On an Emirates flight from Kolkata to Dubai recently I was catching up with Bollywood watching two films Dil Dhadakne Do and Tanu Weds Manu Returns, back-to-back. Both the films had believable-yet-strong women protagonists.

That’s when I realized that Bollywood, in the last two years, have not only released an array of women-centric films but have clearly passed on a message — women in India have the freedom to choose irrespective of what rules and norms society asserts on them.

Starting from the 1957 hit Mother India to 1993’s superhit Damini to Arth (1982) to revenge-based Khoon Bhari Mang (1988) and Ek Hassena Thi (2004) women have played powerful roles in Indian cinema. But in the last two years, filmmakers have been particularly prolific when it comes to training their lens on women.

English Vinglish classroom scene
English Vinglish classroom scene

I think it was the 2012 film English Vinglish that changed the way women are perceived in Indian cinema. The story of a housewife who wants to learn English to make herself more presentable and acceptable to her children and husband, touched a chord in the hearts of Indian audiences with its simplicity. It once again established the fact that a woman can choose who she wants to be.

Since then there have been a number of films — from the 2014 Queen to the recent Talvar — with different story lines, narratives and messages but almost all have revolved around the aspect of freedom of choice.

In the last two years more than twenty films have been made where women’s issues have been addressed and this is a very positive trend in Bollywood, an industry that has to often deal with allegations that heroes take it all in Hindi films.

I list 10 best films made in the last two years that have explored Indian women both rural and urban in a bold-yet-sensitive style.

  1. Queen
Scene from Queen
Kangana Ranaut in Queen

After English Vinglish this film took Indian audiences by storm. The story of a simple Indian girl Rani (Kangana Ranaut), who is dumped days before her marriage for not being “modern” enough, but decides to go on her honeymoon alone appealed to Indian audiences all over the world. The sensitive portrayal of her self-discovery as she travels through foreign lands made the film a run-away hit.

  1. Highway

A bored rich girl played by Alia Bhatt is kidnapped a day before her marriage, falls in love with her kidnapper and dreams of a new life when the police close in and kills the kidnapper. She comes back and says no to the marriage and reveals that the groom’s father sexually abused her as a child and her own mother chose to turn a blind eye to it.

Highway is a very unique film that delves into love between two strangers and child sexual abuse in a hard-hitting, bold narrative.

  1. Mardaani

An honest lady police officer played by Rani Mukherji, realizes there is a trafficking ring at work when a girl, who was very close to her and lived in a destitute home, just vanishes. In her pursuit of this girl she comes across the most diabolic dons of Mumbai, her doctor husband is maligned because of her but she does not give up. She finally finds the girl.

The tough cop chooses to travel the difficult path when she could have treated her job as just another cushy one and succumbed to the lure of extra cash.

  1. Mary Kom

The film is based on the life of India’s best known boxing champ Mary Kom, played by Priyanka Chopra, who accomplished an unimaginable feat. She went back to the boxing rink after delivering twins and won world championships.

It is one of the most well-made, inspiring stories of how a woman goes against all odds and finds her calling. While her father resists her decision to become a boxer it is her husband who makes her believe in herself.

  1. Gulaab Gang

Loosely based on the real-life Gulabi Gang, a gang of pink-saree clad lathi wielding women  based in Uttar Pradesh that came into being when women got together to deal with domestic violence and dowry deaths. The film had stellar performances by Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla.

  1. Piku

From the outside it might seem to be the story of a young lady (Deepika Padukone) bogged down by the responsibility of an eccentric father, but a closer look will show that Piku is a woman with a mind of her own. She is an architect running a company on a partnership with her boyfriend. She is also a sexually liberated and intellectually sound woman. She chooses to mother her father and bow down to his every whim because of her sense of responsibility and her deep love for him.

  1. Margarita With A Straw

This inspiring tale of a Laila (Kalki Koechlin) who does not let her cerebral palsy come in the way of her ambitions opened to critical acclaim last year. Laila goes to New York to pursue higher studies on a scholarship and discovers her own bisexuality. While on the one hand the film deals with the fierce independent bent of mind of a young girl, it is also about her quest for love.

  1. Dil Dhadakne Do
Dil Dhadakne
Scene from Dil Dhadakne Do

The film has actually three female protagonists Neelam (Shefali Shah) who is trapped in a marriage for 30 years because she has nowhere else to go and turns a blind eye to her husband’s escapades. Her daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra), who is a business woman and has been forced into an unhappy arranged marriage but finds it hard to muster the courage to get out of it. Then there is the hard working, free-spirited dancer Farah Ali (Anushka Sharma) who has been fending for herself since she was a child, respects her art and profession and is fiercely independent.

Then comes in two feminist-sympathetic men — journalist Sunny (Farhan Akhtar) and Kabir (Ranvir Singh).  While Sunny believes that men should never try to assert themselves on women and should be equal partners, Kabir believes his sister Ayesha is far better suited to take on their business empire than him.

Filmed on a journey on a cruise ship the film explores the nuances of modern man-woman relationships once again delving into the aspect of freedom of choice.

  1. Masaan

Richa Chaddha’s brilliant performance as small-town girl Devi, who gets embroiled in a sex scandal and is blackmailed by the cops but tries to overcome the stigma attached to what happened to her, has been appreciated by all.

Masaan draws a detailed picture of small-town India where young people are struggling to find their own identities.

  1. Talvar

This film is based on the real-life incident of the murder of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar in Delhi in 2008. Her parents Rajesh and Nupur Talwar have been convicted for her murder and are serving their sentence currently. Konkona Sen Sharma plays Nupur Talwar in the film. Nupur was portrayed as cold and calculative by the media because she chose not to cry on camera while giving an interview to NDTV.

In the film three plausible situations of the crime scene and investigation process have been created and Konkona plays the bereaved mother.

The film, which is currently playing in the theaters, is getting rave reviews and has already raked in 30 million rupees. It is a very different take on a mother whose life changes forever after she finds her daughter murdered in the next room and is finally convicted for the crime.  But the question still hangs in the air did she really partner with her husband to do it?

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com

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