Lamps, Vamps, and Lipstick: The Evolution of the Bollywood Woman

There’s never been a better time to be a woman on screen. The changing perception of the female character from either a sexy/sanskaari lamp to a fully realised human being has resulted in a hero-ing of script over superstar, in the success of story over action, and, overall, in more and better roles for actresses across the board in Bollywood.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a rise not just in female-led films, but films about women and womanhood. Sex and sexuality have been at the centre of the plot — we’ve seen more female characters having sex without being sex objects, or even sexy; in fact, women don’t need a man to be sexual anymore, as both ‘Parched’ and ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ showed.

Offscreen attitudes shape on-screen ones — middle-class women working in the big city would perhaps identify with Aahana Kumra’s character Leela in ‘Lipstick’, with her big dreams, secret boyfriend, and uninhibited libido; girls from orthodox families might find themselves in Plabita Borthakur’s Rehana, who sheds her burqa for a pair of stolen jeans and a stolen identity.

Identity — who we are as women — lies at the centre of every film about womanhood. Ratna Pathak Shah’s character, Usha, has all but forgotten her own name, having accepted the moniker that the neighbourhood uses for her — Buaji. A relational moniker which eclipses her relationship with herself, and her own self-identification. Her love for erotic novels, for Rosy’s lipstick adventures, denotes buried desires that, over the course of the movie, she acts upon.

The women we see onscreen are, increasingly, reflections on who women are, rather than who (usually male) filmmakers imagine them to be. While sex comedies (‘Grand Masti’ and its equally horrifying sequel) continue to be made, their failure shows a shift in the kind of film the audience now wants to see, and therefore the people it wants to see.

So, far from a preoccupation with sex, modern Bollywood cinema is warming up to the idea of women as fully realised human beings, complete with sexual desires that they articulate and act on. ‘Veere Di Wedding’ is a good example, as is this year’s sleeper hit, ‘Badhai Ho’. Sex is a central part of the plot, and the women don’t shy away from their desires, but they’re neither sanskaari lamps nor sexpot vamps — they’re just people.

Feminism is, after all, the radical notion that women are people.