Hollywood’s relationship with strong female lead characters and the exploration of feminist themes in general has been hit and miss. Cat Balou of 1965, starring Jane Fonda, certainly fits the bill of a movie that had both elements, but it was a film that never forgot to be mainstream piece of entertainment either. Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise of 1991 and Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple of 1985 are both often held up as examples of movies that have feminism as a central theme, but it must be said that such features are more the exception than the rule. There are, of course, other instances that could be mentioned, too.
In 1998 Indian-born Shekhar Kapur made ground with Cate Blanchett in the title role of the Hollywood made Elizabeth, for example. However, Indian films that discuss feminist ideas are even rarer than Hollywood ones. In the West, Bollywood is probably more associated with rom-coms and sappy escapism than serious film-making. Nonetheless, Hindi language movies which explore the social underbelly of the sub-continent are more common than you might think and now there is an Indian movie which features strong women taking control of their lives as the central issue of the plot to look forward to.
One of the new Bollywood movies that will see a UK release, Gulaab Gang has been written and directed by Soumik Sen, a debutant behind the lens. Part of Sahara Movie Studios’ output, the film is currently being widely promoted in Mumbai – the epicentre of Indian film making – by Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla who have lead roles. Both ladies have expressed to the Indian film press how they see the picture as being about female empowerment. The story revolves around a social activist called Rajjo, played by Dixit, who establishes a sort of ashram for women who are determined to fight for equal rights. With recent violence against women in India becoming global news, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Hindi film makers have started to engage with such themes.
Rajjo does not have everything her own way and she faces official corruption in the form of a politician named Sumitra Devi, portrayed by the veteran movie actress Chawla. The local official is determined to battle against Raijo’s campaign for justice. That both of the protagonists happen to be women is unusual – to say the least – in Bollywood and Asian cinema more generally.
“The film gives a sense of empowerment in a lot of ways,” said Dixit. “This movie tries to say that the girls in it need access to education because that will offer them the resources they need so that they can stand on their own feet and to be independent.”
According to the star of films such as Devdas and Beta, the story’s theme demonstrates that it is only through self-respect that women can gain the respect of wider society. Dixit went on to say that for many families their socio-economic background becomes a barrier and they cannot afford to educate girls, preferring the boys to be educated, instead. However, the film is not simply a worthy social play but a drama that has thrills and spills along the way. Dixit received training in many martial arts, which included Taekwondo, in preparation for her role in the action thriller. Yes, Gulaab Gang may feature feminist ideas, but this is Bollywood and entertainment comes first, after all.