Indian cinema is the world’s largest film industry in terms of film production – you’ve probably heard of Bollywood, the mainstream Hindi-language film industry and Indian cinema’s largest film producer.
Bollywood, screened worldwide, with its colourful musical sets, expensive aesthetics and elaborate dramatic plots, is often considered an ambassador of Indian culture, usually generalised to stand in for ‘South Asian’ culture as a whole. Unintended or not, Hindi cinema contributes significantly to how South Asian women are perceived, a problem when women are cast in limited and reductive roles. So how is contemporary Hindi cinema scripting women?
Director: Have you read the script? This is the hero’s fight scene. You are the heroine… You just have to be the victim… the damsel in distress… That is the test of your acting.
Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)
Historically, Bollywood idealised women as self-sacrificing mothers, wives, and daughters, cast them as victims, and hyper-sexualised them as objects of the male gaze and as the popular ‘item girl’. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) is considered a classic of Indian cinema: an epic following the piteous trials of a poverty-stricken mother who, through the ultimate act of maternal sacrifice, becomes a pinnacle of morality and Indian womanhood. Women’s roles are overwhelmingly scripted in relation to men: they are wives, mothers, daughters, romantic interests, and victims of sexual violence. The Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media found that only 25% of 493 characters in popular Indian films were women. In 77% of mainstream films screened between 2012 and 2016, women completed a romantic function. Yet, there is a slow increase of women-centric films in which women are not simply plot tropes. In 2018, Veere De Wedding presented us with a female buddy movie about modern relationships, Helicopter Eela charted a single mother’s relationship with her teen son, Patakha explored two rural sisters’ tumultuous relationship, Hichki introduced an aspiring teacher with Tourette’s syndrome, Raazi drew on the true account of an Indian spy, and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, a historical biopic of an anti-colonialist warrior queen, is due to be released in early 2019.
Of course, it’s not enough to count the number of women-led films if we aren’t scrutinising their characterisation. Where is women’s anger in all of this? Are women allowed to be angry? The 1980s saw the rise of the ‘avenging woman’ genre in Bollywood, which counteracted the stereotype of female passivity, and envisioned women as avenging agents appropriating violence to deliver justice for themselves. Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), Pratighaat (1987), and Zakmi Aurat (1988) are famous examples. Yet, the whole genre turned on the rape-revenge trope. Films like Insaaf, whilst progressive, reinforced victim-blaming scripts of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victim, and the film industry seized on the opportunity to screen graphic rape scenes to draw in viewers. The avenging woman genre imagined a world where female rage was given agency, yet it was a world where women became powerful because of their violent initiation into victimhood. The unsettling message: women can only be angry if they have been subject to extreme brutal violence, and only after they have tried and been failed by the legal system.
The past few years has seen the rise of films centring ‘strong’ female leads who often use their anger, aggression and violence to overcome adversary. Soojit Sircar’s Pink (2016) is a notable example, demanding a national conversation on consent and victim-blaming rhetoric. Minal, the main female lead, acts in self-defense against her would-be rapist by smashing a bottle on his head. She is championed in court: by showing women’s success within the legal system, Pink makes space for women’s anger. Avinash Dash’s indie production, Anarkali of Arrah (2017), similarly champions a village performer, assaulted on stage by a powerful politician, who responds by slapping him, and with further verbal aggression when he attempts to ‘buy’ her. Her eventual success in getting justice once again legitimises her rage and rejection of the passive role of the ‘good’ victim. The popularity of biopics like Mary Kom (2014) and Dangal (2016), which look at the lives of an Olympic boxer and two world-class wrestlers respectively, suggest a move away from the idea of violence, aggression and physical strength as exclusively masculine traits. Films like Mardaani (2014), which centres a female cop busting a sex trafficking ring, NH10 (2015), a suspense thriller in which a couple get caught in rural violence, and Akira (2016), where a college student takes on four corrupt police officers, all build up to violent acts by the lead women, acts which are championed by the storyline. Any other conclusion would be robbing the women, and the viewers, of narrative closure. Granted, violence and rage in films like Mardaani, NH10, and Akira are characteristic of crime thrillers and action dramas, when we consider all of these films inter-textually, we see a heightened interest in envisioning women’s rage: what it might look like, how it may be utilised, and what transformative effect, good or bad, it may have.
Of course, in a billion-dollar film industry, if the Strong Woman becomes a best-selling, profitable trope, it’s hardly surprising that films increasingly capitalise on the trend. Based on all-time box office revenues, Dangal was the highest grossing ($340 million) Bollywood movie worldwide. Notably, films such as Dangal and Pink ultimately valorise their male leads, who emerge as the key agents in empowering women and delivering justice to them. Bollywood is still slow to embrace women as their lead ‘heroes’. Independent Hindi films, in contrast, have always taken more risks, and in films like Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), we find a nuanced exploration of women’s rage.
This is Kali, the angriest Indian goddess… Durga takes her most ferocious form to annihilate all evil so a new world order can be formed … Each of us has a Kali inside.
Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)
Set in Goa, Angry follows a group of women as they celebrate the upcoming nuptials of two of their members, Freida and Nargis. Whilst tackling sexual harassment, Angry offers a positive portrayal of women’s sexuality and pleasure, casting them as active, conscious agents rather than hyper-sexualised tropes. The film opens with a humorous montage of each character’s anger at everyday harassment and structural misogyny. Frieda, the photographer, frustrated at having to shoot a misogynoir-promoting advert for a skin-lightening product, tears up her cheque. Pam, the middle-class housewife leered at during a gym session, drops weights on her harassers. Mad, an aspiring indie musician, told to play an ‘item song’, is shown aggressively stamping off the stage towards her male hecklers. Su, owner of a mining company, in a tense boardroom scene, challenges stereotypes of mothers as incapable of being ruthless. Laxmi, Frieda’s maid and companion, catcalled on her way home, gives the perpetrator a dose of his own medicine, grabbing him by the balls. Joanna, an aspiring Bollywood actress, tasked with playing the damsel-in-distress slips out of her script and challenges the director, throwing out all the fake padding on her breasts and hips, yelling that he, and the rest of the Bollywood industry, have ‘no idea about women!’ Through this meta-fictive parody, Angry signals its challenging and rewriting of cultural scripts which regulate how a woman should behave.
The film takes a darker turn when the main characters encounter a group of men, the Lal Topi Gang, known to harass women. The film reaches its dramatic climax when Joanna is found brutally gang-raped and murdered by the Gang. When the police arrive, the women are confronted with a justice system more invested in asking derogatory questions about their clothes, drinking, and smoking, Joanna’s career as an actress, and Freida and Nargis’ ‘unnatural’ relationship, than they are in delivering any justice. Faced with this victim-blaming discourse, the grief-stricken women, filled with rage, are propelled to take matters into their own hands.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Angry is how it simultaneously legitimises women’s rage and envisions a collective social conscience and responsibility as an alternative means of seeking justice. The climactic scene is dark and filmed with shaky angles, mimicking the women’s adrenalin-filled rage: who pulls the trigger when they shoot the members of the Gang, and who stops whom, becomes somewhat blurred. The following day, the policemen interrupt Joanna’s funeral, demanding that the perpetrators own up to their crime. The women, defiant and unapologetic, stand in admission. Then, something remarkable happens. The members of the congregation, in the presence of Joanna’s body, a visible reminder of violent misogyny and the deeply flawed justice system, all stand up one by one. Faced with this declaration of collective culpability – a complete rejection of state authority and an indictment of its inability to deliver justice to victims of sexual violence – the police can do nothing. Angry leaves us with a utopic vision of what happens when women’s rage, and a community’s collective anger and social conscience, finds expression and is utilised to combat misogynistic, violent social structures.
Whilst Angry, like the 1980s avenging woman genre, validates women’s rage after a vicious act of sexual violence, it counteracts the idea that anger can only be legitimised within that context. Throughout the film, the women refuse conventional ideas of victimhood in their professional and personal lives and articulate anger for a variety of reasons. When they discuss vengeful Hindu goddess, Kali, the message is: ‘Each one of us has a Kali inside us.’ Anger is presented as being an emotion, and a resource, we can all tap into. Angry thus presents anger, and violence, as an essential aspect of women’s existence, and challenges the gendering of rage as masculine, the eroticisation of women’s passivity and the sanitisation of women’s behaviour.
Angry’s unflinching portrayal of women’s anger is relevant particularly in recent discussions around India’s #metoo movement: whose voice and whose anger is legitimised and heard, particularly in a caste-based society? Indian feminism has historically privileged upper-caste women’s concerns and issues, often at the expense, and erasure of, lower-caste women. Most of the Hindi films cited in this essay, including Angry, centralise urban, middle class, and upper-caste characters. Angry does make space for Laxmi, the lower-caste maid, to violently express her rage and grief: witness to her brother’s murder, yet having his case pending for eight years, Laxmi takes a cricket bat and smashes his murderer’s bar, aggressively threatening him, and secretly acquires a gun. Through Laxmi, we see the complexity of anger: it is justified, destructive, powerful and powerless at the same time. At the end of the narrative, she chooses to let go of the anger which has consumed her life. Laxmi’s rage is a fitting response to the legal system which specifically fails lower-caste communities; however, the film also highlights that anger is not always the right solution for the individual.
Significantly, Angry chooses Joanna, a half-Indian, British national as the figure around whom the community and national media rally. The police comment that there will be heightened media attention because of Joanna’s British citizenship: a subtle but flaying indictment of how national and international outrage is limited to the ‘right’ kind of victim, and those who fall outside that category (lower-caste women, rural women, trans women, marginalised ethnic communities, sex workers, and non-binary and gender fluid people) do not qualify for the same large-scale, collective response. Angry, in conversation with other contemporary films legitimising women’s anger, can be seen as a call-to-arms. Coming in the wake of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Pandey in 2012, which led to international outcry and public protest demanding changes in the laws governing sexual violence, Angry is an inspiring manifesto for unity and the power of women’s rage. We must push our reading further: whilst the final shot shows the community rallying for Joanna, our anger and outrage cannot be confined to high-profile cases of sexual harassment only. If, as the films suggest, we choose to embrace anger as a tool to combat social injustice, fight for democratic rights, and challenge flawed state structures, it must be inclusionary to achieve its full potential.
Top photo: cast of “Angry Indian Goddesses” (2015)