husband and cook for the family," according to a review in India Today.

This movie dictated that the only aspirations a woman has are to take care of her husband and his family, nothing else. Another example would be the 2016 film, Sultan, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, which is about a female wrestler who is about to qualify for the Olympics but gives up on pursuing her career after marriage to support her husband's career. This is because making sacrifices for their families are what is expected of women in India. Women should not care about themselves but about their families; more specifically, the patriarchy. But the most effective and popular example of a misogynistic and well-received film is the Yash Raj produced film Kabhie Kushi Kabhi Gham. Kabhie Kushi Kabhie Gham, a patriarchal Bollywood film. The film was directed by Karan Johar and was released in 2001. The blockbuster dictates the “duty" of what the Indian patriarchy defines a married women's life to be revolved around. Through the help of the film Kabhie Kushi Kabhi Gham and various other contemporary movies, I will discuss the stereotypes that women have been labeled within the past and how Bollywood, today is making an effort to challenge such stereotypes and taboos.

The classic Kabhie Kushi Kabhie Gham centralized women to only be important when it comes to being nurturing and family oriented. The film symbolizes that married women only have one motive, and that is to oblige to their husbands and the elders of their family. This displays the submissiveness that is depicted in the film. The Karan Johar directorial film dictates that women have a lower position in India's patriarchal society, and instead of challenging this quota, the film embellishes the sexist views. Women's rights in India have always been a controversial subject. Journalist Deepa Narayan from The Guardian once wrote, “Women's oppression starts innocuously: it occurs in private life, within families, with girls being locked up in their own homes. This everyday violence is the product of a culture that bestows all power on men, and that does not even want women to exist."

Bollywood films adapt to this culture and create films that would encourage and promote the idea of a submissive woman. Films such as Vivah and Sultan are results of promoting the image of a submissive woman. The submissive woman listens to her elders, does not fight back against patriarchy, and is content being ignorant. Directors such as Karan Johar have played a large role in creating such submissive images of women in India.

Karan Johar is a well established Bollywood director and producer who is known for his family-oriented romantic films. Most of his films focus on the values and social controversies that revolve around the Indian culture. After the release of his patriarchal film, Kabhie Kushi Kabhi Gham, Johar also began to revolutionize his films. His first controversial film was Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, which released in 2006. The film circulates around two couples and their respective families. One married couple (Shahrukh Khan and Preity Zinta) who has fallen out of love and another who has recently been wedded but are not in love (Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukerji). The films brought out social concepts like divorce, adultery, and sexual compatibility. Issues as such would be considered taboos in India and had created an upheaval of disapproval towards the film. The film surprisingly did well in the box office. The reason why this film is considered a revolutionary film is that for the first time in Bollywood, a filmmaker was celebrating the importance of choice. The film accentuated that everyone has the right to choose who they want to love, and for a country where 90 percent of marriages are arranged, this was a big deal. After the release of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Karan Johar began to focus on breaking taboos in the Indian society. He produced films like Wake Up Sid, which released in 2009 and My Name Is Khan, which released in 2010. Wake up Sid revolves around being passionate about our life goals. The film speaks highly on not giving up and creating a place in society for ourselves using merit. In a country where corruption rates are constantly high, the film touched many hearts and worked as an eye opener towards the younger generation.

My Name Is Khan is a movie about the journey of an Indian Muslim, Rizwan Khan, who decides to embark on a mission to tell the president of the United States of America that he is a Muslim, his last name is Khan, but he is not a terrorist. This film was revolutionary for not just India but also America.

The film displays the negative treatment and torture Muslims had to go through after the horror of 9/11 because of their religion and last names. Such raw and tantalizing work made Karan Johar a well-respected and highly regarded individual in the Indian film fraternity, yet even after such great breakthroughs in Bollywood, Karan Johar refused to put a stop to sexism. A theme which has shown its identity through Bollywood films over and over again.

Sexism is not an issue that has been newly discovered but has been around since the beginning of Indian cinema. In 2017, there was a study done where researchers utilized 4,000 films to decipher if Bollywood films still carried sexist ideologies. The research concluded that “Woman characters are still mostly described with surface-level qualities, such as attractiveness and beauty—whereas men are represented as “strong" and “successful" the researchers noted. The films for this research included those from the 1950s to 2016. Nishtha Madaan of IBM India co-wrote the paper with Sameep Mehta of IBM and researchers from the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, and Delhi Technological University.

Although sexism remains to be a significant issue within the Indian society and cinema, Bollywood has gradually begun to introduce films that feature gender equality. An example of this gradual but astounding change is the film NH 10. A film released in 2015, which focused around a scorned woman's journey towards revenge. The film follows and focuses on rapes and lack of protection the Indian government and society offers. Navdeep Singh, the director of NH 10 focuses on the power a female carries and how that power is all she needs to protect herself, even in the direst of circumstances.

Another movie that pushed the boundaries of patriarchy in India is the film Parched, which released in 2015. Leena Yadav the director of Parched, describes the journey of four women settled in Rajasthan. A wife, mother, dancer, and child, who talk about men, sex, and life struggles, the film dwells deeper into the abuse of the patriarchy and how these four women work together to be rid of their demons and create a new life for them away from the hell that was burdened on them.

Such films have been created to demonstrate how confining and suffocating the patriarchy has always been. By making such films, Bollywood is finally taking its first steps towards a brighter and stronger future. Such films, which feature gender equality, such as NH 10 and Parched display the change that India drastically needs; and if the entire Indian film fraternity vocalizes and protests for this change, there is nothing that the females of this world cannot conquer.

The audience can also help make a positive change in Bollywood by searching and supporting films that centralize gender equality. Bollywood has begun to display a ray of modernism through films like Parched and NH 10. It is clear that the times have begun to change and so have the ethical practices, but one can only wish that the community keeps up and follows on this very track. Bollywood is an influential platform, and, if utilized the correct way and for the right things, there is nothing it cannot accomplish.


Jahnavi Ninad Patel is a student at Meredith College, Majoring in Business and Psychology, and is the creator of @BollyDivine an entertainment website featured on Instagram. Contact Address: