It's entirely possible that my DNA slept in when the feminism gene got distributed because I can't bring myself to ever be much of a feminist. In fact I often find myself siding with the guy, even when he's a jerk (granted, only if he ends up redeeming himself somehow), so women tend to get overlooked by me.
In light of a few recent conversations about female roles in cinema - and not necessarily in Indian cinema - I started thinking about what can be said in defense of the depiction of women in Indian cinema. (I will unfortunately have to talk exclusively about Bollywood, because given the nature of the action packed, hero-heavy Southie movies I have watched so far, the women in the South have not yet managed to impress me.) And I reached the somewhat surprising conclusion that I like certain Indian ladies much more than their American counterparts. While in North American movies (and TV shows) being an independent, powerful woman has become synonymous with being a bitch, or hating men, or at least with being a cheeky brat (can you tell the latest HW movie I've seen was Prince of Persia?), the few characters that did impress me in Bollywood in the strong woman avatar achieved that without hitting any of the above pre-requisites. I have more respect for those few Women in Indian cinema than for the million females in Western cinema because for me being an attractive woman implies managing to balance smarts with sensitivity and sweetness.
Zooni (played by Kajol) in Fanaa and Dia (played by Madhuri Dixit) in Aaja Nachle are the first women who come to mind that strike that fine balance.
Zooni knows how to put relentless Rehan in his place but without once becoming snarky or cheeky. She manages to rebuff him (with poetry too!) while still remaining accessible and interesting. And she does wonderfully as a capable single mother in the second half of the movie. This is a woman who will not let destiny tell her what to do and where to be, and it's almost ironic that Rehan teases her in the beginning about only doing what her parents advised her to. Boy does she prove him wrong! Regardless of how many ways to interpret the ending of the movie there are out there, one thing is for sure: Zooni sticks to her principles throughout the entire journey, all while living life to the fullest, and I for one respect that.
I have very similar feelings for Madhuri's character, Dia, in Aaja Nachle because despite being just a little bit on the snarky side, she graciously dances her way through being a single mother and a successful professional in the US while not losing that feminine side of her personality. Even if she sometimes manages her own interactions with men "the American way", her Indian feminine side comes through when she coaches Anokhi to get the attention of the man she loves. I suppose it also helps that this is the sexiest Madhuri has ever looked too!
There are other great examples of women being dealt a bad hand and proving that giving up is not an option, but that neither is turning bitter and resentful. However, not all women become strong because fate doesn't give them a choice. Some Indian ladies are wonderful, cool, uncompromising women from the very beginning. In this category I have also picked two favourites: Aisha in Wake Up Sid! and Jodhaa in Jodhaa Akbar.
Aisha lives by herself, makes it on her own terms and despite not having many friends in a new city, she doesn't rely on anyone to rescue her. Most importantly she's capable of seeing and appreciating the change in Sid when other women would have probably walked away. She can be playful and sexy as needed, and when she makes a mistake in evaluating a potential relationship with a man, she is confident enough to call it. I liked that even when she is upset or displeased with Sid (and there's a lot of that, let me tell you) she still communicates without excessive bitterness or unnecessary spite. What is there not to love? One of my favourite Konkona Sen Sharma roles.
Jodhaa is my last entry on this short list that is just the tip of the iceberg. The Rajput princess won me over with her determination and valour, spiced by a little bit of mischief and just a sprinkle of flirt to complement her majestic beauty. She stands her ground in front of the most powerful man on the continent and wins every battle without having to become a man or behave like one.
I realized after giving this some thought that as much as we always point out that Bollywood is eons behind when it comes to empowering the fair sex, they have a knack for getting it exactly right when they do put their minds to it. The last female character that charmed me so completely in Hollywood was Baz Luhrman's Juliet, and guess what: neither Baz nor Shakespeare hail from Hollywood!
5 hours ago