An elderly woman seeks a romance with her swimming coach in the Hindi film Lipstick Under My Burqa, which battled the Indian censors ahead of its release in theaters last month and is now going strong on streaming service Amazon Prime.
In another Bollywood film this year, Anaarkali of Aarah, inspired by a true story, a dancing girl who sings innuendo-laden songs at functions in a small town called Aarah takes on a powerful official who molests her in public.
A fresh crop of Hindi films — or Bollywood, as the industry is popularly known — are telling stories of ordinary women seeking sexual and financial freedom.
“Bollywood is a male-dominated industry, but there is a sudden influx of women-oriented films that are also doing well,” Avinash Das, writer-director of Anaarkali of Aarah, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Triggering the change in Bollywood’s narrative was the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, which led to massive protests across the country and put a spotlight on women’s safety in India.
Bollywood films, often characterized by their song and dance sequences and male-dominated story lines, are influential in India and beyond, and objectification of women and their use in titillating songs is often blamed for stoking sexual crime in the country.
India has only 10 cinema screens per million people, compared with 124 in the United States and 90 in China for the nearly 1,000 films Bollywood churns out every year, but it has the largest number of people going to the cinema.
The films that tell women’s stories, though still perceived as commercially unviable, have done well at the box office.
Alankrita Shrivastava, director of Lipstick Under My Burqa, said viewers were drawn to her film as “an honest story about them” and that the film remains the most watched since Amazon Prime’s launch in India last December.
The makers of Anaarkali too could prove naysayers wrong when the film did commercially well, and even a movie exploring lack of sanitation as a women’s rights violation — Toilet: A Love Story — has been a major hit this year.
“When issues matter to people … they are bound to come into popular entertainment media,” said veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, whose award-winning films explored India’s caste divide and told stories of ordinary women. “Films like Toilet: A Love Story ring a bell with a large section of the audience who identity with the problem, and that explains why they are doing well.”
In April, popular actor Abhay Deol took on fellow actors for endorsing skin-whitening creams and slammed the popular Indian belief of “fairer is better” as racist.
This off-screen voice of leading actors is creating awareness on subjects that were never discussed, be it fairness creams or even sex trafficking, campaigners said.
“Celebrities have a huge following and the message goes out to people that campaigners would never be able to reach out to,” said Samarth Pathak, spokesman at U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Pathak interviewed Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham on World Day Against Trafficking in July, when he described trafficking as a “serious threat to humanity.”
“This was our first interview with a film star, and it created quite a buzz. A lot of young people are reaching out [to understand] trafficking, which is unprecedented,” Pathak said.
A couple of days before the interview, Bollywood’s most sought-after actor, Akshay Kumar, who plays the male lead in Toilet and is now working in a film on menstrual hygiene, spoke at an international sex trafficking conference in Mumbai about the need to protect children from abuse.
These star voices matter as Bollywood’s handling of prostitution had been restricted to portraying women as “call girls” without delving into the problems of sex trafficking and modern-day slavery, said Sanjay Macwan, regional director of the anti-trafficking charity International Justice Mission.
“When Bollywood celebrities speak against sex trafficking, exploitation and bonded labor, it brings the issue before every Indian,” Macwan said.
Last year’s release, Dangal, which shows an aging father train his two daughters to become wrestlers, defying social norms in conservative Haryana state in northern India, is among Bollywood’s biggest hits, beating fluffy romances and epic revenge dramas in box office collections.
While arthouse films in the 1980s and a crop of independent filmmakers have tackled social issues, gender and small-town India in their films, the backing of such projects by major studios seems a recent phenomenon — but in some ways is simply following an old Bollywood tradition.
“Hindi cinema has been dealing with social issues since the 1920s, even in the silent era,” Meenakshi Shedde, South Asia consultant to the Berlin and Dubai film festivals and festival curator, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A 1937 film, Duniya Na Mane (The World Does Not Agree), showed a young schoolteacher from a poor family refusing to consummate her marriage with an old man.
Some of India’s most successful filmmakers from the 1930s to ’60s such as V Shantaram and Bimal Roy had social themes at the center of their stories.
“Bollywood is often perceived as monolithic, masala films with stars, six songs and a happy ending. But it is many different things,” Shedde said. It is wonderful that social issues are becoming fashionable in Bollywood again.”