One of the world’s largest entertainment markets, the Bollywood film industry sells nearly 2.2 billion tickets annually, and that’s just within the country! With such a massive footfall and viewership every year, the film medium becomes an ideal conduit to often prompt discussions about social issues, gender concerns and feminist discourses. Over the years, the Bollywood film industry has witnessed several gems tackling such issues deftly, some engaging in an emphatic social commentary through celluloid while others slipping in engrossing concerns about women’s position in society implicitly under the cover of a commercially attractive movie. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate these ten inspiring women-centric Bollywood movies:
Starring Alia Bhatt as the eponymous heroine, the Sanjay Leela Bhansali direction is a visual feast for the eyes as it chronicles young Ganga’s meteoric rise from a small-town girl to ‘Gangubai’- a veritable figure of power in Kamathipura, Mumbai while painting an opulent picture of 20th century Mumbai and lives of sex workers. Based on S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ account of Gangubai in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, the 2022 biographical drama is a strong female-centric Bollywood movie depicting a demure Indian girl’s fight against social stigmas as the ‘empowering, feminist story’ described by the lead actress has been reviewed as an evocative feminist narrative embedded in a commercially successful melodramatic film.
The 2014 action-thriller featuring Rani Mukjeri in the lead role of policewoman Shivani Shivaji Roy, Mardaani is a thrilling narrative revolving around Roy’s stumbling upon human trafficking stints within the Indian mafia while trying to solve the case of kidnapped teenage girl Pyaari. Thoroughly researched with meetings set up with the Crime Branch of the Mumbai Police, Mardaani was well-received critically and commercially as it was hailed for breaking gender stereotypes and depicting a strong female police officer leading the movie. Mukherji’s performance was particularly applauded for balancing the roles of gritty police officer and nurturing foster mother and family woman.
Starring Vidya Balan as the pregnant Vidya Bagchi in search for her missing husband in Kolkata, Kahaani is a highly dramatic and emotional narrative of a woman’s determination and capacities. The woman-centric action film depicts Vidya Balan breaking the typecast role of the helpless damsel in distress as the film chronicles a woman’s fearless fight for justice and vengeance while delving into themes of feminism and motherhood in a patriarchal society. The film won several accolades including best screenplay, best editing and a special jury award in the 60th National Film Awards.
Directed by Gauri Shinde, English Vinglish is a heartwarming and empowering tale of an Indian mother on the journey to reclaiming her selfhood. Starring late veteran actress Sridevi as the Indian homemaker Shashi, the film delves into the hardships posed by linguistic barriers in personal as well as social lives and the freedom gained by education and independence. Inspired by Shinde’s own life experiences with her mother, the film shatters the shackles of conformity imposed on Indian women and homemakers as the film and Sridevi’s performance were unanimously commended and well-received.
Starring Aishwarya Rai and Randeep Hooda as Dalbir Kaur and Sarbjit Singh, the 2016 biographical drama chronicles the brave attempts of a sister to free her brother. Revolving around the premise of Sarbjit Singh’s accidental crossing of the Indo-Pak border and his subsequent life sentence, the film is portrayed through Dalbir Kaur’s perspective as she battles all odds to deliver justice to her brother. While the film received mixed reviews, it nevertheless remains an evocative heart-render in its depiction of a sister’s struggles to ensure her brother’s survival.
The 2014 biographical sports drama stars Priyanka Chopra as the eponymous boxer as it recounts Mary Kom’s life journey from the daughter of a rice farmer in Manipur to India’s most famous female boxer. Ranking among the highest-grossing Indian films led by an actress in a lead role, Mary Kom captures the spirit of a sportswoman through Chopra’s uninhibited portrayal as the biopic centres around a woman’s journey towards her goals and smashing obstacles and stereotypes. Despite some controversy surrounding Chopra being cast to play a Manipuri woman, the actress’ performance was nevertheless widely commended, while the movie was deemed as a “worthy attempt…ticking off milestones” (Anupama Chopra) of the renowned boxer’s career.
Starring Tapsee Pannu in the lead role of Amrita Sandhu, Thappad tackles the sensitive issue of domestic violence in Indian society with great austerity and straightforwardness. Reviewed as an “important social drama” questioning the unsaid rules of marriage, the film is not just a social commentary on the socio-emotional impact of domestic violence but also a larger panorama into the treatment of women within the legal frame of marriage and the overwhelming social conditioning subjected on women by the patriarchal society. Tapsee Pannu was particularly commended for her transformative performance from the submissive wife to the no-nonsense woman demanding for her rights.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
The 2020 biographical drama stars Janhvi Kapoor as the eponymous Indian Air Force officer and helicopter pilot. The Netflix-release was hailed as a surprisingly solid and inspiring biopic as it relayed the inspiring tale of the first female pilot in combat in a thoroughly engaging and thrilling manner. Despite claims of nepotism and controversy regarding the portrayal of the IAF, the film was deemed as a “deeply moving tale of a feminist father and his feisty daughter” by a Times of India review. Commended for the way it bashed the patriarchal mindset, the film combats the gendering of aspirations as the audience witnesses Saxena’s soaring success overcoming misogyny, prejudice and discrimination.
Starring Sridevi as the vigilante Devki Sabarwal, Mom is a hard-hitting film exposing the horrors of sexual assault and the hardships of victims speaking out. The film deals with gender politics and the lack of gender parity with regards to basic safety and survival. Sridevi’s “magnificently expressive” acting was particularly commended as she brilliantly portrayed the woeful role of a mother seeking retribution for the gruesome sexual assault of her teenage daughter. The crime-thriller went on to be rated as a ‘blockbuster’ film as it won multiple awards, including Sridevi’s posthumous National Film Award for best actress, becoming the first posthumous win in the category of best actress.
No One Killed Jessica
Another crime thriller based on real-life events, No One Killed Jessica stars Rani Mukherji and Vidya Balan in leading roles. Inspired by the real-life murder of Jessica Lal, the movie chronicles the unrelenting efforts of feisty journalist Meera Gaity (Mukjerji) and the murdered subject’s infuriated sister Sabrina Lal (Balan) as they strive for justice in avenging Jessica’s murder. The film brings out themes of women’s rights, systemic corruption and legal justice and was critically acclaimed for the spirited portrayal of two female leads and its social message.
Also read: Women in Indian media: Refashioning India