Ten Indian Films to Start Feminist Discussions!

This is NOT “Ten Feminist Films”, because that’s a wee bit subjective.  And it’s also NOT “Top Ten”, because that’s a way bit subjective.  Instead, these are just ten films that bring up interesting discussions around gender.  If you ever want to have a real downer of a movie night, you can show these and then make people discuss.  Feel free to add on your own options both for films and discussion questions in the comments!!

If the film is on youtube, I put in a link, some of them are also on Netflix and I indicated that.  I added on discussion questions at the end of each of these entries.  I honestly don’t have an answer or bias for the questions, I just thought they were interesting ones to discuss related to these films.  Definite “no right answer” type of things.  Just for funsies!

Laage Chunari Main Daag

I’m gonna start with a movie that is worth watching as much for how it fails as how it succeeds.  Our heroine goes against society because she has no other choices and in the end she still gets her happy ending, no punishment.  But then on the other hand, there is also no true punishment for the people who drove her into that situation.  Is it feminist if it merely raises up the female without punishing the patriarchy?

Queen

The classic feminist film example from India!  The narrative is driven by a central female character, an actress gets an amazing role, and the happy ending does not involve a man at all.  But if you really want to start a discussion, here’s the question, is it still feminist if it is directed by a rapist?  In a larger sense, what does it mean for auteur theory that the director of a film that ends up having a feminist message is a rapist?

Akira

(It’s on HotStar)

A movie in which the heroine is an action hero, her love interest is barely there, she is all about the bravery and the fight scenes.  And the second hero is another woman, an intelligent female cop who works within the system.  And the villain is a corrupt misogynist cop, the perfect representation of the patriarchy.  And if that weren’t enough, there is also a plot that revolves around silencing voices and gaslighting women.  And a strong representation of a trans character.  But it all happened because they just flipped the genders for the Hindi remake.  Is it truly feminist if most of the narrative message was accidental, originally written for a male hero which would give it a totally different message?

Mayanadhi

A movie in which the heroine is not perfect, at all.  She is struggling and failing and making mistakes and misunderstanding situations.  She isn’t a hero, she isn’t someone to look up to.  And the film surrounds her with other human self-deluding women.  A different kind of feminist film, one which makes the feminist statement that women get to be just as messed up as anyone else.  Better or worse than an Akira which gives you a heroine to look up to?

22 Female Kottayam

A movie that goes through sexual assault, women in prison, and violent revenge.  And throws in some commentary about sexual shaming along the way, and voluntary sex for money.  Question for discussion, does it simplify social issues by making it all about rape-revenge?

Seeta Aur Geeta

An old-school classic film with a female lead.  Really two female leads, just happen to be played by the same actress.  One is traditional devout passive heroine, the other is the complete opposite.  A commentary on gender tropes?  Or just a coincidental idea of two characters as different as they could be?

Chaalbaaz

And a remix of an old classic!  This time one of them is a devout passive heroine who is a little bit silly with her brother, and the other is an extremely sexual and sexually aggressive heroine.  Is that more or less feminist than the original version that didn’t hit the sex button as hard?

Aiyyaa

A movie that centers around a traditional romantic conundrum, to pick the nice arranged husband or the sexy dangerous one.  But then flips the script by letting the heroine be the one who pursues the sexy dangerous one, running away from the arranged husband, instead of the other man needing to “win” her away from her natural instinct to be obedient.  But is that still truly feminist since it still sells the narrative that all a woman needs to be happy is the right man?

Moondru Mudichi

A Tamil classic, Sridevi’s first full-fledged heroine part.  One which either presents a stereotypical world in which the woman is always suffering, or presents a sensitive view of the real world in which a woman is truly always suffering.  And also the plot is INSANE.  Question: is it feminist because it tells the reality of all the ways women are oppressed, or anti-feminist because it only gives hope by working within the structure?

Kahaani

(It’s on Netflix)

Vidya’s big film!  Hard to talk about without spoilers.  A woman who goes on a long quest to find her husband.  Along the way she evades and maneuvers and tricks various men.  And it ends with a great scene of her discovering her Durga-power.  But can a movie that is about a woman finding her husband really be feminist?

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20 thoughts on “Ten Indian Films to Start Feminist Discussions!

  1. Tough questions! Regarding Queen, I’d say that even though the director is a criminal the film itself is wonderful and yes, feminist. Same with Annie Hall and Woody Allen. Same with Roman Polanski and Chinatown. Vile people can make amazing art.

    I think the main thing that makes a film feminist for me is does the female character have agency? Is she the driver of her own narrative? That’s why Fanaa and Yeh Dillagi make the cut in my opinion even though the narrative focuses on romance. Also Piku, which centers the woman’s journey and has a romance that’s not the main relationship in the film.

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    • Shoot, I should have linked back to my Presence-Voice-Agency post that defines the “feminist if she has agency” argument you are agreeing with.

      Queen is an interesting one, for me at least, because it is the first time I experienced the crime AFTER seeing the work of art. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, I came to the crimes before I saw the films. So I had it always in mind while watching and it colored my experience of them. But Queen I experienced both ways, crime free and crime-with. What surprises me is that it doesn’t actually make that much difference. I can still enjoy Queen even knowing what I know. Which I think says more about how I personally consume art than anything else.

      On Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 10:15 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I don’t think Mother India is feminist? In an odd way, the heroine never gets to do anything she wants or express her wants, her whole life is at the service of the community and her family, the highest female ideal is held up as sacrifice.

      On Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 10:50 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • `
        Agreed. It’s one of those — This sort of looks feminist with a strong female character, but then you think about what “feminist” really implies and decide otherwise.

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  2. Looking forward to watching the ones I haven’t seen yet (when I’m in the mood for potentially tougher material). Wish I had time to answer the questions!

    For now I’ll just say, re: Queen, that I think many rapists and serial harassers understand women very well indeed. They are predators, after all. They must understand their prey to get what they want and to avoid punishment–sometimes with the cooperation of their targets, whom they are good at manipulating. I can see how that understanding would also lead to them being able to write or film good stories about women, that ring true for women, and the men who love them.

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      • Yes, it has a lot of sense. When all those #MeToo stories started to come out, there was one girl, I don’t remember her name, who said she was talking with Vikas Bahl about Queen, and how important this movie was for her, and he said he did it only because women’s stories sold well now, and he personally thinks it’s all bullshit. And I was asking myself how one can do so strong, good movie, if he doesn’t believe in the message of the movie? How it’s possible? What you said Procrastinatrix explains a lot.

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  3. Great questions and discussions topic. I am struggling with Queen. When I first watched the movie, I loved it and was rooting for Kangana. Now, I cannot seem to rewatch or enjoy the movie – primarily because the director is a rapist and my feelings toward Kangana have significantly changes with her many antics and especially after she tried to equate rape/sexual harassment to a consensual affair. I guess I feel the same way about Woody Allen and Roman Polanski movies. I just can’t watch them.

    A question for you. Have you seen Dharmendra’s 1968 Ankhen? If so, what are your thoughts on Mala Sinha’s character? This was the only link I could find to the movie but unfortunately, it does not have subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLz35Cypcng. I found Mala Sinha’s character so fascinating. She was feisty, western, spy, who isn’t shy about using her feminine wile and she is the heroine in an industry where western-is-bad stereotype can be so prevalent.

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    • I haven’t seen Aankhen, but I have seen Evening in Paris and Sharmilee and Teesri Manzil and some others from the same era. And they all have strong independent heroines with their own goals, who get to be sexual liberated and free, and it’s amazing! I love those movies, the heroines have big hair and tons of make-up and end up with the hero, but they are also their own people with their own skills and motives. I can’t think of a modern movie that even comes close. If the heroine is independent with a job, it has to be the WHOLE plot and agonizing and so on, instead of just accepted as part of her cool person. Rom-coms especially, either the heroine has no life of her own outside her family, or she does and that’s the conflict. It can’t just BE.

      On Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 12:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Aiyaa – I didn’t watch it. Strictly going by the premise, I think it isn’t anti-feminist because it doesn’t say a woman needs a man to be happy. It says that this woman ‘wants’ this man in her life and will go for him. If the narrative says otherwise, I can not speak for it.
    Kahani – Why isn’t it feminist for a woman seeking to protect her loved ones? What difference does it make to the story if Vidya were looking for her wife, instead of her husband?
    Having a female protagonist’s attention centred around a male character, isn’t in itself anti-feminist. I can see them easily going in that direction. But I will attest that Kahaani ain’t one of them, and it definitely is feminist.

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  5. I would prefer the flawed heroine of mayaandahi over all the perfect ones or inspirational ones.. seeing a flawed women represented on screen i s a refreshing change, especially in midst of all the so called manic pixie dream girls..
    Have you watched fahad faasil and aiswarya lekshmi starring Varathan? It raised so much discussion about what is really a feminist film. The film portrayed the sickening male gaze to the dot and handled rape in a sensitive way. Then turned around and created a macho man out of the hero to get revenge

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    • I haven’t seen Varathan partly because I have just fallen terribly behind in Malayalam films, but also because I heard that criticism and I knew it would bother me a lot.

      On Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 6:55 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. Of these, I’ve only seen Queen, Akira, and Kahaani. Queen didn’t seem especially feminist to me because it still relied on the usual romantic tropes – the whole plot is set up by her being jilted, and it’s treated as a film-length revelation that maybe she’ll be just fine without the guy. Akira was fun for me, my kind of action film, but her superhero persona comes to be in response to the victimization of women, and she herself is victimized in the film. Kahaani, on the other hand, felt really original and like it stepped outside of the usual patriarchal plot structures. Vidya’s character has all the agency and drives the film, and she is defined by her own actions and choices, not in relation to a male character (despite the set-up). She is often in danger but never a victim, and not because of superhuman fighting prowess but just because of her own intelligence and tenacity.

    I remember you talked about Teefa in Trouble as feminist but I think it fails this test. The female characters have definition and identity only in relation to the male characters. It also fails the Bechdel test, I don’t think the female characters have any conversations with each other that are not about men. And the heroine’s rejection at the end of the choices all these men are making for her is first self-destructive and then short-lived because the ending reverts to convention.

    (Sorry, I feel like I’m being mean to a movie you like :). I’m glad I watched it but I didn’t have such a positive response as you did.)

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    • How dare you be mean to a movie I like?!?!?! I agree, Teefa isn’t perfect. But in terms of alllllllll the other movies with similar plots, I love that she is active and ready to run out on her own marriage instead of just weeping away. And I love that she has at least that one moment of calling them all out.

      Oh, and the Bechdel test is interesting in terms of Teefa in Trouble and really all those movies with similar plots. I think she and her friend (who has a name, I just don’t remember it) talk about her father, not just her boyfriend. And she talks with her potential mother-in-law before the wedding. But again, about a male character. The only thing is, for the situation she is in, the most important factors in her life are realistically her father and her future husband. So it fails the Bechdel test but maybe less in terms of the film itself and more in terms of The World in which these women’s lives revolve around their father-husband-sons. Not to defend Teefa, just that it’s something that makes the Bechdel test revealing for how Indian society works, in a lot of these movies when I try to think of conversation NOT about men, all I can imagine is really frivolous conversations because every important part of life is controlled by a man.

      There was one thing about Kahaani I really wanted to discuss but couldn’t because of SPOILERS. So, everyone in the comments section, KAHAANI SPOILERS DON’T READ if you remember at the very very end it is revealed that Vidya was trained and guided by her husband’s boss. And implied that he had lost faith in the traditional branches of the service and picked Vidya as the best operative he could use. That one part of the film really bothers me, why couldn’t she have found everything out and made her decisions and trained herself? Why did they have to bring in the idea of her husband’s boss as guiding her? It does close a lot of plot gaps, how she got those first clues to start the chase and the minimal hand to hand combat training, but I would have far preferred it if it was all her own thing KAHAANI SPOILERS OVER

      On Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 10:44 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yes, I agree with that flaw in Kahaani. I remember feeling a little let down even as the pieces clicked because I liked her for herself and she carries the movie so formidably on her own up to that point.

        I can’t quite give you Teefa because I’m sure women everywhere have many interesting conversations on topics other than their boyfriends, fathers, or brothers. The brilliance of the Bechdel test is that it’s so simple but it points out how skewed the script-writing is that this whole universe of female life cannot find a space onscreen. They seem like educated girls. Do they not go to school, or have classes, or have opinions about where they live or what is going on in the world around them? We see Teefa’s life and job, we see lame love interest’s music and his circle of friends, but we see the heroine and her friend only in relation to the men.

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        • Here’s another thing to think of with the Bechdel test. Can you do a reverse Bechdel with Teefa? Is there a conversation between two men that does not revolve around a woman? The only one I can think of is back at the beginning in Ali’s intro when he beats up someone for money, and then talks about money with Butt Sahib. After which he goes home to his mother and reveals he mostly wants money to take care of her, and then the plot starts and everything is about who the heroine will marry. Once the plot begins, every conversation between the men is about the heroine in one way or another.

          Which, in a larger sense, is something I really like about the film. Instead of the heroine and her life feeling like an after thought, it is the center of everything and the most vital topic. Yes they were being terrible about her, but at least she was the focus.

          On Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 11:19 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. Pingback: December’s Blogsphere Highlights #1! (2018) | BiblioNyan

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