What Does “Feminism” Mean in Bollywood?

The 1990 Hindi film, Ghar Ho To Aisa, positioned feminism as “toxic and damaging to the institution of marriage and family.” The female lead, who founded a women’s empowerment organization, was blamed for breaking up families and manipulating women’s minds into hating their husbands and other men. In films like these, women are depicted as constantly plotting against each other and scheming revenge. 

Mainstream “women-oriented” Bollywood films, up to the 2000’s, often portray victimized women as vigilantes taking revenge against their antagonists, typically men. Rising from the ashes is often a metaphor in these films—like Zakhmi Aurat (1988), Khoon Bhari Maang (1991) and Phool Baney Angaarey (1991)—where women’s vengeance is portrayed as equivalent to men’s physical strength, anger and masculinity.

The film Mardaani (2014) depicts a woman police officer fighting against the Indian mafia to eradicate human trafficking and save girls caught up in this vicious cycle of abuse. Even though the actress was applauded for her performance, the term “mardaani”— “masculinity”—is troubling. Feminist women do not have to “act like men” to fight against social injustice. 

But Bollywood cinema has come a long way from misogynist, one-dimensional, racialized portrayals of women and feminism. Thanks to new age filmmakers and brilliant actors and actresses willing to take risks, these film industry outliers push audiences beyond our comfort zone.

Anarkali of Arah.

Other Hindi films from the 1980s to the early 2000’s—such as Arth, Masoom, Mirch Masala, Mrityudand and Astitva—depict powerful women and feminism in complex ways. Nil Banne Sannata (2015), Queen (2014), Piku (2015), Margarita with a Straw (2014) and Anarkali of Arah (2017) present liberating themes uplifting women’s diverse experiences—and touching on themes of autonomy and independence, familial relationships, sexuality and the fight against sexism and sexual violence.

In Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), one male character proudly states that unlike the past generation, he “allowed” his wife to start her own business. Another male character responds that being a supporter of women’s empowerment means that women don’t need permission to work or pursue their interests. These trailblazing film-makers and actors do recognize how onscreen representations impact their communities. 

Growing up in India, I heard terms like “women’s empowerment” or “women advocates”—descriptors that didn’t carry the negative connotations associated with the word “feminism.” Although feminist advocates and scholars have applauded underlying feminist themes in innovative films, some filmmakers and actors with a huge fan base have stated that their films are not feminist.

Alia Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra and Lisa Haydon—top Bollywood actresses who are global icons with millions of fans—have refused to be identified as feminist and shed negative implications on feminism, even though they symbolize strong and independent women on-screen and personally believe in empowering girls and women. It’s not that I’m seeking to shame them for not wanting the label “feminist” attached to them—but what we can at least expect them to do is to eradicate myths and negative perceptions of feminism. 

Despite successful box office collections, critics slammed recent films Dangal and Pink, in which the male gaze is shown to be instrumental for women’s liberation. “Female empowerment in these films is often just a form of male gratification,” critic Laya Maheshwari declared. “There is little autonomy or agency on the female’s part; she would be lost if left to her own devices. The burden of her improvement and happiness ultimately fall upon the man’s shoulders.”

Some films that do publicly claim to be feminist and empowering focus on the voices of privileged urban women, thus conveying limited meanings of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The 2018 film Veerey di Wedding, which explores women’s lives, friendships and struggles through the lens of four Indian women reuniting to celebrate one of their weddings, faced a scathing review from Pradnya Vaghule, who observed that “the film capitalizes on the focus of gender equality of our moment while milking it for all it has to offer” and called it “bro-culture packaged as feminism, extending kindness and empathy only to certain kinds of women: women within the network.”

The #MeToo movement has swept through India, particularly the Bollywood cinema industry. Film actress Tanushree Datta was the first to speak about her sexual harassment perpetrated by the veteran actor Nana Patekar on a film set; in addition to sexual harassment allegations, the #MeTooIndia hashtag became a haven for stories from women filmmakers, supporting cast members and film crew staffers about rape, sexual abuse and other forms of sexism in the industry. Many notable actors, such as Akshay Kumar, and directors refused to work with men accused of sexual harassment as a show of support to women sharing their #MeToo stories. 

Will the #MeToo movement in India, particularly in the film industry, play an influential role in preventing and ending gender violence—especially considering the misconstrued, regressive and patriarchal definition of feminism floating around the industry?

Well-established and affluent film industry members have the privilege and support to be able to share their experiences of sexual harassment and show their solidarity and support to other #MeToo storytellers—but what about supporting actors, background dancers, make-up artistes, technicians, action artists, cinematographers, design set assistants and others who experience sexual harassment or abuse and want to report but don’t have the safe space or support? How would the #MeToo movement in Bollywood apply to them? 

Only one thing here is clear: that we have a long way to go towards forging a better understanding of what it means to be feminist in Bollywood.

Author’s Note: I am grateful to Dr. Aimee Wodda and Sneha Bhat for their timely feedback and contributions.


Dr. Meghna Bhat is a proud first-generation immigrant from India who has lived in the U.S. for the past 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a specialization in Gender and Women Studies, and her dissertation explored images of violence against women in Bollywood Indian cinema and its implications for the Indian diaspora in the United States.