Enjoying Bollywood movies can be hard to do if you’re a feminist. The most popular of Bollywood films tend to feature “item songs” and redundant story lines, and while those can be fun (I’ve seen the Dhoom movies a ridiculous amount of times), it gets tiring to see the talent in a woman passed up for her ability to do a hypersexual dance number.
However, I do love Bollywood movies, and I know that many of my fellow feminists do as well, which is why I put together a list of some of the most feminist Bollywood movies I’ve seen.
Queen stars Kangana Ranaut as a young woman named Rani whose husband calls off their wedding, complaining that Rani’s conservatism is unattractive to him. Heartbroken, but compelled to get over it, Rani goes on their pre-booked honeymoon anyways (alone, of course.) She travels to Paris and Amsterdam, and along the way, meets many interesting people who teach her a lot about herself. When she returns to India, she is full of sincere self-love. Queen is a simple coming-of-age movie with a predictable plot, but it’s genuinely one of the best Bollywood movies I have ever seen. (Psst: the whole thing is on Dailymotion — with subtitles — but you didn’t hear it from me.)
Priyanka Chopra stars as an aspiring model named Meghna Mathur in Fashion. She defies her parents’ wishes and goes to Mumbai to become a model. She struggles with several rejections, but finally catches a break after making some good friends and exhibiting confidence during a meeting with an executive at a major modeling agency. However, the fame gets to her head, and her health and relationships slowly start to deteriorate as she gets involved with drugs and alcohol. Meghna has to overcome her addictions and feelings of depression to get her career back on track.
In Kahaani, Vidya Balan plays a woman named Vidya Bagchi who, even though in her final trimester of pregnancy, travels to Kolkata to track down her missing husband. She stays alone in a poorly-managed hostel, determined to find her husband, even though she is scared and everyone she encounters tells her that her husband probably left her because he didn’t want to raise the baby with her. She slowly figures out that her husband’s death was part of a bigger incident involving the federal government and a rogue agent-turned-terrorist. Despite being threatened (and also very pregnant,) Vidya continues to look for answers.
English Vinglish (2012)
English Vinglish follows Bollywood icon Sridevi in her first role after a hiatus of 15 years. She plays a housewife named Shashi Godbole, who, after being mocked for her inability to speak English, secretly takes language classes in New York City while visiting for a wedding. Scared but determined, Shashi overcomes her fears of being alone and learns how to navigate the big city. Despite the post-colonialist mindsets of the people around her, Shashi learns to respect herself and comes to the conclusion that no one is any less of a person just because they can’t speak English.
No One Killed Jessica (2011)
No One Killed Jessica stars Vidya Balan and Rani Mukerji and is based on the real-life murder of Jessica Lal, a model and waitress who was shot to death by the son of a politician. The court initially acquitted the killer, Manu Sharma, due to his family’s political and financial influence. The acquittal caused protest and uproar among the Indian public, and when the case was re-opened, Jessica’s killer was sentenced to life in prison. No One Killed Jessica combines fact and fiction to showcase that India wasn’t going to let corrupt politics bury Jessica Lal without justice.
Chak De! India (2007)
Chak De! India explores the (fictional) account of a disgraced ex-field hockey player Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), who sets out to clear his name of false accusations of “throwing” an important match. The film addresses the religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India, as well as the strains of the India/Pakistan partition. Another prevalent theme in the movie is that of sexism in sports. Kabir Khan struggles to train a group of young women from all over India in order to get them ready for the world field hockey championship. Though initially divided by their own prejudices, the team comes together after they feel the need to unite to show India that women are just as good as men (this happens during an iconic scene during which the entire team beats the crap out of some guys for sexually harassing one of their teammates.)
Need more films with masala instead of misogyny? Other feminist/women-centric Bollywood movies include Mary Kom, The Dirty Picture, Saat Khoon Maaf, and Mardaani. Share your favorites in the comments.
India has a reputation of having a generally sexist society, and Bollywood is seen as a flashy, sometimes silly industry. However, anyone in India could tell you about compelling movies they’ve seen that have come right out of Bollywood. The Bollywood industry is more than costume changes and dance numbers, and it’s not hard to find captivating, beautifully written movies starring incredibly talented people.
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Shailee Koranne is a student in Toronto working towards a double major in equity and women & gender studies. If she’s not reading, writing, or talking about social justice, she’s probably dreaming about the sitcom she hopes to write one day. Find her on Twitter at @ssshailee.