Hindi Film 101/Female Films Week: Why India > Hollywood for Female Lead Characters

Ready for a thought post? Of course you are! Thought posts are the best! Or at least, I like them.

I was looking at my list of films for this week, and thinking about all the many many other films I could have included and didn’t, and discovered that actually (despite the patriarchy and so on) Indian films have far more strong female centered narratives than Western. Why is that? It’s not because Indian films have more women in power in the film industry, or because Indian society has more respect for women. But I think it might be because of the basic structure of both the industry and the Indian film narrative form.

Let me start with the narrative form. Indian film is not an ensemble kind of system. A movie has one central character and the movement of the plot is the movement of them growing and changing over time. Often films start with childhood (or even birth or pre-birth), and keep moving until adulthood. This goes back to the concept of the 4 stages of life in Indian philosophy, a movie usually tells the story of a character moving from the childhood “student” phase into the adult “householder” phase. Along the way our central character will fall in love, sometimes multiple times, will gain enemies and friends, will fight with their family, will have adventures, and finally will achieve security by vanquishing their enemies, marrying their love, and starting their own family.

Image result for bahubali poster
Keep this poster in mind. Hero over all, then enemy and love interest with equal pride of place, friend and mother to the side.

This is true across genres. Whether it is an action film or a romance or a political saga or anything else, we have one strong central character who changes from a child to an adult as things happen to him. It is a rare film that attempts something different, and those films are usually recognized as “western” (and therefore better) in some way without anyone articulating why that is exactly. For example, Neeraj Panday’s process thrillers tend to avoid character development. Instead of having a strong central character growing through the events of the film, we have a series of events that occur within a limited time period to a wide array of characters who have no internal growth. The idea of a film without the usual markers of life changes and growing up feels different to the Indian audience, which proves by contrast that a film which HAS those changes is the norm.

In Western films, this strong central movement for the central character is not the norm. There are exceptions of course, the superhero trilogy idea follows that pattern (first film shows growing into powers, second film shows complications of adulthood, third film brings us to the happy ending). But your standard action movie, for instance, has a hero who is already fully empowered and adult, not someone you can relate to but someone you can aspire to. The films are short, “slice of life” in that they only show one pivotal section of a character’s life instead of trying to convey the whole sweep of it from childhood flashback on. And in the same way, they tend not to have as strong a central character. Even a movie like Die Hard which has a strong central hero, also surrounds him with a wife, a villain, and a friend. Since we are only seeing a limited period of time (instead of the hero’s whole life with other people moving in and out of it), the wife and villain and friend get as much backstory and almost as much screentime as the hero. Yes, there is a lead character, but instead of that lead character having 70-90% of the audiences sympathy and attention, it is more like 55%.

Now, this should mean that in general western films have stronger female characters. If we accept that in every industry in the world, that central character is a man, then leaving 45% of the film for supporting characters in America should mean that there is space for a woman to get that 45%. But let’s go back to Die Hard. If we say Bruce Willis got 55%, then Alan Rickman and Reginald VelJohnson got about 20% each. Which leaves 5% for Bonnie Bedelia. Not great. On the other hand, in the standard Indian action film like Holiday: A Soldier is Never Off Duty for instance, Akshay Kumar got about 80% of the screen time, the various villains got another 5%, another 5% went to his family, and Sonakshi got a solid 10%. The heroine is second to the hero even in the most hero-centric film from India. She may not have much, but she has more than everyone else.

Image result for holiday a soldier is never off duty
Imagine a poster of Die Hard that was just Bruce Willis and Bonnie Bedelia. That wouldn’t make sense, would it? Bruce and Alan Rickman would make far more sense. But here, this poster is accurately selling the film as an action movie with a fun strong romance track.

All of this is in a standard film. Now, what happens in the west when a movie has a female lead? Let’s look at The Blind Spot, for example. Which, first of all, wasn’t sold as a “female lead” film so you probably didn’t even think about it, did you? That’s part of the problem, movies with female leads aren’t sold that way which means when they succeed, no one counts them as “female movies” that succeeded. If we look at The Blind Spot, Sandra Bullock got the lowest possible end of the “lead character” percentage, let’s say around 45%. And she was surrounded by male characters. The overall impression was male, not female. And it didn’t feel unusual, because the standard structure for a western film is that the lead character just isn’t as strong and most of the supporting characters are male.

That’s why “female” films in the west tend to be ensembles. Look at Bridesmaids. Or Pitch Perfect. Or Bring It On. Or Hidden Figures or The Class or Miss Congeniality. The central character still only gets about 55-60% of the screen time, but all those other characters around her are also mostly female. So the overall gender breakdown is more like 80% female-20% male.

It didn’t used to be this way in the west, either the lack of female focused films or the “55% only” rule for the lead character. In the studio era, pre-television and pre the anti-trust law suits, movies were much smaller and more focused on their markets. You would have the movies that were all about the lead character/lead actor drawing on the particular audience that identified with that actor/character. And that would include “women’s pictures”. Bette Davis, for instance, has so many wonderful movies that are all her, she has 70% or more of the focus. Because there was enough of audience to support movies that were Bette Davis focused. But then television came in, and the anti-trust laws wiped out block booking and other techniques that forced theaters to play every movie. Suddenly theaters and audience members could be far more discriminating. And the Western studios responded by trying to make movies appealing to a wide range of people. You don’t like the lead character? That’s fine! His funny friend has a good 30% of the screen time. And of course, that lead character became a white man more and more. Or when it wasn’t a white man, that reality was downplayed and the white male co-star’s importance increased.

Image result for mission mangal
The Mission Mangal effect. Vidya is the lead of the film, but the script was re-written to hide that and the post and promotions hid it too. This happens over and over again with western media, the promotions and parts of the script will increase the role of the male lead even if at a basic level it is a female lead film.

But in India, until recently, that competition for audience didn’t exist. Doordarshan, the only television option, was boring and people would rather watch movies. Single screen theaters had to keep their screens filled and would take whatever movie you offered them. And so the narrative style stayed very narrow, focused on the central lead character who we followed birth to death. Of course, there were other reasons for this, the Indian tradition that placed so much importance on the movement from childhood to adulthood, the oral style of narrative which tends to give far more of an origin story for characters than the novelist/written style, and the Indian star system which created actors so big that they moved beyond any niche “fan” market. Because of all these reasons, Indian films have remained strongly based on one central character. Which means in order to make a film “female” all you need to do is flip the gender of that central character and suddenly 70% of the film is focused on a woman’s perspective.

Image result for akira hindi movie
Akira did this, remade a southern film with a male hero as a Hindi film with a female hero.

And then there’s the industrial side of things. In America, let’s say you decide to make a film with a female lead character. It starts with the scriptwriter, they have the idea for this story about a woman. And then they have to find a producer that believes in their vision and agrees to keep that central character a woman. And then the producer and writer have to find a studio that will give them the money and keep the lead character a woman. And then the studio hires a director, who also has follow the vision of having a female lead character. And they hire actors (and the male actor usually has more power than the female one) who also can’t make a stink about their screentime. And only if all of that works out, do we actually get a female lead film. If at any point any of these people suggests flipping the gender of the lead character, or even increasing the role of the other characters, then we don’t get a female lead film.

This is part of why Netflix and Prime productions have been so great for showing non-white-male stories. A lot of it is the narrow casting format and the captive audience, they aren’t worried about bringing in millions of eyes and millions of dollars who have other options, it’s a throw back to the golden studio era when the only game in town was your local theater and you would watch whatever they showed. But part of it also simply the streamlining of the process. In America, TV shows tend to have a “showrunner”, one single person who conceives and sells the concept. That cuts out the scriptwriter to producer and then to director gap in the movie system. And streaming services also simplify the studio to distributor to theater process. You end up with one person who has an idea and sells it to one other person and then it happens. Far fewer chances for a fool or a coward to come in and say “what a minute, a female lead? Who will watch this?”

And that same system is what (until recently when the multi-national studios arrived and you started going to them at the funding step) happened in India. The director is also the writer is also the producer. If you want to make a movie with a female lead, you write and cast and direct it and it happens. No outside force will make you compromise your vision. You just have to convince yourself that it is worth the money and the risk. But the problem is, the risk is far far higher in Indian film. If you are your own producer, then the money you are playing with is your own actual money. If this movie doesn’t work because you used a female lead story, then you are the one who loses. That’s a risk that not a lot of people are willing to take.

Image result for pari
This is why sometimes an actress has to produce her own movie in order to get a lead role.

I guess it’s about purity, in the end. The West has films with female leads, but they are watered down, the stories hidden away as folks nibble away at the original vision. India has fewer movies with female leads, but if they exist, they are pure and complete and total. No one is limiting the vision of the creator, and no one is trying to minimize the central characters of the film either.

And so in India in the past 5 years, we have had Fidaa, Akira, Naam Shabana, Ohm Shaanti Oshaana, Pari, Piku, Queen, Neerja, Noor, Dear Zindagi, Raazi, and many many other films that are, without question or compromise, about their female leads. And in America, we had Ocean’s 8 and the female Ghostbusters.

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31 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101/Female Films Week: Why India > Hollywood for Female Lead Characters

  1. Love this!

    One of many reasons I love Indian cinema. It was years ago when I noticed the rapid amount of women centric coming from Hindi cinema, while Hollywood seemed to slog down on them. Then there’s the whole genre labelling in Hollywood which hurts more than it helps with a women centric movie has to be gritty and real to be taken seriously, like The Hunger Games, instead of being normal and everyday like Piku (aka BEST MOVIE EVER!)

    Indian cinema, at lest to me in terms of women protagonists and women’s issues, is much more willing to churn out those stories time and time again, even more rapidly now, compared to the West. Though I think The Favourite broke that mould by being many things at once (haven’t seen it yet but mean to).

    Question? Did you mean The Blind Side for the paragraph about Sandra Bullock? Also, here’s a video on it, a good one and a channel I recommend unless you are watching it already.

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    • I did mean The Blind Side! I’ll fix it. And that “white savior trope” issue is part of what fascinates me. The movie ended up being slotted into the “white savior” box, which it does fit within, but no one noticed it is also a female protagonist movie. Because it wasn’t promoted that way, that whole idea was carefully hidden since people don’t like female protagonists. At least, so Hollywood wisdom goes. And also that genre thinking issue, if it is a “white savior” movie, it can’t also be a “female protagonist” movie, it has to be one or the other.

      It’s funny how there is a lot of talk about weak female characters in Indian film, and that is certainly true, but I don’t know that any other industry is necessarily doing better right now.

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      • Or any case of “Chick Flick” being treated as meaningless frivolity, when those are mostly the ones with empowering women characters like in Legally Blonde, Clueless ect. The early 2000s really had it going with good empowering women stories that were just slotted in to Disney Channel movies or just “Chick Flicks” and not taken seriously while being mocked that they weren’t serious enough. It’s like the age bracket and enjoyment didn’t go together for those that hate those movies. I’m biased towards them, since i grew up with them and they really were the only source for those my age to find good role models and fun entertainment that weren’t animated by Disney.

        It’s really annoying especially when men have their Michael Bay movies which are sooooo dumb (I might have seen Independence Day at some point, but otherwise I think I have never seen him films) and they can enjoy it with all acceptance from society for the mindless fun they are, but whenever a women-centric movie the criticism is way too harsh and the whole mentality of “if it’s not perfect and successful then it isn’t good” or “Its stupid, so its meant for women” and “How can women enjoy this silly materialism ect.”.

        For example Twilight, which I am first to say is a problematic franchise from the start, but gosh the first movie really captures the reality of school and the attitudes and awkwardness in it that it makes me nostalgic. It has flaws in many areas, but it’s certainly the most enjoyable and honestly, being on Tumblr, people are thankfully slowly becoming apologetic towards the hate the cast and the franchise got in its day. It’s mindless fun fantasy, but meant for women. Indeed it’s our Michael Bay.

        Sorry, been waiting to rant that for a while about the subject. Didn’t know where to and it seems it ended up here.

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        • This is a great rant! And completely appropriate for right here, it adds dimensions to a lot of stuff.

          I bet a big reason that Hollywood is so cautious about female lead films is the stuff you are talking about, if you sell The Blind Side (I don’t know why I am blanking on other examples, so I’ll keep using that one as a midlevel mainstream hit example) as a movie about Sandra Bullock leading a film and blah blah blah, suddenly it has to be Absolutely Perfect or else is dismissed. But if you sell it as a touching true story about family love and race and stuff, then you get graded far more easily.

          I love your Twilight example. I feel similarly about the books, there is good stuff in there about mother-daughter relationships and female sexual desire and all kinds of stuff. I hadn’t thought about the films in the same way, but you are right! They are silly silly movies, but they have lots of clever bits of dialogue and set pieces and things, and why can’t we appreciate that just like we would in a Marvel movie?

          Sometimes I think India is heading in a western direction on dismissing/grading too hard female lead films, but sometimes I don’t. Definitely the romances that kind of match the western genre of “chick lit” are getting dumped on hard by people following the example of Western critics. Which drives me CRAZY because a) the romance genre is meant to be escapist, calling it unrealistic isn’t a valid criticism, and b) a love story is still a radical statement in India in a way it just isn’t in the west, you can’t dismiss romances as regressive because they are actually PROGRESSIVE compared to arranged or forced marriages. But then on the other hand, Indian film discussion still seems blessedly blind to the many female lead films that are out there. There wasn’t a lot of discussion of Noor or Neerja or loads of others as “female films”, they were just treated within their regular genre with the fact that there was a female lead ignored.

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          • I haven’t seen Noor, but I’ve seen Neerja.

            I think when it comes to that it was more about the terrorist attack that happened which loomed so large and about the real Neerja’s sacrifice that it overshadow’s the fact that it was a women lead picture.

            But I think that is always a thing when doing a movie about something historically happening that was also traumatising. It just happens, maybe to help with sheltering oneself from forgetting the reality and not becoming too impersonal or analytical, because to our senses it seems wrong at the moment to think something so sad as anything other than personally and emphatically.

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          • Yeah, that makes sense for Neerja, everyone focused on the story and the event instead of that it had a female lead. Still odd with something like Naam Shabana or Akira, which are just light action films. But because they are light action films, no one thinks of them as “Female” pictures despite the female lead. I just got an email from Netflix about some thriller movie they released with Taapsee, which again isn’t being considered a “Female” movie because it’s a thriller and female movies have to be romances. It’s strange, but also good, the headline for the films still seems to be the plot and the story not the gender of the lead character. Versus the Hollywood bending over backward to make films with lead actresses fit into a certain box.

            On Wed, Aug 21, 2019 at 4:47 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time watching Lindsay Ellis’ excellent series where she applies different types of critical theory to the transformers franchise (she also did this video where she examines all of the Twilight backlash!) but The Transformers franchise also has a lot of problems that go unnoticed. Actually you know what I think I’ll just leave those Lindsay Ellis videos I was talking about here if you guys are curious.

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          • Thanks! I just looked up Lindsay Ellis and she seems really cool.

            On Thu, Aug 22, 2019 at 12:34 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. And then we have Tom Cruise

    Strong female characters but they have to depend on Cruise’s male character (like how other characters in an Aamir Khan movie have to depend on Aamir’s character)

    Maybe this is just the star effect but it spoils what could have been a good story

    Btw Cruise’s dimpled smile with eyes closed reminds me of Akshay Kumar’s smile

    And there were a few Cruise movie which was watchable despite all the flaws (top of the head):

    The Last Samurai
    A Few Good Men

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    • I haven’t watched Cruise’s more recent films, but I suspect he is getting savvier about how to appeal to a larger market. He seems to be moving more in an Indian film hero direction, the movie is fully about him to a great extent, and the heroine is second. Rather than it being more of a “please everyone” ensemble kind of piece. Just him and the heroine (romantic or otherwise).

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  3. Your structural analysis is interesting but I feel like you’re ignoring a whole bunch of movies that don’t fit. Why mention Ocean’s 8 and Ghostbusters but not Captain Marvel, or Wonder Woman, or Tomb Raider, or Widows, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or the new Men in Black (co-led), or two of the last four Star Wars movies (Rogue One and The Force Awakens)? I feel like there’s been real progress in Hollywood in women-led action films, both in the find an amazing actor who can carry a film mold and in the powerful franchise we’ll make our own star mode. Or in sci fi, we’ve had Gravity, Arrival, and Annihilation.

    Other films from the 100 top grossing last year that were women-led: A Star Is Born, Crazy Rich Asians, Mary Poppins Returns, Mamma Mia sequel, A Wrinkle in Time, Book Club, I Feel Pretty, The Favourite, On the Basis of Sex, The Hate U Give.

    From top 50 in 2019 so far: Dark Phoenix, The Curse of La Llorona, What Men Want, Isn’t It Romantic, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Little, The Hustle, Booksmart (snuck that one in, it was 51, but I’m not counting most of the horror films so those are my biases).

    Lots of representation across different genres and markets there.

    Last category: best picture nominees, last three years: The Favourite, Roma, A Star Is Born (2018); The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017); Arrival, Hidden Figures (2016). Stopping there for arbitrary reasons, could keep going with the same result.

    The Blind Side is an interesting example because the screenplay arguably turned it into a woman-led story – and consequently more of a white savior story too. The book it was based on, and the article before that, foregrounded the football player more if I remember right.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to pick a fight. I do feel like the economics of getting a big budget film into production with a female lead suffers from the multiple gatekeeper dynamic you describe. And it is certainly different in terms of the star system with a woman actor in the lead vs. a male actor in the lead, and the power and money that goes with it. Women actors – and not only women actors – turning producer in order to get the films they want made happens in both industries, see Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon here. I guess I wonder what the comparison with the Indian industries can teach us, because I’m sure there is something but I’m not sure if the argument you’re making is that the roles are richer, or if it’s pure screen time, or the women actors in India are bigger stars in the industry than they are in Hollywood.

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    • You have revealed the biggest flaw, I just don’t study Hollywood like I do Indian films so I don’t even know about most of these films and I run the risk of making inaccurate statements.

      But I am assuming, from the things I do know about, that they all still follow the pattern I point to of Hollywood films in general being less star structured? Male or female, the lead character doesn’t dominate the movie as much as they do in Indian film? I’ve seen (and enjoyed) the new Star Wars movies and that is certainly true, Rey is the protagonist but just barely, the other characters also get loads of screen time. And it also seems like a fair number of those you list follow the pattern of multiple women sharing the lead instead of having it all to themselves?

      I don’t know if there is anything to improve necessarily between the two systems. I think it’s more a matter of noticing the different standards for “women lead” films between the two systems. In India, since it means the woman takes the central role and because the central role is so much more important, the film immediately becomes much more female focused. But in America because of the structure of the film, it is a lot easier for there to be a female lead character and yet the film as a whole not be so female-y. Mad Max: Fury Road for instance, that was a great movie and very female in a lot of ways, but it also had the usual structure where we get to know the villains along with the heroes and there’s new allies and “love interests” (sort of) and stuff. While if it were an Indian movie, Charlize Theron’s character would get a lengthy flashback sequence and be onscreen basically the entire time. Not necessarily better as a movie, but more strictly focused on the central female character.

      In terms of more female lead films appearing in America, do you think it could be box office behavior? I don’t know anything about Hollywood box office, but based on the American box office for Indian film, it looks like women have more and more of the buying power. Maybe as movie tickets get more expensive they are falling into the category of household expenses where women have always had control?

      On Wed, Aug 21, 2019 at 10:31 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • The narrative structure question is a really interesting one and I don’t feel like I know enough to understand if that’s a big difference. The hero-centric narrative could be a factor of how films come together in India – the basic plot idea exists, then you bring on the star, then you build the script and supporting characters around the star. Or it could be cultural for other reasons, though based on what you’ve written about the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and other cycles that are told and retold, it feels like you could argue culture either way, as a basis for multi-character ensemble or single heroic thread plots. The structure of basing the story around a single narrative also just seems simpler in some ways, especially if you have to be able to adjust around flexible filming conditions – as long as you can nail down the main story thread, the side pieces can be adjusted as you go. If you’re juggling multiple narratives, on the other hand, it seems like that would require a more fixed approach to writing and filming, to make sure all the actors are available at the same time and the pieces of each narrative fit together and are tonally consistent. Just riffing, though, not sure that I’m right about any of this.

        In terms of commercial incentives, I do feel like there’s been a shift lately. I’m kind of disconnected and not sure I understand why, but I suspect part of it has to do with pressure working. For a number of years the studios seemed to only be making movies for teenage boys, because they would go see a film in the theaters multiple times, and anything outside of that target audience was seen as lower payoff, less exportable, less profitable. But pressure to feature more women and more diverse actors resulted in a critical mass of big bets with leads who were not the typical white male, and enough of those were hits that it changed the financial calculus. The big franchises deserve some credit here because they’re huge productions with huge international releases – Fast and Furious was ahead of most, and then once you have a couple of huge Star Wars hits with more diverse casts, plus Black Panther, and Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel, then it changes the narrative so that the films that don’t hit (Dark Phoenix is considered an underperformer I think), it’s not automatically blamed on having a female lead, other factors are considered just like they would be for any other movie. Giving credit to the people who pushed for years from the inside, and the outside pressure from movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp for creating enough opportunities that the studios were able to wise up to their own role in creating false limitations on the kinds of movies that could be successful. Enough movies that didn’t confirm to that formula had to be made, with enough resources and conviction backing them, to show that there is room for many kinds of stories and actors, and in fact there is a huge audience beyond teenage boys if you can motivate them to come out for your film.

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        • Hmm. With your point of teenage boys, could that also tie into rising ticket prices? Instead of going after teenage boys with disposable income to see the same film multiple times, might it make more sense to go after discriminating older viewers with the disposable income for one $20 ticket based on good word of mouth? It seems like when I got the movie theater, that is who I see more and more (not in my Indian film screens but like in the lobby), older people looking for a somewhat affordable night out while the younger folks are staying home with Netflix.

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          • I totally do not have a handle on what’s going on with US theaters. It feels like they maybe adjusted to smaller audiences, and that hurt, but now they’ve stabilized a bit? Not sure. The event movies with fancy special effects and giant production budgets are still getting way more audience, but it’s a more mixed audience (Black Panther vs. 300 – for some reason 300 is stuck in my head as the peak teenage boy film), but there are still other films being made and getting into theaters.

            BTW ran across this article that kind of supports my pressure theory.
            https://variety.com/2019/film/news/female-minority-leads-study-movies-1203136914/

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  4. Okay not saying that Hollywood is instantly superior to Indian film when it comes to films with female characters as the main protagonist but I really feel like you’re overlooking some Hollywood films that have come out in the past 5 years. You said Ocean’s 8 and the new Ghostbusters, but there’s also films like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, the new Star Wars trilogy (yes this is an ensemble film with male characters but I always feel like it’s always Rey’s story especially in the last one), Mad Max: Fury Road (a case where you’d expect it to be super male-centric but a woman and the film as a whole has very strong feminist overtones), Us, Arrival, and Lady Bird to name a few. Granted there’s still a large number of male centric films (those people that cry whenever a female lead shows up in a beloved franchise are stupid) and the disparity is still there but I do think there have been improvements in the past decade. I will say the support of female directors in hollywood is appalling and that is one category where I think India is better for sure.

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    • What I find interesting, and not necessarily better or worse but just different, is that Hollywood will take a film with a female lead and give it an overall female focus, like Mad Max: Fury Road or Wonder Woman. While India is far more likely to just tell the same story they would tell otherwise but with a woman in the lead instead of a man. Kahaani for instance, it’s important that our lead is a woman for how differently she acts and how people react to her. But otherwise it is a thriller of the same kind that could have been done with a male lead.

      On Thu, Aug 22, 2019 at 12:17 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I think you are right about recent Hollywood movies, but I think in the past Demi Moore was a real star

        She really dominated the story

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  5. I find it interesting is that whenever you say that a particular film is about a “strong woman” the picture which immediately comes to mind is that of a kick-ass action heroine.Even the Disney movies follow the stereotype.The trend seems to have started with the Lara Croft movie. By dismissing/ignoring other types of strength we’ve systematically narrowed the scope for women centric movies.

    Another factor which bothers me is that the popular male stars are reluctant to play the supporting husband/boyfriend character.Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan might do a cameo..Akshay’s cameo in Chalo Dilli as Lara Dutta’s husband was nicely foreshadowed throughout the movie before he even appears.But not he would stick around for the whole movie playing second fiddle to the heroine.The Malayalam film actors have to be appreciated for their contribution in that regard -whether it is Nivin in Om Shanti Oshana or Mohanlal in Panchagni.

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    • Yes! I limited this week to simply “female lead” films and only Akira was a straight up action film. Umrao Jaan is a great movie about a strong woman, and so is Mardaani, just different types.

      And Shahrukh shout out! Dear Zindagi was a great supporting role. Not his fault that he was so sexy he ended up overshadowing the heroine.

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      • Akshay in Naam Shabana kind of bugged me. He didn’t suck up much screen time, but just the fact that he had to be portrayed as superior to her, the master she aspired to be, and all those takes where Taapsee gazed on him in awe.

        I feel like this is maybe why Gravity made such an impact? As an example of a huge star who played a supporting role that did not overshadow or otherwise minimize the female lead.

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        • Watch Akira! I say this to everyone, but I really love it. And part of what is wonderful is that our heroine has no man around to worship, just equals.

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  6. Random thoughts

    Arrival & Gravity & Wild cone to mind as films where the female lead got at least 75% of the screen time.

    Interestingly though, both Dear Zindagi and Gravity press were more about SRK and Clooney taking a supporting role in a female driven film.

    The Sister Act movies and their cinematic offspring, the Mamma Mia movies – almost all female. But to be feel good musicals, the (usually male) villains get to have character arcs insofar as they learn their lessons and reform and even give back to the women or to society.

    The Devil Wears Prada – almost every major and minor character in that movie was female. And it was a blockbuster that launched several careers (Emily Blunt comes to mind) and rewrote others (morphed Meryl Streep from prestige actor to popular star).

    Titanic and La La Land come to mind as movies with equal screen time and character development for the man and the woman. They are also intentionally throwbacky.

    IMO the biggest breakout star and household name from western cinema in the past ten years has been a female, Jennifer Lawrence, followed by Bradley Cooper. The other new stars tend to play themselves (so their brand us to play themselves on-screen) or get lost in the superhero and sci fi shuffle. JLaw seems like an amalgam of a golden era star and a blockbuster era star, she could carry either type of film.

    I would not categorize Piku as an female lead film, at least not in the Indian sense. It’s more of a female driven ensemble piece, more akin to the Hollywood female lead ensembles that you describe where the supporting male roles get significant screen time and character arcs. In fact deepika might be the only one of her generation who has yet to have a true solo lead film.

    I feel like in Indian cinematic history, female driven film and female centric film have been synonymous until maybe this decade. So it’s always a social message movie, a family tragedy ala mother India, or a female victim or survivor, like a rape victim getting justice or an acid survivor succeeding at life. Basically, issue-based films. And if there is no issue, then the woman is a either a prostitute or a tawaif. That’s what made Chandni so path breaking, a movie about an ordinary woman with ordinary heartbreak and ordinary life choices, but no other major tragedies, afflictions, or ailments otherwise, in a format that wasn’t a rom com.

    So it felt really regressive when I first heard that deepika was taking an acid attack survivor biopic for her first solo project. I thought, this is the 21st century, you don’t have to play a victim survivor saga as your first after-marriage movie anymore. But with Meghna Gulzar at the helm, I’m expecting her to do something original and unexpected, a modern reboot of the genre. If it works and is influential it would be great, because acid attacks belong in the dustbin of history, it’s shocking appalling and scary that this is still a thing.

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    • Interesting that you brought up Jennifer Lawrence. I also thought of her as a break out star, someone with the personal charm to make us love her, and also the acting abilities for multiple roles. But it felt like I hadn’t seen her in anything in a while. I just checked her filmography and it looks like her films are getting smaller and smaller. Which seems like a pattern with both male and female stars in Hollywood, the blockbusters are just so exhausting that at a certain point you burn out and go small and fade away. I’ve heard that about pretty much all the Avengers actors, especially Chris Evans, that it was just so exhausting once he finished the series, he chose to drop off and do small stuff. That could also go back to the narrative difference I see between the two industries, being a star is so exhausting in the West that no one wants to do it and so films have to adjust to “smaller” leads. Or maybe it’s not that at all, maybe both Hollywood and India are struggling with the same internet issue of making being a movie star a 24 hour a day job that no one really wants any more.

      Thank you for the Chandni context! I know there were other movies similar to that in the past, just happy films with a female lead, but I don’t think they were that kind of major hit or that explicit about having a female lead. With the two hero structure it was really obvious that Sridevi was the “hero” in that one.

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  7. Going to enter this as a general comment since a few people have picked up on similar thoughts. I expected there was a huge shift in the past few years too, but if you start looking at movies going back a few decades there are a lot of examples of strong female characters. The action genre has been ahead in the hero-centric kinds of stories that can be given a different twist by casting a female lead – you have Demi Moore, but also Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Linda Hamilton in Terminator, going back to Pam Grier in the 70s, and up through Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games, to all the recent superheroes. (And not counting my favorite, Michelle Yeoh, since she didn’t come out of Hollywood, but she’s the best.)

    In the Oscar nominated films, you have, as expected, a bunch of queens or other costume dramas (hello Sense and Sensibility). But also non genre-conforming stories like The Piano (1993), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Working Girl (1988), Moonstruck (1987), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), The Color Purple (1985), Terms of Endearment (1983), Funny Girl (1968), etc. back into the star era. No decade is without its strong, female-led stories. The proportion and mix maybe ticks up a bit once they upped the number of nominees from five to nine in 2009, so that’s a good thing.

    On the commercial side, I’d just point out that there are the “chick flicks” we think of as popular touchstones, and there’s also a side that tends to fly under the radar of films with African American leads and strong female stories – Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Tyler Perry films like Meet the Browns, Temptation, and Acrimony, this year’s What Men Want. So many strong actors who got to dig into juicy parts they weren’t getting elsewhere.

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  8. “” I just got an email from Netflix about some thriller movie they released with Taapsee, which again isn’t being considered a “Female” movie because it’s a thriller and female movies have to be romances.””

    It’s Game Over. I just saw this film and OMG it’s so scary! But you know, the cast is almost all female : there is only one scene with male therapist, a glimpse of male guardian and two policemen = all together 5 minutes.
    All the rest are only woman : Taapsee has more than 85% of the screentime, her maid is there always too + few other women. There are nice messages that women should never give up and should fight like only woman can do, even after rape or illness . But in the end, when this terrifying killer shows up, and does those gruesome things to the women, the last thing I was thinking was “women power!” and I wouldn’t call this film a female movie.

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  9. I kinda love that Indian films do not overly specify a movie as being women-centric? I mean, there was talk during Naam Shabana, Mary Kom or even Neerja, that this is a female-led film, but most people ignored it because the talk for the actual story was more. I feel that that is what should be done. Instead of fitting women into boxes, that these are the type of stories women should be a part of, or should have, the Indian films just let them be inside a larger story, which is the case in real life. I know nothing of Hollywood, but I definitely am enjoying the surge in female-led films in India.
    Also, I HATED that Mission Mangal was Vidya’s story, yet Akshay cropped up all the time to do meaningless shit and hog the screentime, and had a bigger presence in the promo material. Definitely see the effect of a huge studio, and now I am worried.😐
    Indian films still have a long way to go though, and ‘westernization’ is definitely not the answer. Instead, both industries need to work on more female representation in their own unique way.😊

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