gender portrayals

The first rule of a female character’s entry into the movie frame: she must be second to the male

Men stride into the scene, while women are either already there or come in as an afterthought.

In Rustom (2016), the eponymous hero appears on screen, dashing in his spiffy naval uniform, exerting authority over other men on a ship where he is the second-in-command. Compare this to the entry of his wife, Cynthia. She is seen gazing dejectedly at her reflection while she gets ready to meet a man.

Entry scenes of female characters in Hindi films produced in the past decade range from painfully typical to delightfully innovative and everything in between. Regardless of how a woman is introduced, these scenes often predict how the camera and male characters will treat her for the rest of the film. And sure enough, Cynthia spends a large portion of the film in a state of lacrimal overdrive.

That’s why Happy’s entry in Happy Bhag Jaayegi, where she watches her fiancé dance for her, is refreshingly new. Not only does it reverse gender roles in the traditional dancer-viewer dynamic of Hindi films, but it also foreshadows all the dancing around that is eventually in store for Daman Singh Bagga as he attempts to locate Happy.

As a norm, Hindi cinema is dominated by stories about men, told by men. So much so that stories of female characters who maintain some degree of autonomy are called female-centric. Women in these films enter the narrative with chutzpah. They are competently working, or voicing strong opinions without qualm.

Vidya delivers a baby in Paa, a disguised Bobby is sleuthing in Bobby Jasoos and Mili administers a rather unorthodox treatment to a male cricketer in Khoobsurat. Neerja is introduced as an effervescent woman who loves to live. The entry scenes of Jaggu in PK and Veera in Highway are also beautifully crafted, focusing on their desire for freedom and adventure.

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‘Bobby Jasoos’.

In Zeenat’s first scene in Dor, she asks her boyfriend why her love for him must find validation through marriage. This trope is stretched to breaking point in Kia’s entry in Ki & Ka when she goes on a loud tirade against marriage at her best friend’s wedding. In The Dirty Picture, Reshma is first seen imitating the moans and sighs of her neighbours, which sets up her brassy, no-holds-barred character.

Although female friendships do not feature prominently in Hindi films, the few entry scenes which feature women speaking with each other are fun to watch. In Rang De Basanti, Sonia is introduced when she picks Sue up from the airport and the two share friendly banter and troublesome information with equal ease.

Then there’s the second woman, wearing shorts and defying convention, who soon befriends the female protagonist. Lakshmi first appears on screen in Queen when Rani watches her rant against a man, hurling abuses at him. The scene highlights the difference in the worldviews of the two women who will soon become friends. Aditi is introduced in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani when Naina runs into her at a supermarket. Although it is apparent that Aditi and Naina are nothing alike, neither judges the other.

But when women are not the focus of the story, they enter the frame as accessories – or worse, as fragmented bodies. In most films, the audience first sees women as the men encounter them. Janhvi first comes on the screen when Munna sees her in Lage Raho Munnabhai, Aditi is introduced as an important person in Jai’s life when he rushes to her aid in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, and Laila enters the story when Arjun notices her in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Rajjo in Dabangg 2 is introduced as Chulbul’s wife, Ganga-Jamuna-Saraswati as Batuk’s daughters in Housefull 3 and Alina as Armaan’s half-sister in Race 2.

‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’.
‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’.

The male perspective is doubly reinforced in 2 States, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Ghajini and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where female characters are introduced through the memories or diary entries of males. It is comparatively rare for males to first appear on screen through female recollections – Kick and Barfi! are some such exceptions.

In the typical Hindi film that combines action, romance and comedy in one potpourri, female entry scenes prominently feature close shots of their bodies. In Rowdy Rathore, when Shiva watches Paro as she walks past, the camera zooms into parts of her body. He then mentally rewinds her progress and stares at her again. Paro is little more than an extension of Shiva’s lascivious stare in her entry scene.

‘Rowdy Rathore’.
‘Rowdy Rathore’.

In Hero, Radha is first seen undressing. The camera selectively tarries on her waist. The bodies of Veronica in Cocktail, Angie in Finding Fanny and Kia in Ki & Ka are also fragmented when they first appear. Most Hindi films operate under the bizarre assumption that women will be introduced as desirable only when their waists or hips are put on magnified display. Ishqiya belies this presumption in Krishna’s entry scene. Although she oozes sexuality as she languorously lies on her bed, the camera never zooms in to Krishna’s body.

In Bajirao Mastani, Mastani’s body and face are completely covered and she fights Bajirao with considerable skill. When she is bested and revealed to be female, Bajirao and his soldiers are stunned. In Sultan, the titular character mistakes bike-riding Arfa for a man before she removes her helmet. These entry scenes first utilise and then dismantle stereotypes about femininity. And yet, they illustrate another assumption: women must behave like men to appear empowered.

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‘Bajirao Mastani’.

Female characters too count on well-entrenched stereotypes to achieve their goals in Dedh Ishiqiya and Kaahaani. The beauty and vulnerability of Begum Para and Vidya respectively instantly arouse the sympathies of men around them. These scenes turn out to be surprisingly ironic when both women eventually reveal their plans.

The camera often enters living spaces of female protagonists, introducing them as they are preparing for their day. In Bang Bang, Harleen’s nudity is implied as her entry scene shows her bathing. Entry scenes of female protagonists in both Bodyguard and Kick feature them getting dressed, complete with close shots of their bodies. However, when Piku first appears on screen as she is readying for the day, her patience, temper and independence are illustrated instead. A similar entry scene in English Vinglish documents Shashi’s morning, and her relationship with her family.

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‘Piku’.

Just like the camera, male protagonists also double up as voyeurs in female entry scenes. In Ek Tha Tiger, Swades, Wanted and Rockstar, male protagonists watch females unobserved before they approach them for a conversation. Sid finds Ayesha sitting alone at a party in Wake Up Sid and gazes at her through his camera, clicking her with abandon before she asks him to stop. Manu also clicks a picture of Tanu and sneaks a kiss while she is unconscious in her entry scene in Tanu Weds Manu. Such violation of consent is also apparent in Sonia’s entry scene in Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya?, as Pyare first watches and then embraces a semi-conscious Sonia. In Tamasha as well, Ved observes Tara unnoticed before he swoops in to help her, although she is hardly the typical damsel in distress.

Men first enter stories of Hindi films as they are engaged in swashbuckling acts of heroism and women enter after them. No matter how important women are to the stories being told in Hindi films, they quite literally come second to men.

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