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The Evolution Of Bollywood’s Representation Of Working Women

. 8 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
The Evolution Of Bollywood’s Representation Of Working Women

When I think back to the films that shaped my ambition and career goals as a young girl, I picture Anne Hathaway in a fast-paced work environment in Devil Wears Prada, Reese Witherspoon conquering a court-room in Legally Blonde, Sarah Jessica Parker churning out her beloved weekly columns in Sex and The City, Lorelai Gilmore running her own business in Gilmore Girls… but where were my Bollywood career role models?

Bollywood has undeniably evolved over the years. Some say it’s for the better, while some (aka my dad) insist Bollywood peaked at Sholay and it’s all been downhill from there.

So, as society and women’s positions in it evolves, how has Bollywood’s relationship with working women changed over the years? Will the next generation of impressionable girls have strong Bollywood career role models to look back on, or is Bollywood’s relationship status with working women still be stuck on “It’s complicated”? 

Let’s take a look at the evolution of Bollywood’s working women representation over the years.

(Scroll down to the end of the article to watch a video on the same topic.)

The Evolution Of Bollywood’s ‘It’s Complicated’ Relationship With Working Women

It’s hard to imagine Bollywood of the 50s or even 80s, having any kind of a relationship with a woman who pursued something beyond a marital relationship. Other than a few rare examples of working women the norm for years was for the female character’s personality, aspirations, and conflicts to revolve solely around her desire to marry the man of her dreams.

Radha, Mother India

There was Mother India’s Radha in the 50s, forced to work in the fields after her husband was injured. Her iconic stature in the film comes at the cost of great personal sacrifice – her embittered husband leaves her, and she has to shoot her own wayward son at the end

Marina, Mary, an Master Meenu in Mera Naam Joker

Forward to the 70s, Raj Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker has three love interests. One is a teacher, one of the few careers allowed to women, who presumably gives up her job after getting married. Another is a circus performer, an outsider who doesn’t want to marry. The third is a street performer, whose career and ambition is painted in a negative light.

Basanti, Sholay

And of course, we had Hema Malini’s Basanti in the 70s, working a conventionally male job as a taangewaali in Sholay. However, that’s just a trope for her to get to meet the man of her dreams, who she can marry for a happy ending. Entering into the 80s, Hema Malini was also a nurse in Satte pe Satta! However, she finally just ends up nursing, and mothering, the hero and his six uncouth brothers… that’s a ton of unpaid labour, passed off as her wifely duty!

Nargis in Pakeezah, Kamini in Don

Another common career path for female characters in Bollywood’s early years was that of a courtesan, which later transitioned into bar dancers – both completely valid jobs. Where Bollywood strayed however is the negative light it often shone on the courtesan culture – either questioning their morality, having them humiliated, or more often than not, even killed. The impure or villainous sensual figure trope is something that Bollywood carried on into the 80s and 90s with cabaret dancers, like those often played by Helen.

We had a few films of that species in the 70s and 80s like Abhimaan, Abhinetri, and Khamoshi, that portrayed women as having successful career paths. But the woman’s career was needed only because it was integral to her relationship with the man and his storyline. The women having careers was not a character point – just a plot point. 

Uma Kumar, Abhimaan

In Abhimaan, for example, Jaya Bachchan’s thriving career as a singer sparks jealousy in her husband. Her success, and the problems it causes in their marriage, is the central plot of the film.

Anjana, Abhinetri

Similarly, in Abhinetri, Hema Malini’s Anju is a professional dancer, and her husband, Shashi Kapooor, cannot handle her fame and her appeal to men. He asks her to choose between her profession and him, and while she initially makes the bold move to leave him, the film ends with a cop out where they reunite in domestic bliss. 

Seema, Mr India

Cut to 1987. Sridevi is a journalist who lives on her own, but ultimately has to rescued by Mr. India and his troop when she gets into trouble pursuing a hot lead. 

A year later, Rekha comes back from death in Khoon Bhari Maang to become a successful model. However, she only does that to extract revenge and get her family back.Again – her career is a plot point, not character point. 

Some notably powerful characters like Smita Patil’s Bindu in Manthan leads the women of her village towards greater independence. But unfortunately, these characters were relegated to the realm of ‘art’ films. 

Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Simran in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge

Right up to the late 90s and early 2000s Bollywood seems to have put up a valiant resistance to positive and wholesome portrayals of working women. It did progress with the times, and showed women having pursued an education, like in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, Dil Toh Pagal Hai or Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon.

But wait, Anjali left college mid-term just because she didn’t get the man she loved! Madhuri danced her last dance because she is was getting married! Kareena Kapoor enthusiastically participated in her college farewell, and was immediately thrust into her parent’s arranged marriage plans for her! The next obvious step, even after educating the woman, was still not for her to build a career. 

Sonia, Aitraaz

And then there were the educated, independent, sassy “villains”, like Priyanka Chopra in Aitraaz or Sridevi in Ladla. In Ladla, she was even shown her place in the end with a resounding slap, after which she quits her work leading her factory and becomes a housewife. The woman having a career and being independent seems to have been the cherry on top in her character description, when wanting to sway an audience against her. 

One might argue that this is only a reflection of the societal resistance and negativity attached to a working woman during that period. Bollywood, then, did nothing to put out this flame of sexism, by fanning it on-screen.

Romi in Lakshya, Piku in Piku, Aisha in Wake Up Sid, and Sulu in Tumhari Sulu.

The last two decades, however, have not only seen a growing number of working female characters being shown on-screen, but also quite a few being shown in a wholesome, unproblematic manner – like Romi in Lakshya, Aisha in Wake Up Sid, Shruti Kakkar in Band Baaja Baarat, Piku in Piku, Sulu in Tumhari Sulu, and several others! They are shown as having unapologetic aspirations and compex, fleshed-out relationships with their careers that are independent of their relationships with the man. 

Bollywood filmmakers have clearly realised and accepted that in today’s day and age, they cannot have a female character without any aspirations beyond romance and finding the “dream man”, without good reason. While this has given us some wonderfully authentic female representation, it has also resulted in a lot of token representation. 

Naina in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

On the one hand we have the token job holders. Take Naina in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani for example, whose career as a doctor is barely paid any attention to in the film – despite her technically being the protagonist and narrator. This is in stark contrast to Ranbir Kapoor’s Bunny who gets entire scenes and musical montages dedicated to his ambition, love for his job, and how great he is at it!

On the other hand, we have the token empowered women. Characters like Tanu in Tanu Weds Manu, Rumi in Manmarziyaan, or Bitti in Bareilly ki Barfi, were liberated women and extremely memorable female leads. But the mark of their independence was reduced to the ability and freedom to drink, smoke and have multiple sexual partners. 

Tanu in Tanu Weds Manu

And while the freedom to do all these things can definitely be a step in asserting their agency… What did they do for a living? Why is having a career not a part of this on-screen female liberation equation?

We don’t mean to nitpick, but even if we were, it’s honestly nice to realise that we’ve evolved enough in the volume and quality of working women depicted in Bollywood, to now be able to ask for consistency in this portrayal on-screen.

It’s time Bollywood updated its relationship status with working women once and for all from “it’s complicated” to “committed” – committed to positive and authentic representation of empowered women and their career paths in reel, so as to encourage and empower them in real!  

Too long, didn’t read? Watch this quick, fun video that takes you through the evolution of Bollywood’s working women right from the 50s to the present day. 

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