Almost two years ago, I wrote a list of feminist Bollywood movies for The Aerogram; since then, I’ve watched lots more Bollywood movies worth celebrating, all with strong female leads and important, authentic stories. However, and more importantly, feminism and women-centric films are still very necessary in today’s India seeing as award-winning film Lipstick Under My Burkha has been deemed too “lady-oriented” for Bollywood. It appears even though Bollywood has been churning out lots of feminist films lately, the films can’t be too feminist.
Also, if I may — I retract Fashion from my first list. I rewatched it recently and it doesn’t have much going for it besides having more than one woman in it.
It’s time to support smart, authentic feminist Bollywood films until and after the subject matter of Lipstick Under my Burkha becomes the norm for box office success, and whatever toxic and hyper-masculine movie Salman Khan releases next becomes the model for box office flop. Read on for trailers and quick plot summaries of even more feminist Bollywood movies!
Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)
The Central Board of Film Certification is yet to certify this film because it contains “sexual scenes, abusive words, and audio pornography,” so it has yet to have an official release, but we want to hype it up anyway. Lipstick Under my Burkha (known in India as Lipstick Waale Sapne, or Lipstick Dreams) stars Bollywood veterans Ratna Pathak and Konkona Sen Sharma, along with some familiar faces like Aahana Kumra and Sushant Singh.
The film is about the secret lives of four women — a burqa-wearing girl in college, a mother, a beautician, and a widow rediscovering her sexuality — who are in search of liberation, finding some freedom in small acts of rebellion (like wearing lipstick under their burkhas). In an industry rife with sexism, with everything from impossible beauty standards to mainstream movies still featuring “item numbers,” Lipstick Under my Burkha is a necessary portrayal of what womanhood is truly like, so while we can’t watch the movie yet, we encourage you to spread the word about Lipstick Under my Burkha until it gets the widespread release that it deserves.
Margarita with a Straw (2014)
Kalki Koechlin stars as Laila, a teenager with cerebral palsy, in the heartwarming and boundary-pushing movie Margarita with a Straw. Laila is an artistic and curious young woman who accepts an offer to study abroad in the States; there, she meets some people who explore her identity in new ways. Rarely do we get to see disabled people in movies be anything other than a sad reminder for able-bodied people to be glad they are not disabled. However, Margarita with a Straw is an unapologetic and real exploration of the life of a woman with talents and flaws, gracefully considering the intersections of her disability, sexuality, race, and gender. The movie writes a disabled woman’s character as a real human being, challenging audiences to re-think how they view disability.
Piku follows Deepika Padukone as the titular character, a successful architect who provides for herself and takes care of her father. She is around the age that many women are expected to get married, but she is more interested in casual sex and pursuing her career than marriage. Piku also stars Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan as Piku’s eccentric father, who demands that he be driven to his far-away hometown, convinced that it is without a doubt the only cure for his chronic constipation. Despite the silly premise, Piku is a very progressive Bollywood movie, portraying the modern Indian woman in all her independence and authenticity.
Another movie starring Amitabh Bachchan, Pink is really about three women fighting for their rights in a case of sexual assault. Bachchan plays the retired lawyer who takes on the girls’ case pro bono, while Taapsee Pannu, Falak Ali, and Andrea Tariang play Meenal, Falak, and Andrea, three roommates who refuse to back down against intimidation and corruption so their attackers can be brought to justice. Throughout the film, Bachchan criticizes “The Rules,” which state that an independent, flirtatious, sexually liberated woman who drinks was asking to be assaulted, challenging the courtroom — and the viewers — to think hard about the unfair expectations and respectability politics that women and sexual assault survivors are burdened with.
Not only that, but the film addresses exotification and fetishization problems among Indians, who often treat Northeastern Indian women poorly because they look different. While the film has received some criticism for being male savior-esque, fantastic performances from Pannu, Ali, and Tariang and a mainstream exploration of consent and rape culture are too good to pass up.
Aaja Nachle (2007)
Aaja Nachle follows Bollywood veteran Madhuri Dixit as Dia, a single mother and choreographer who lives in the United States, who returns to her hometown in India to find that the beloved dance theatre that she grew up dancing in is being demolished so a mall can be built in its place. Even though Dia was ostracized by almost everyone in town including her parents after she fell in love with a white American man, leaving her to elope, upon her return she stands up to the bigotry, politics, and bullying. She puts together a stunning musical to win over the town and save the theatre, with the ultimate goal of bringing art back to her village. Aaja Nachle reminds us that women have agency over their marital lives, and that culture belongs to the people and cannot be paved over for capitalistic pursuits — or anything else.
Neerja stars Sonam Kapoor in a biographical role as Neerja Bhanot, an Indian airline stewardess who died saving the lives of passengers on a plane that was hijacked by terrorists. Bollywood has made loads of biopics about India’s male heroes — some of whom did not necessarily deserve the label of “hero” — but Neerja tells us the authentic story of a real Indian hero. The film portrays Neerja’s life as less-than-perfect, showing us her loveless and abusive marriage, teaching us that we should not wait till they are dead to honor the strength and resilience of Indian women.
The Fob and I (2015-)
Okay, so this last one isn’t technically a movie, nor does it fall under the banner of Bollywood, but it’s so delightful that I couldn’t keep it off the list — The Fob and I, created by Meenakshi Ramamurthy, is a web-series about “2 Indians that are different.” The series follows Sita and Jisha, cousins living together in L.A. Sita, played by Shefali Deshay, has lived her whole life in America, while Jisha (Uttera Gautam) is a FOB from India.
Together, the two navigate tricky topics like cultural appropriation, stereotypes, identity politics, living in the diaspora, and more. It’s incredibly refreshing to see two versatile female Indian characters together in the same show, especially when productions made in the West usually don’t give us anything more than Raj from the Big Bang Theory (this is why we need to put more people of color in charge of things!). Watch full episodes on the show’s website while we all wait for season two to come out.
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