The demand for equal rights for women is a century-old struggle that extends into the question of representation in politics, in arts, and in media. Since the 2000s, the Bechdel Test has come to be known as the litmus test to assess gender inequality in works of fiction. Also known as the Bechdel-Wallace test, it is named after the American graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, who popularised the idea in her series of comic strips Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008). She attributes the germ of this idea to her friend Liz Wallace, and to author Virginia Woolf, who highlighted unequal female representation in literature, most notably in A Room of One’s Own (1929).
The rules for the test first appeared in a 1985 Dykes comic strip titled ‘The Rule’, wherein two women discuss their reasons for going to the movies. These reasons would later go on to become the three parameters of the Bechdel Test:
- The movie has to have at least two named female characters;
- The female characters talk to each other;
- The focus of conversation between the female characters is not a man.
While the test, in its essence, gauges the amount of screen time shared by women, it has received criticism on account of its limitations. For one, it is by no means an indicator of whether or not a film is feminist. Additionally, it is difficult to have a discussion on appearances, motherhood, or fashion outside of the framework of gender stereotypes. For instance, any ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation of the heroine, aided by another woman, passes the Bechdel Test and conforms to patriarchal standards of beauty.
The ideal film, therefore, should be one that not only checks off (a), (b), and (c), but also exhibits women who are supportive of other women. Keeping all these aspects in mind, #DSSCRecommends Bollywood films since 2010 that pass the Bechdel test with flying colours and fulfill the additional aforementioned criterion.
Vikas Bahl’s coming-of-age film became a huge critical and commercial success. Starring Kangana Ranaut in the lead role, this comedy-drama charts Rani’s journey of self-discovery as she embarks on her honeymoon by herself after her fiancé jilts her a day before the wedding. In Paris, she meets an Indo-French woman, Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon), whose sexually liberated lifestyle is a source of culture shock. There are quite a few discussions about Rani’s heartbreak, but the rest of her trip is a lesson in broadening horizons and drawing comparisons between the social expectations from women in India and Europe. For example, after a drunken spree, the two make merry about belching loudly, defying socially constructed rules regarding women’s behaviour, particularly in public spaces (because “good girls don’t burp”).
Shashank Ghosh’s remake of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic was widely publicised as a launch vehicle for its male protagonist, the renowned Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, but the film manages to pass the Bechdel Test with the help of its female lead, Sonam Kapoor, who plays a bubbly physiotherapist, Dr. Milli Chakravarty, and Ratna Pathak Shah as Maharani Nirmala Devi Rathore. Although the context of their first meeting is a man (for the Maharani’s husband is Milli’s patient), the two share a moment in which Milli gives the Maharani some medical advice regarding her choice of footwear, which could potentially damage her posture. Milli also gives the Maharani’s daughter, Divya, the encouragement she needs to pursue her dream of acting, which is met with stiff opposition from her mother.
Another Sonam Kapoor-starrer on our list is Ram Madhvani’s biopic on the slain flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot. In the opening scene of the film, Neerja’s mother, Rama (Shabana Azmi) expresses her concern about her daughter’s choice of profession. Neerja has a hectic job at Pan Am Airways, but Rama would rather she returned to her former profession of modelling. Their interaction is significant, for it is not a conversation about motherhood, but about a woman’s career. It is never suggested to Neerja, whose modelling career came to a halt after her marriage and subsequent divorce, that she should quit working altogether. In 1986, the year in which the film is set, this was certainly revolutionary.
Secret Superstar (2017)
Advait Chandan’s directorial debut is about the dreams and aspirations of a teenager, Insia (Zaira Wasim), who wants to sing. With a domineering and abusive father, who breaks her guitar and dreams with an equal lack of remorse, Insia finds a pillar of strength in her mother, Najma (Meher Vij), who sells her jewels to buy a laptop and get an internet connection, which in turn helps her daughter simultaneously gain online fame whilst keeping her identity a secret. Their many scenes together are not just about Najma worrying about her husband discovering their little secret; nor are their interactions limited to Insia persuading her mother to get a divorce. When Insia’s father is out of town, she and her mother spend quality time together discussing music and browsing the internet, with Najma showing active interest in finding out the number of views Insia’s videos have garnered. Theirs is a companionship based on faith in talent and is about women uplifting women.
For an industry that produces the maximum number of films in the world every year, it is a matter of grave concern that women do not find adequate representation on screen. The few Hindi films that feature on our list are not here because of a mere technicality that often amounts to tokenism, but because the female characters are substantially fleshed out. In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, that is how things should be.
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