Beyond the Gender Binary in Bollywood

Gangubai Kathiawadi | Bhansali Production

Ganga, a dainty, doll-faced young woman wants to be a movie star. Every night she dreams of dancing alongside Dev Anand (a Bollywood idol of the 1950s to 70s), as his one and true love, gracing the silver screen with her elegance. One evening, her boyfriend excitedly waves train tickets to Mumbai in front of her, promising to make her dream come true. But upon arrival, he leads naive Ganga into a brothel and abandons her. As she attempts to escape, the doors slam, barring her from ever leaving.

So begins the 2022 Bollywood blockbuster, Gangubai Kathiawadi: a film about a sex worker demanding the rights of sex workers across India. Gangubai may fit definitions of feminist representation from description of the plot alone. But the problem with discussions of feminism in Bollywood is that they tend to argue that Bollywood is or isn’t feminist — they therefore (somewhat ironically) apply a binary thinking when considering the representation of women on screen: Bollywood must be distinctly feminist or unmistakenly patriarchal.

To enter into these discussions of feminism in India and in Bollywood, however, we need to consider how gender dynamics pose specific challenges to women in India, particularly in relation to family structure. We also need to take into account how masculinity itself has been a fluid construct in Indian cinema, with men openly crying whilst professing their love or fathers being the first to support the female lead. My aim in this piece is therefore to make a contentious argument: Bollywood is neither feminist nor patriarchal but both (1).

Feminism in Gangubai

Let’s examine the ways that Gangubai Kathiawadi could be described as feminist. The film is decidedly female centric. The lead character is female, those who work with and around her are women and girls and the few male characters play subordinate, supporting roles, only necessary to the film’s plot as characters who either aid Gangubai or strive to undermine her. What’s more, the film takes no pains to understand the causes of the men’s behaviour, positioning the audience as largely uninvested in these characters.

By contrast, we observe Gangubai’s naive inauguration into sex work, sold to the brothel by a man she openly declares love for, a biting betrayal. This backstory allows the audience to appreciate why Gangubai regularly declares her determination to protect and provide for the women around her, serving as a mother-figure willing to make great sacrifices on behalf of those disreputable women, of whom she is one.

Gangu is also able to manipulate the men around her with ease — now appealing to their morality, now beguiling them with charm and wit. Her abrasiveness is considered an asset — she is willing to speak when others dare not, willing to challenge hypocrisy, willing to subject herself to danger to see her ends met. Her masculine swagger and habits of drinking and swearing serve to make her untouchable — she is not demure and will not conform to femininity. Significantly, she is also vulnerable when necessary, crying at the death of her best friend and at news of her father’s demise. In this sense, she traverses gender binaries, neither distinctly masculine nor feminine.

But, let’s not forget the film’s provocative subject matter (pun intended). The protagonist is a sex worker, who does not end up with a man at the end of the film (cue Pretty Woman) but rises to become president of the area of the brothel, hailed as the heroine and star that she had always wanted to become. Though she accepts help from men, she is guided and advised by no one but herself and seeks only to advance the cause of the women that form her community, her family as she proclaims. Gangubai is the only figure on screen at the end of the film, standing on a pedestal, showered by white petals.

In a certain reading, Gangubai’s characterisation could be regarded as subversive, belligerent, righteous. But is her depiction feminist, or does her portrayal as a sex worker actually serve to ‘other’ her from Indian society? Is her character so exaggerated that she could not possibly exist? And when watching her, do we (performing patriarchy) find comfort in knowing that we are not her?

The conservative strains of the film are brought to light in a speech that Gangu makes at the end of the film, which I will come back to later in this piece.

Intersectional feminism in the Indian context

Any discussion of feminism in India needs to consider how gender, caste, class and ethnicity are depicted. For starters, the lead character is played by Alia Bhatt, a fair-skinned, petite woman in her late twenties. The character is also ethnically Gujarati, a point of note because she hails from the generally more prestigious northern regions of India. We observe her reading a book in her spare time and writing letters for her illiterate colleagues. Her sex worker counterparts, are dark-skinned and though not passive, beg Gangu to help to ensure they remain free from abuse and neglect. And while female characters outnumber male characters in this film, they play subordinate roles, perhaps even more so than the men — Gangu’s best friend speaks a scattering of lines before eventually submitting to death. Since darker skin is associated with lower caste, the message about caste and class is stark: that only middle-class, upper-caste women can or will affect any change in society, the rest must appeal to the goodwill of their superiors.

Furthermore, the matron who permits and oversees a scene of violent abuse meted out to Gangu is also large, demanding food in the lead up to the scene and disregarding concerns expressed by the (male) servant about this client. Overweight women, then, can only be looked on with disgust, the size of their bodies a signifier of their moral licentiousness. So the subliminal messaging here is about beauty and the requirement for women to comply with the male gaze in order to claim any space.

A further, crucial, point to be made is the representation of the only transgender character in the film, Raziabai. Raziabai is dressed in excess, wearing too much make-up and jewellery and their (Raziabai is specifically made to claim that they are neither female nor male) presence on the screen is always accompanied by ominous music. The character, portrayed as corrupt and sinister, is acted by a cisgender man. India’s Hijra (transwomen) community has long been a recognised part of Indian society, called on to perform at religious ceremonies and weddings. But transgenderism was outlawed by the British in the nineteenth century and has only recently been decriminalised. Director Sanjay Leela Bansali has chosen to stress Raziabai’s ‘unnatural’ hold on the area of the brothel, sending a message about who is allowed to claim womanhood and who threatens the advancement of the feminist cause.

Finally, in a speech made by Gangubai near the end of the film, she claims that sex work serves to benefit all in society, protecting Indian family values and most importantly, protecting women from being raped. The end of sex work would mean the end of women’s safety. This sentiment is at once radical and deeply conservative. On the one hand the notion that protecting the most disadvantaged serves the benefit of all in society is central to intersectional feminism. But the argument that prostitution upholds Indian values perpetuates the myth than men possess uncontrollable sexual appetites and urges and that women are necessarily chaste and sexually uninterested. What does that say about women’s sexual desires? What’s more the women are portrayed as not choosing to become sex workers, they were thrust into it by men, and sullied through loss of virginity were unable to return home. The tenet of this speech, which is vehemently supported in the standing ovation Gangubai receives, is that sex work must be protected in order to maintain the traditional roles of women and men in society. The sex workers, who essentially make that sacrifice for all others, should be allowed some dignity.

Which brings us back to her role as mother to the daughter of the sex workers, as beautiful yet righteous, as pretty yet fierce, as sex worker yet oddly celibate upon becoming matron. Do these portrayals reinforce the expectations made on women? Must a woman be self-sacrificing in order to gain respect?

Indian familial structures

But there’s another subtlety I want to add in respect to Indian culture that I think is often missed. In a scene where Gangu writes a letter to a teenage girl’s father, each sex worker recounts her desperate longing for her father, wishing that she hadn’t left home and replaying the memory of stepping out of the house. So a point here is made about a woman’s position in society, suggesting that her only options upon leaving home are marriage or sex work . Yet we can draw parallels between this and another scene, where Afsaan’s parents agree his marriage to a girl without seeking his consent. What this demonstrates is the hierarchy of age present in Indian societal life in addition to patriarchy: parents frequently make decisions on behalf of their children irrespective of gender. Decisions, then, are not merely up to men (2).

This is further emphasised in the second film I want to consider: Badhaai Do. The film’s protagonists are a gay man, Shardul, and a lesbian, Sumi, who marry each other in order to escape their parents’ and society’s judgements . The only way the characters (both male and female) are permitted relative autonomy is marriage.

Like in Gangubai, Sumi’s character talks back, demands that Shardhul reduce her rent when they move into a smaller apartment, moves her girlfriend in without seeking Shardul’s permission, and refuses to play the servile wife when Shardul’s boss arrives at their apartment unannounced. Likewise, Shardul attempts to act threateningly as a policeman, but frequently fails, his empathy preventing him from inflicting pain on others. It would be easy to brush aside these constructions that challenge gender norms as obvious given the characters’ sexuality, but to even centre queer characters in a mainstream narrative is a step in a feminist direction (3).

What’s more, both films (and many others) highlight a devoted relationship between father and daughter (4). In Gangubai, Gangu’s mother reveals that her father passed away, refusing to drink Gangajal (holy water) at his death because it had her name in it, stressing how agonising Ganga’s departure was for her father.

In Badhaai Do, Sumi is most dismayed at upsetting her father when her sexuality is finally revealed. At first, her father feels betrayed and disgusted. But at the very end of the film, it is Sumi’s father who actively accepts first, encouraging Sumi’s partner Rhimjhim to take part in the ritual ceremony of Sumi and Shardul’s adopted child (5).

The dangers of applying a narrow frame of reference

When we apply simplistic analyses of whether something can or cannot be considered feminist, we stymie change. In the context of Bollywood, we need to recognise the industry’s adaptive speed to discussions of feminism — an industry that seems less entrenched in its processes than Hollywood perhaps — despite the ambivalence we may feel towards representations.

Reductive feminism can perpetuate westernisation, erasing structures of community and family that don’t fit neatly into feminist boxes. Expecting feminism to follow the pathway of the west overlooks specific progress made within India. In addition when feminism is not considered through an intersectional lens, it has the danger of promoting individualism. In a society like India’s, where community cohesion plays a significant role in the choices people make, ignoring how communities function on more consent-based practices simply dismisses the concept of community.

So here I argue that Bollywood has taken strides to address the poor representation of women, but it still has a long way to go.

Footnotes

  1. It is worth clarifying what I mean by Bollywood here, since the term is heavily contested and increasingly called into question. The definition I apply here is popular Hindi cinema produced by the Mumbai film industry (or Bombay, hence the B for Bollywood), ‘popular’ meaning significantly watched. Gangubai has featured in the top 10 most-watched movies list in 25 countries since its release on Netflix (and the top non-English film), Badhaai Do also making it to the global top 10 most viewed titles in March.
  2. I want to make clear here that I’m not suggesting that the challenges men face are equivalent to those of women in India. Rather, I want to pose that considerations of gender dynamics must take into account how other forms of hierarchy also shape the everyday lives of Indians.
  3. Feminism is not simply about the cause of womxn. I argue that LGBTQ+ storylines advance the feminist cause because they disrupt the gender binary and normativity that heterosexuality prevails upon.
  4. We see a similar support for the daughter in the film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga where the protagonist’s brother’s vehement homophobia is contrasted with the father’s defence of his daughter’s sexuality. The father-daughter dynamic is a common trope of films varying from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Yaadein to Dangal.
  5. Again, I want to stress here that the father doesn’t deserve reverence for accepting his daughter — indeed such behaviour should be normalised not valourised. But I make this point to reveal the fluidity of gender relations and how often it is the father rather than the mother who bears the most affection for the lead female in Bollywood films (while also holding the decision making power).

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PhD candidate in Race, Podcasting and Social Media. Associate lecturer in sociology. Irritating know-it-all.

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Neha Doshi

Neha Doshi

PhD candidate in Race, Podcasting and Social Media. Associate lecturer in sociology. Irritating know-it-all.

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