Women in Bollywood have always made news. However, for some time now, they are creating ripples in the male-dominated entertainment industry for their enterprise and independent stands. Bollywood has had women rubbing shoulders with the menfolk in the past years but it’s just that with the turn of the century, they have come to establish their presence with some stability and it’s no more a case of flash in the pan.
Women in Bollywood narrative should begin with none other than “the first lady of Indian cinema”, Devika Rani Chaudhuri (1908-1994), popularly known as Devika Rani. Having a successful film career spanning for more than a decade, she is credited for being one of the earliest personalities who took the position of Indian cinema to global standards. The roles played by her in films of Bombay Talkies involved romantic relationships with men who were unusual for the social norms prevailing in society at that time.
“Her attires, both in films and sometimes in real life, were considered ‘risque’. She did what no one thought of doing in the industry ever,” says Prabhu Rao, a Delhi-based designer. In his book Bless You Bollywood!: A Tribute To Hindi Cinema On Completing 100 Years, Tilak Rishi mentions that Devika Rani was known as the “dragon lady” for her “smoking, drinking, cursing and hot temper”.
She was honoured with a Padma Shri in 1958 by the government of India and became the first ever recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke award as well. Such was her charisma... She set a trend for Indian women in the world of being “bold”.
The other icon of the early years was Fearless Nadia. Born as Mary Ann Evans, in 1908 in Perth, Western Australia, the world knew her as “Fearless Nadia”. Evans was an actress and a stunt woman, who is most remembered as the masked, cloaked adventurer in her Indian film Hunterwali (woman with a whip) released in 1935, which was one of the earliest female-lead Indian films.
She toured India as a theatre artist and began working for Zarko Circus in 1930. She was introduced to Hindi films by Jamshed Wadia, founder of Wadia Movietone, the behemoth of stunts and action in 1930s Bombay. At first, Wadia was bemused at Evans insistence on trying out for the movies, but he took a gamble by giving her a cameo as a slave girl in the film Desh Deepak (1935), and then as ‘Princess Parizaad’ in Noor-e-Yaman, the same year. Such was her talent... Setting standards for stuntwomen in India.
Decades later, we come across a similar story. But this stuntwoman is a real hero as the “stunts performed” are in her real and not reel life. Jumping through glass, driving cars at break-neck speeds and being set on fire – the job of a stuntman requires guts and a lot of training. 31-year-old Geeta Tandon was born in Mumbai in a Punjabi family. She lost her parents at a very early age and was married off when she was only 15.
A recent video by a Youtube channel gave Tandon the opportunity to share her story with the world. A successful Bollywood stuntwoman since 2009, Tandon has survived child marriage, motherhood before the age of 21 and brutal domestic violence that included rape. In 2008, she fled from all the atrocities and landed up being a stuntswoman.
She was offered work due to her attitude. Till date, she has pulled off stunts for actors such as Deepika Padukone, Parineeti Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Bipasha Basu in films such as Chennai Express, Hasee Toh Phasee, Ragini MMS, Singh Saab The Great and Lamhaa. Such is the story of this warrior... From stunts to being a positive role model!
The world knows of Kiran Rao, her accomplishments in the world of cinema, and her personal life as well. What only a few are acquainted with is the fact that before coming out with movies such as Delhi Belly, Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, Rao worked as a mere assistant in the ad world which paid her peanuts.
She has been a trendsetter in Bollywood with her taste in the kinds of stories she worked on. “Not many agree to work on projects such as Dhobi Ghat.
The idea of parallel cinema was taken up step with Rao’s Peepli Live, which managed to bag multiple awards”, says Ravikant Dua, a teacher at one of Delhi’s film schools. Such is the strength of this movie-maker... She chooses what most foresee.
Unlike Rao, not many have heard of Alankrita Shrivastava, a debutante director, who has worked her magic on flicks such as Turning 30. Shrivastava has currently been in news for a film called Lipstick Under My Burkha. The film, set in the crowded lanes of small town India, chronicles the secret lives of four women in search of a little freedom.
The film was a pit for a lot of varied controversies, faced a couple of screening rejections and viewer criticism. “A film like this faces so many issues over its release, not because it’s not commercial enough? No. The primary reason is that we are scared of the fact that we might see ourselves somewhere on screen and the truth, being brutal as always, might not give us a good vibe.
So that is where the discussion usually ends and we are fed with the same content that sticks to our systems for years”, says Aviral Mathur, an upcoming filmmaker from AISFM, Hyderabad.
“I wanted to explore the feeling of not being free and looking for change from within. It is something that many women grapple with,” says Alankrita. “Burqa is more like a metaphor for the way women veil their desires.
It is like what we want we are not able to reach out for as we tend to suppress our desires. It is an expression for the claustrophobia that many women live with”, she added. Such is the extent of creativity which the world pays no attention to.
Then there are creative hot-spots such as Talaash, NH10 and Queen. Director Reema Kagti is known for her pervasive directing style in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, which was followed by neo-noir Talaash.
Rajshree Ojha, known because of her film Chaurahen, a project that was shelved many times due to financial issues, finally had a theatrical release in 2012 through Director’s Rare, an initiative by PVR Pictures. “Directors such as Ojha are the future of our cinema.
They strike chords with issues that need attention, making them a trendsetter in their own way”, said a PVR official. The movie was showcased in many film festivals and received critical appreciation.
Actors such as Anushka Sharma, Kangna Ranaut and Radhika Apte who have, time and again, proved that Bollywood is no less of a platform for leading women-centric films. Fashion is not the only thing women ace in B-town. It’s about the kind of project you want to be associated with and how. These women have showed to the world that women too can lead a successful way, on their own terms.
“Kangana Ranaut has truly proved to be a trendsetter in Bollywood. She’s not the actress who restricts herself to the typical roles and rather takes challenging roles and pulls them off like she was made for them. Starting from Gangster (her debut movie), almost all her movies show the actress portraying different and strong characters.
Be it the simple and real ‘Rani’ in Queen, to the outgoing and fearless ‘Tanu’ in Tanu Weds Manu”, says Disha Ahluwalia, a student. “Also, she is the one who speaks her mind in public and shows that she is not afraid of anyone. The actress demands respect and earns it,” she added.
Although Indian films are trying to break stereotypes and opting for innovative characters, these women have a lot to contribute to the process. Despite a spate of several prominent female-oriented films, the world of entertainment has now opened its arms for women-induced ideas and trends.
Today’s woman is all about change and respect. The work she does is a kind of art in itself. She directs, she acts, she sings, she designs, she writes, she invests and is not scared of taking risks. She can conquer it all.