The Portrayal of Independent Women in Bollywood

Screenshot from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

Screenshot from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

Patriarchy and gender roles are still a major issue in India and are a common recurring theme in Bollywood movies. Dil Dhadkne Do and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange are both very different movies. Both are set 20 years apart from each other, although each film's characters have similar values and traditions. The narratives of Hindi cinema have undoubtedly been male dominated and male-centric, however the heroine’s role is charted out according to the male. She is devoid of any independent existence and her journey throughout the films is explored in relation to the male character.

The main themes in both films are patriarchy and keeping traditional values intact.

Divorce plays a major part in society and is considered a taboo. These themes dwell upon the sacrifice that women make after marriage. The romantic element of the films do more than just create a change between the two, which serves to uphold patriarchal notions of women. These movies address the difference between modern vs. tradition, men vs. women, and oppressor vs. oppressed.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is a 1995 romantic drama film. The film tells the story of a young couple who fall in love on a European vacation and how the boy tries to win over the girl's parents so that she can marry him rather than the boy who her father has chosen. Simran (the lead female character) does as she's told, as does her mother, but in the end Simran gets to be with Raj (the lead male character), but not until Raj has asked permission from her father to marry her. While shining a light on the patriarchal nature of Indian society, in the end, the love story is resolved. In the 2000’s Hindi cinema began to convert movies more to ‘English’ norms, with the growing influence of the Indian diaspora. Bollywood started making more movies for English-speaking Indians.

Dil Dhadkne Do follows the wealthy, yet extremely dysfunctional Mehra family as they go on a cruise with their friends and family. The whole story is set on a ship enhancing the feeling of being trapped and an inability to run away from family problems. The film tackles the issue of gender inequality and interpersonal relationships within Indian culture. The Mehra’s are the kind of family who, despite being wealthy and well traveled, still cling on to patriarchal traditions and want their son married to a potential business associate's daughter. Their daughter Ayesha Mehra is a self-achieved girl and is never given the credit, since she is a girl as her family, in-laws, and husband look down upon her.

Many women sell into the culture of patriarchy, believing that it's their job to obey and to serve men.

Girls were raised to assume patriarchal conditions, and boys are raised with full conscious of their distinctiveness. Throughout the years, we have created a society where men have authority and where women’s access to it is restricted. Dil Dhadkne Do is targeted towards the same class of audience. A common tradition of Indian families is after marrying, a woman usually moves to the residence of her husband's family. Ayesha’s name does not ever appear on her parent’s anniversary card, although she planned the whole event. Likely because she is not considered a part of that family: she now belongs to her in-laws. Her father is plays the role of a patriarch but does not allow her to have the name of the family. It is believed that, a wife should always ask her husband for permission to do anything.

In Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the father is a typical patriarch who lives in London but still reminisces about India. Simran’s mother does not have a say in his decisions and although she grew up to believe that patriarchy did not exist, she has realised that in our society it is still intact. Simran's father reinforces the idea that house members should react according to a man’s decisions. He even promises to give the hand of his daughter to the son of an old friend in Punjab, portraying women as devoid of the right to be be able to make important decisions, as a man would. The 20-year gap between the two films shows the progress women have made in movies; in Dilwale Duhlania Le Jayange the wife does not speak in front of her husband. Whereas in Dil Dhadkne Do the wife refuses to listen to her husband.

The gender bias plays a role in creating tension in relationships.

Shefali Shah who plays the mum in Dil Dhadkne Do, Neelam, says

“Generally, gender roles are formed through nurture (socialisation, parenting, education). Parents (not just South Asians) distribute household tasks based on gender such as washing dishes to daughters and mowing the lawn to sons.”

Parents typically make these roles clear by stating that if you’re a girl, you need to know how to cook. Dil Dhadakne Do explores the controversial role of business women in Indian society. The son often says he does not feel he is able to take over the family business. His parents respond with 'if you do not who else will', as if they do not have another qualified child. Clearly, in their view, the daughter can never be capable of taking over the family business. Kamal, the father, also announces that he wants a grandson from Ayesha. Instead of saying ‘grandchild’, it is clear that having a girl can never be compared to having a boy. The dialogue throughout the movie calls attention to the hypocrisies and double standards females face on a daily basis, many of which go unnoticed. During the wedding scene in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the women are expected to stay at home and do all the household work, while the men go out, drink, and practice shooting. Simran has a lot of convincing to do when wants to go on a trip with her friends, whereas Raj simply just tells his father he will be going out with his friends. This scenario clearly shows that there are different norm set for women.

Society is marriage oriented and insists on having women in the bonds of relationships.

Almost all major movies find some way to work in romance as if it is a necessary part to create a successful conclusion. The re-marriage of divorcees has been a complicated issue. There is the mentality that there must be something wrong with the person if they could not make their marriage last. Our society being a patriarchal society works in worse ways for women rather than for men. Divorce is considered a taboo since everyone hopes for the couple to make a few sacrifices but not come to the decision to divorce.

In Dil Dhadkne Do, the family believe that Manav (son-in-law) and Ayesha (daughter) can stay together. Their family want them to have children, maybe hoping that a child will fix all their problems. Nevertheless, the problem is between the couple. If Ayesha cannot feel anything towards her husband, a child cannot bring love between them. Instead of listening to Ayesha’s request, her mother ignores her and tells her to 'stop boasting about her problems, and focus more on the family'.

Kamal (father) and Neelam (mother) also think the idea of divorce is inadequate. They themselves have stayed together for years, although they have no love and connection left between them. In earlier days and even today, childbirth was considered a sacred part of one's life because the family name would continue. In the film Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, divorce is a major issue: a film about infidelity, and the people who cheat do not go back to their spouses. In fact, they get divorced and they are remarried.

Screenshot from Dil Dhadakne Do

Screenshot from Dil Dhadakne Do

One of 2015's biggest hits Piku, refreshingly shows the struggles of a young independent woman balancing her personal and professional life. Piku loves both of these aspects of her life and doesn't want to give up neither. She's a loving and at times irritated daughter, depicting her as the reality of many professional women today. Traditionally, Indian women have been homemakers only and their only source of livelihood has been their parents before marriage, their husbands after marriage and their sons if the husband dies.

There have been many exceptions, of course, but this is mostly how it used to be and still is in large parts of India. Rarely any of the films made by filmmakers presented women as professionals. However, only the women who had failed in their love life were shown taking up a career. While the male characters in the film had identities apart from their romantic ones, the females did not have any identity of their own.

There is huge hypocrisy in how Ayesha (Dil Dhadkne Do) never wears a single sari or piece of traditional Indian clothing. It is not that she does not care for her husband, but makes the choice to move forward in her career and become independent because she is career-driven. Ayesha is independent, and that is why it is easier for her to break away from societal norms and ask for a divorce. She is more developed and has previously been in a patriarchal situation from which she was about break.

Why should only a woman make sacrifices and change herself? Why can men and the rest of society not change their ways of thinking? Simran’s mother explains the sacrifice a woman has to make; she declares that while she promised herself she would secure happiness for her daughters. Although her mother later reverses her position, stating that her daughter will not sacrifice her happiness, and encourages Simran to flee with Raj. The feudal family romance has traditionally had a conservative member, whereby the couple – though romantically constituted had to be incorporated into the governing ideology of the extended family feud. This usually took the form of reconciliation between the hero and the patriarch. The very modern, independent, and hip girl before marriage suddenly blossoms into the most traditional and conservative girlfriend or wife to the male protagonist.

The closure is of about the old generation changing its traditions so that a new generation can create its own.

As more women’s issues come to the forefront of the patriarchal Indian society, the more varied women’s roles have become in Indian cinema.

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