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Can Bollywood women be compared to those in Hollywood?

Joanna Banerjee-Fischer
February 6, 2024

Women in both Hollywood and Bollywood are often hired to play supporting characters to their male heroes. Apart from that similiarity, how else do the two worlds compare?

Halle Berry plays the lead character in 'Catwoman' (2004)
Hollywood studios churn out multimillion-dollar superhero films with female protagonists in tight silicon suits that belie all realistic representationImage: picture-alliance Everett Collection

India's Hindi film industry, Bollywood, is based out of the country's financial capital, Mumbai. The name Bollywood is a compound of the words Bombay, the old name for the city of Mumbai, and Hollywood, the glitzy US blockbuster movie industry.

The name Bollywood was coined in the 1970s to make one of the world's most successful industries more palatable to Western audiences.

But, is it possible to compare Bollywood to Hollywood, particularly when it comes to women working in the movies?

The short answer is "no," according to Priyanka Singh, a lecturer in film studies who specializes in women's authorship and representation in Indian cinema at the University of Leeds. "In India, films are like a religion."

Man and woman dancing, woman wraps a fluttering bright orange scarf around the man
The role of many women characters in Bollywood movies was either to be rescued by the male hero or damned to hellImage: Rapid Eye Movies/dpa/picture alliance

Early days of Indian nation building

In their early years, movies in Bollywood and Hollywood had very different goals and purposes, as well as different audiences — and therefore the portrayal of women on screen was different.

Bollywood was only a few decades older than India's 1947 independence from British colonial rule, and movies had a heavy burden to carry.

The first International Film Festival of India was inaugurated under the guidance of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who stressed cinema's role in nation building.

"Film has become a powerful influence in people's lives," he said. "It can educate them rightly or wrongly."

Films of the time reflected the government's strong socialist agenda and glorification of the tireless farmers and the woman as a personification of Indian ideals.

"Mother India" (1957) tells the story of a woman who emerges from extreme poverty and unspeakable hardship into a life where she flourishes and in a land that has progressed. A land that she refuses to leave until it has been resurrected.

This portrayal was weighed down by the task of setting an example, depicting qualities of the so-called perfect woman.

"The women after independence needed to be sacrificing, patient, perfect embodiment of femininity," Singh told DW.

#MeToo in Bollywood

Early Hollywood: Disruptive damsels

A world apart, in Hollywood, far from showcasing the values of a nation, Hollywood darlings were sending the United States' traditional Christian values into a tizzy.

Hollywood blossomed as America's favorite escapist art. In the 1920s and '30s, female protagonists were equally scandalizing both genders.

In these narratives, women were using sex to be rich and happy, like in "Babyface" (1933).

Not so long after, the "Golden Age of Hollywood" saw their successors either titillating audiences or making them fall in love, or both.

Nowadays, there are ground rules on Bollywood film sets that have created a safe space for consent during intimate scenes, but during 1980s and '90s — described as the dark ages of Hindi cinema — women were portrayed as either wives, mothers, prostitutes or morbidly fat in order to attract cheap laughs from audiences.

Reflecting on this time, where the depictions were devoid of checks and balances, Singh told DW, "Ethics need to be defined when it comes to cinema in India."

Henry Cavill (Superman/Clark Kent), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Ben Affleck (Batman/ Bruce Wayne)
Hyper sexualized body-to-body combat charged with sexual tension, close-ups of body parts populate many Hollywood blockbustersImage: Warner Bros. Enternainment Inc./TM & DC Comics/dpa

Female: 'Not necessarily mean feminine'

Meanwhile in Hollywood, female protagonists were now saving space missions, such as in "Alien" (1971) — or quietly breaking psychopaths in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) — or were quite literally on a roll, as we saw in "Thelma and Louise" (1991).

In his paper"Evolution of the female roles in the US," M.J. Bakhtiari wrote, "The eighties was a decade of tremendous change that gave the Hollywood industry and American films its modern shape and form."

But in Bollywood, feminism had a different place.

Low budget films like "Manthan" (1976), "Mirch Masala" (1986) and "Arth" (1982) remained the domain of a handful of film makers and their clique of film school graduates forming the so-called parallel cinema — finding little resonance with the masses.

"Indian independent cinema is so ahead of its time" where "authorship became really important," Singh told DW.

Although the notion that female doesn't necessarily mean feminine had arrived in both industries, they were being projected differently.

Searing social commentaries about the wife or the mother, the invisible heroes of Indian households, were told almost entirely by men.

For example, "Astitva" (2000) and "Lajja" (2001) were conceptualized, directed and produced by men.

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More recent Bollywood films like "Queen" (2013), "Piku" (2015) and "Thappad" (2022) — all stories of uncompromising young women — have brought lasting change.

Together with "Gangubai Kathiawadi" (2022), one of the year's commercial winners, the films turned out to be dark horses from the stables of successful, celebrated male mainstream makers.

Hollywood wave charged and led by women

Mainstream Hollywood sweethearts came together as producers, directors, writers and swapped roles.

Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig coming together for the history-making "Barbie" (2023) is the latest example.

Still an overwhelmingly male domain, top studios in Hollywood are churning out multimillion-dollar superhero films with female protagonists in tight silicon suits that belie all realistic representation.

"Wonder Woman" (2017), "Cat Woman" (2004) and "Black Widow" (2021) continue to be pin-up favorites.

The record-breaking Bollywood successes in recent times were built on the back of commercially successful heroines literally on their knees.

Male protagonists in "Kabir Singh" (2019), and now "Animal" (2023) base their power and relevance on their brutality and misogyny.

The objectification of women in Bollywood, as much as we'd like to tout as a thing of the past, continues to raise its head.

Edited by: Keith Walker