With the ever present misogyny in our mainstream cinema, it’s hard to find a representation of women even in contemporary Bollywood that isn’t hackneyed and downright awful at times, but sometimes we can always rely on our parallel cinema to provide what is sorely lacking. With its gripping narratives, unspoken taboos shattered and feminist principles, Indian cinema has gone beyond the borders of Bombay, or even India, to provide an accurate depiction of the lives of the South Asian diaspora. With comedies about marriage and intimacy, to darker tales of caste discrimination, domestic abuse and infidelity, we’ve found 10 films that strongly portray feminist ideals at their core and give you entertainment like you deserve. No women as decorative objects to be found here folks!
I. Bhaji on the Beach by Gurinder Chadha
Anyone who’s traveled with their extended families and friends knows the trials and tribulations (and gossip) that emerges on these excursions. Bhaji on the Beach was made in a time where South Asian representation was scarce, especially one depicting the female relationships and matriarchs of families. In a tussle between the old and the new, the movie brings out the generation gap between tradition and modernity of a group of South Asian women who take a day trip to Blackpool. Far away from the patriarchal structures of the home, the women explore their personal issues and differences on a day out and makes the film a very cathartic experience.
II. Angry Indian Goddesses by Pan Nalin
Freida (Sarah-Jane Dias) invites a group of friends to her Goan home to announce her engagement and pending nuptials. Her friends consist of Madhurita a.k.a Mad (Anushka Manchanda), a singer, Pamela ‘Pammy’ Jaswal (Pavleen Gujral), a former gold-medalist turned trophy wife, Suranjana (Sandhya Mridul), a single mother who’s a businesswoman, Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee), an activist, and Joanna (Amrit Maghera), an aspiring actress. The announcement spans a chain of reactions where everyone lets out their own secrets and so we get on a roller-coaster of female friendships and bonds. The movie was touted as India’s first girl roadtrip film and featured difficult themes like sexuality, career success and being a working mom, career failures and reliving glory days but succumbing to family pressure. It’s a movie that will have you calling your girl gang just to replicate that sense of female sisterhood that we all love and crave.
III. Monsoon Wedding by Mira Nair
Sabrina Dhawan’s words paint an amazing picture with Monsoon Wedding, and Mira Nair’s hand added to it is what makes it an unforgettable and relevant film even a decade after its creation. The film is set around an exuberant Punjabi family celebrating the wedding of one of their own and explores the bonds that unite the Indian family, including exploring its darker elements that are often brushed off or swept under the rug. Monsoon Wedding is a rarity and a must-watch for anyone who enjoys good Indian cinema.
IV. Fire by Deepa Mehta
When Fire came out, it came under “fire” (sorry for that pun) for being against the ideas of what an Indian woman should be and plenty of people petitioned to have it banned from every being screened. Today, no one can deny how important this film was when it came to LGBTQ awareness. The story features Sita and Radha, young Indian women whose husbands are far more satisfied to choose celibacy or mistresses over their own wives. This leads the wives to start up their own intimate and passionate relationship, despite living in a close-minded community. Deepa Mehta took a risk with this film, and it paid off and made Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi forces to be reckoned with.
V. Arth by Mahesh Bhatt
You can always rely on Mahesh Bhatt to make a statement with the way he chooses to display women and their sexuality. Once again featuring the titan Shabana Azmi, the story revolves around a woman, Pooja, who is left by her director husband for another woman. The journey chronicles her experiences with forging a new identity for herself outside of her relationships.
No one can deny that Tabu is a national treasure, at least we would fight you on it if you denied it. She outshines in Astitva, a story of a woman punished for one moment of weakness, termed as a sin. The film talks about how the sin would have played out if the husband did it, in which case he would probably be let off the hook. The film touches upon hard issues like misogyny, marital abuse and extra-marital affairs.
VII. Margarita With A Straw
One of Kalki’s best performances, Margarita with the straw touches so many problems so sensitively that you can’t help finishing the movie with a tear in your eye. It explores themes of bisexuality, disability and how one copes with societal change in an ever changing global world. Kalki’s character embarks on a journey of freedom, feminism and sexuality.
VIII. Mirch Masala
Set in colonial India, Mirch Masala talks about Subedar, a factory owner who wields power over a small village. Naseerudin Shah plays Subedar, while Smita Patil plays rebellious Sonbai, a woman who refuses to bow down to the higher ups. We don’t want to give too much of the film away, but if you want to see a movie where a group of women are total bad asses and refuse to take shit from anyone, this is it.
IX. Pudhumai Penn
Directed by Bharathiraja, Puhumai Penn features a young woman who has simple dreams of falling in love and getting married. Yet after her wedding, her husband is falsely imprisoned and she needs to find the courage to fight for him. After he is released, he accuses her of being unfaithful to him. The film explores the standards that women often have to obey and the outlandish things they are often asked to do to prove their innocence.
Directed by Rajkumar Santoshi, Lajja recounts the story of four women and satirises the honour with which women are placed in society. The four women’s names (Maithili, Janki, Ramdulaari, and Vaidehi) are all variations of the name Sita, who is often considered the height of an ideal Indian woman. It stars prominent actors like Manisha Koirala, Rekha, Madhuri Dixit, Mahima Chaudhry, Jackie Shroff, Johnny Lever, Anil Kapoor, Samir Soni, Ajay Devgan and Danny Denzongpa.