Updated: May 16, 2022
If we trace back the role of women in early Bollywood, we see women as only the side characters or the troubled love interest or maybe the sacrificing mother with no significant role. Women were just used as trophy roles versus being given central roles of much significance.
Over the history of Bollywood and changing perceptions of society, the roles women play have significantly changed. We now see women in powerful lead roles, carefully crafted villains, and having more character traits than just being a love interest or object of affection, lust or attraction for men.
The early 1950s and 60s female characters were portrayed mostly through a patriarchal lens. Roles like Waheeda Rahman in 1965 released movie Guide was a stark difference from the usual portrayal of the time, since in the movie she left her cheating husband to follow her passion and subsequently also left her boyfriend when he didn’t turn out to be who she thought he was.
Trends of a stereotypical representation of women continued through the 80s when women in Bollywood were largely restricted to the role of a mother or a dutiful wife or a physically attractive love interest. Any women in positions of power were shown to be cruel and manipulative while men were praised for their machismo.
With the 90s came larger than life Male heroes and the narrative that females were one dimensional characters increased with the growing popularity of item numbers and them being shown as a pawn in the males’ lives. There were movies throughout these eras that dared to defy these practises but unfortunately they were few and far in between for instance Sridevi in Sadma and Chandini showed a differing view of women.
With growing awareness and support behind the feminism wave, Bollywood females also went through a revolutionary change with getting bigger roles, equal screen time, more representation and changing power dynamics both in society and in movies.
As more and more generations rejected the traditionalistic ideas of male and female roles in society, Bollywood’s transition to its current form became cemented. Slowly but surely with films like Aitraaz, Margarita with a straw, lipstick Under my Burkha, Queen, Neerja, Piku and Kahaani female lead movies have gained popularity. And whether the female lead was a villain or heroine, the portrayal moved away from the earlier uni dimensional kind.
With female actors taking more and more leads like the current popularity of Gangubai we see this positive trend continuing and can only hope that it grows more and more in the future.