The Depiction of Women in Indian Cinema

Modified: 2nd Jan 2018
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Indian Women have excelled in every field and have engraved their names in many parts of the universe, but there still seems to be a long route ahead before she attains equal status in the minds of Indian men.

‘Most agricultural civilizations downgraded the status and potential of women, at least according to modern Western standards and to the implicit standards of hunting-and-gathering societies. Agricultural civilizations were characteristically patriarchal; that is, they were run by men and based on the assumption that men directed political, economic, and cultural life. Furthermore, as agricultural civilizations developed over time and became more prosperous and more elaborately organized, the status of women deteriorated from its initial level.’ (,%20women_in_patriarchal_societies.htm)

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In a well-defined patriarchal society like India, even the cinematic world deems to project women as in factual life. This is a good thing as films have mass appeal and at least some if not all carry out a message to the public and try to create awareness. There is a myth that women are characterized in films to prop up the male role rather than characterize them as the one who keeps the narrative structure sinuous. Women are insinuated in films as bearing the burden of sexual objectification that male roles cannot. Hence, they become the bearer, and not the maker of meaning says Laura Mulvey (Mulvey 834). Most Indian women live a silent life with enormous amount of sacrifices and retain their frustration within themselves for the sake of societal pressure.

Women in Indian cinema are born with certain assumptions ranging from cult movies to celluloid blockbusters like Sholay to more recent Fashion that employ themselves as in severe gender issues. They are portrayed either as damsels in distress or demented feminists or simple belly-shaking glam dolls whose sole ambition is to attract the attention of the male gender. In many Indian films it is a common trend to insert ‘item numbers’ which bear no rational connection to the film in anyways but with an assumption that the film is easily associated. As Bindu Nair(2009:53)says, ‘Sometimes the one song ends up making the film a hit, such as ‘Chamma Chamma’ from the film China gate.’

Occasionally, do we see a female being the protagonist of a film than merely being objects of sexual desire. In some cases there appears to be a clash between ‘modern feminism’ and ‘traditional values’. Indian cinema often acts like an emotional register and is very resourceful while reading the characterization of ‘Women’.

I would like to line up the film Paroma and closely pay attention to the way in which a traditional Hindu wife is deprived of her freedom and is confined by the emotional bonding with the family. It appears to be impossible to gather together a woman character as anything beyond the two incarnates – Madonna and Whore. Women in India were not expected to express their feelings or to develop their personalities rather get accustomed to their individual subjugation and succumb to the same. To use a women character in a film is to represent a traditional figure as a symbolic image but many a times it is a mere wishful desire.

For the present discussion I have chosen the character Paroma as the centre subject, it being a film directed by a female auteur Aparna Sen. The central character in the film Paroma is a middle class Bengali housewife who is played by Raki Gulzar. This film makes a very strong statement about the perception women have on their own body juxtaposed with a man’s perception about her. The word Paroma in the ancient Indo-Aryan language which is Sanskrit means ‘the supreme’ or ‘the very best’. In Hindu religion it is used as a prefix to show admiration or reverence. In this film it takes a very long time to bring out her individuality almost to the second half of the film.

The film embarks upon the title credits rolling over a Hindu Goddess Kali symbolizing the bestower of liberation. Goddess Kali is an image of the vengeful mother-goddess. Her name Paroma which roughly translates as ‘the ultimate woman’ in this film is subsumed by the many relational identities associated with her in the family. She is called by different names in the family such as bhabi (sister-in-law), kaki (aunt), mami (aunt), ma (mother) and bahu (daughter-in-law). This marks the beginning of her identity -the given name Paroma being hidden and lost in the different roles she plays within the family.

Paroma’s mother-in-law, we can say the doyen of the family makes a mention to a group of women that she is alive only because her daughter-in-law (Paroma) takes very good care of her and this establishes the fact that Paroma is indeed of very great importance to the family. There is a point being made when the foreign -returned photographer’s assistant Sarah, tries to understand if Paroma has an identity of her own and this is made sense to her and explained by the patronizing males in the family. But Rahul Rai initiates her identity when he refuses to cast her as Bhabi or Kaki even though Paroma suggests he addresses her either as Bhabi or kaki as he wished indicating her parameters and hinting that she would be safe within these roles which act as barriers for a woman and prohibiting any trespassers within the boundaries of decorum. It is a custom in many Indian families where the female head has to serve hot food to their family and if this is not done they take up the blame for being a terrible house-wife. A scene where Paroma’s children return from school screaming “Ma, ma have you not prepared cold coffee for us?” is quite interesting as one can see the duties of a mother in a close-knit Hindu family and yet her limitations are countless when it comes to doing her own things at leisure. For example, Paroma never finds the time to play the traditional instrument Sitar. Her education had an abrupt end and her interest in sitar and poetry fades out because of her responsibilities as a Hindu house-wife. No one in the family pays much attention to what a woman wants in life. Very rarely do we see members of the family obtain the permission or suggestion from Paroma on what is to be done. This is evident as Paroma’s husband asks his mother if she has any problem in Paroma modeling for their guest – Rahul. As the head of the family Paroma’s mother-in-law agrees and internally suggests it’s the least they can do to entertain their valuable guest.

The scene that preludes her children returning from school is an interesting one where Rahul tries to stare at Paroma taking miniscule bites into a chili in utmost curiosity as if it was a strange personal act where we as audience see a close up of it from the directors angle. The shot is as though Rahul looks at this act through his camera lens. And interesting thing to note is that this lunch scene has no background score weaved into it. The lunch scene starts with the cooing of the cuckoo birds and there is a dead silence which builds up the moment. Women tend to frame themselves and get a grip on what is generally the acceptable norm by the society and in this case a patriarchal one. The male gaze tends to specify the degree of importance a woman has in the society by means of provoking a female to take more interest in her own self.

The camera angles as well as the camera movements used by the cinematographer takes the audience to a new world. When a female character takes up a central part of the screen the camera never prowls at a woman. But when she is performing an action the camera always has a tendency to creep around her body voyeuristically. This all adds up to turning a woman into a spectacle. For example, In Chandni bar directed by Madhur Bhandarkar whose fixation for every movie is ‘real’ has many scenes set up in a dance bar where women are scanned top to bottom by the men in the bar. The natural contours of the body are made distorted by unnatural ways of dressing to emphasize certain body proportions and for this very reason they are shot from a low angle or a high angle to reveal cleavage.

The men in Indian cinema either projected as ‘romantic heroes’ or the ‘bad guy’ are indubitably majestic on screen space unlike our female characters that always tend to lead a surrendered life even on screen. As Vrinda Mathur (2009: 66) says, ‘The male characters of Indian cinema, i.e. the heroes(those knights in shining armour) and the villains (those over-energetic sharks) move around the space of the movie like players in a deadly choreographed game of chess – with the women characters as sacrificial pawns.’

It is quite apparent from the beginning that Rahul the photographer has a particular interest in capturing beauty. One can stand by this point from the way he captures Goddess Kali on the day of the religious function which is the opening scene of the film. By this one can confirm that he has interest in aesthetically appealing subjects. Many of his subjects seem to be centered on female oriented issues. We can justify this fact by encompassing his interest to capture the “Indian house wife”. He proposes to pay peculiar attention to Paroma from the beginning stating that she is a very beautiful traditional Indian woman. As the film grips along, his fascination turns to personal from being a professional admirer of her beauty. In reciprocation to that we see Paroma indulging and getting a sense of sexual undercurrent and falling for the same. She tries to halt the modeling sessions but due to mere persistence from the family she does so to accommodate the guest in every possible way. As the modeling sessions go on she is made to realize her radiance and elegance by Rahul’s gaze. Although she seems hesitant and apprehensive like for instance she covers her saree over her ankle in the first modeling session. But eventually she tends to react amicably to Rahul’s desires. Rahul makes her realize her value and teaches her to see the world from a different perspective. This is symbolically shown when Rahul suggests to Paroma to see her own city from a high angle where one gets a bird’s eye view of the same. As Anshoo Sharma (2009: 111) rightly says:

‘It is very symbolic when he says -learn to live life dangerously, because it is only when one is ready to experiment and take chances that there is a possibility of gaining something valuable in the process. And in a woman’s case that ‘something’ is realization of oneself as a separate entity – complete and whole and not a mere extension of the rib of Adam.’

The films that focus on women protagonists showcase their search for self through their bodies. This is quite outstanding in the film Chandni bar. Mumtaz character played by Tabu the protagonist is forcefully sent by her maternal uncle to be a show girl in a dance bar. Her major source of income was from performing in the dance bar. She would maximum need to groove her body to the music and there would be scores of men willing to shed their money on her for the very own reason – voyeuristic desires. This woman’s body is given the penultimate magnitude in many of the films we see. And in these films the act tends to start with a rebellious nature and the instrument being their body. As Jasbir Jain (2009: 121) has observed,

Rebel women are portrayed with ridicule and comedy. Rebelliousness need not always be conclusive or even approved within the narrative structure. At times it may be part of the discourse on modernity and perceived as a potential threat to patriarchy through the values of education/westernization/independence.

In a scene from Mirch Masala (1985) the protagonist Smitha Patil directs the tax collector to drink water from the other side of the river. She says:
(This side is where human drink and the other side is where the animals drink)

This can be an indirect statement made to the tax collector referring him to being a ruthless animal. Although the other women tend to run away at the sight of them approaching Smitha Patil stands still reflecting her character instantly that nothing can demoralize her. Having said much about rebelliousness and insubordination, it sometimes plays the part of a discourse taken towards modernity in a sense that it threatens the patriarchal structure. This can be called to mark the beginning of a revolutionary period that breaks the stereotypical and conventional thoughts of a society.

A female protagonist who is shown to be wronged in the society and due to this suffers a great deal in life. In other words, she is said to be victimized who endure the consequences. If one notices it is always the female who bears the brunt of all the misfortunes. Possibly owing this to their beauty and morality they are able to capture the hearts of the men. But this seems to be taken for granted by the men.

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Now, having discussed about how women are portrayed and the penalties they pay in return are a myriad when it comes to how men are showcased. Although to digress a little from the centre of discussion, it would be interesting to see how men would react if there was a reverse of these situations. But what really happens in this case is that the men do not like to be treated as anything below their dignity even if it was unintentional. As Anshoo Sharma (2009: 114) has rightly said, ‘They vent their anger, shun the women, and make them feel guilty. They are never shown to be in a compromising position -groveling or pleading with their women.’

From this we can conclude saying there are varying degrees of norms set for men and women in this patriarchal structure. This is otherwise called double standards of the male outlook being more evident.

Paroma’s husband who is away on a business trip to Mumbai tends to sweet talk his secretary to fulfill his desires. What would be interesting to note at this point is that this particular scene goes unnoticed throughout the film. Other than his secretary no one knows the true story and no one would even come to know because the secretary is about to get married. In that case the secretary is not going to reveal this incident hoping to maintain her dignity and not ruin her chances of getting married. In the shot after the secretary leaves, he abuses her and slams the door. There is stark contrast in the way this matter is subdued as compared to what happens to Paroma eventually. One may argue that Paroma also had the freedom to keep up to her appointments with Rahul as her husband was away. Husbands do not necessarily offer the right kind of attention that is needed. Though this is an example of adulterated behavior by Paroma, her husband is not better in this stance.

Much later Paroma is being ostracized by the family for the very reason that Rahul sends her a copy of the life magazine where her photograph is explicitly put up with his signature. This entirely shocks the family and creates a massive pandemonium. She is completely isolated from the family and her mother-in-law falls sick. Paroma’s husband unreasonably blames her for his mother falling ill and simultaneously tells her that he would teach the kids and that he does not want his kids to be taught by a whore.

After Rahul has left to Greece her interest in house-hold work lacks interest. A woman, who is so devoted and energetic to the family needs once upon a time, completely does her share of chores listlessly. An observant husband asks her if she is keeping well, distressed reciprocates her absent-minded stupor. After the husband is aware of the photograph he condemns her and makes up his mind to shift to the guest room. In countering that Paroma confronts him and questions him if he has never committed mistakes in his life? And a point blank response – No! says it all.

One scene shows her husband frantically searching for a pair of cufflinks and scatters the draws and cupboards. Paroma who is silently watching gives a hand once her husband asks her maid to look for it. Paroma picks it up from the right draw and is diffident whether to hand it to him or leave it on the table. We see Paroma in her initial behavior as in early part of the film. Is this saying that she is attempting to get things back to normal? As Shoma A. Chatterji (2002: 76) aptly says,

‘The fact that she knows precisely where things around the house, is a pointer to the desperation a committed housewife like Paroma can be pushed to. It also proves her vulnerability. The irony is that the chores she did with such love and affection can be done with equal efficiency by Kamala, the maid, minus of course, the love and the affection Paroma put into them.’

Paroma is deemed to be portraying an equal status of a maid in this illustration. However it will be termed as an un-paid servant. Is this the kind of image that women would like to see on screen? Paroma being a strong character should be standing up for herself. Even though her routing was a little unusual to vast majority, this is Paroma’s point of view. The rupture created between Paroma and her extended family exposes the cruelty of patriarchal insistence and poses a threat to the male dominated society. The image of a mother she carries takes a toll when she puts her relationship before her motherhood. This does not necessarily mean she is insensitive to her children’s feelings. Every human requires a companion and in this case her determinants are surrounded by feelings of pleasure. As Shoma A. Chatterji (2002: 77) says,

“Hinduism and the patriarchy it functions within, insists on placing the mother on a pedestal, which is natural and logical extension of the worship of the Mother Goddess to include the family unit. The pedestal is conveniently used by the patriarchal family to reduce the same mother to silence, absence and marginality, politically constructed to seemingly connote to the woman concerned.”

As the narrative progresses, we embark upon something close to a peak. Paroma is disheartened with the way her attempt to reconcile things with family was treated unfavorably that she takes a drastic decision to end her life. She is admitted to a hospital and is diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage where the doctor says her hair needs to be shorn off for the purpose of an x-ray. On hearing this Paroma’s daughter sobs at her mother’s hair being shaven off. One can notice a sense of hesitation from the members of the family as soon as they are informed that the surgery would do Paroma some good. Does this signify their hesitation to her as a person back into the family or just vacillation to the surgery? If it is evident that a surgery will save Paroma from more harm and why would anyone have double thoughts about this. It is clear that the family is in a dilemma to accept Paroma after such an incident and worried if the society would brand them as we know they would. To speak for majority of the families in India societal pressure plays a huge role in any decision the family makes. This is doubled up if the family has many girls in the family. If any decision that is taken has to reflect on the society then where is the question of living life to the fullest. One can understand if there is debate with regard to being responsible but not to the extent where the society rules ones life. This indicates a new beginning to Paroma or an end to all the discomfiture after all. As Mini Nanda (2009: 174) says, ‘Tonsuring of her hair seems to be a process of sloughing off her past, the pain and the humiliation as well as thrusting a widowhood on her.’

Paroma stays rigid that she will not speak any of her family members. She requests for a diary and a pen and begins to empty her feelings into the book. This self-defining act could also be looked at as a prolongation to the letters she used to write Rahul. She mentions the daily activities that happen in her nursing room. Paroma’s friend Sheila gets her a paper cutting of a write about Rahul, which Paroma chooses to let go standing near her window. This could be a mark made to erase the smallest trail of her past and to start a new beginning with vigor.

Paroma has a conversation with her friend Sheila where she asks Sheila to get her a job as a sales assistant. When her family and the Doctor insist she goes through psychotherapy, she boldly says she has no guilt feeling inside her for her to go through any therapy. We see a fresh air of confidence swing past Paroma’s character. One can notice the diary writing to have started in the end of the film. Thereby stating the initiative Paroma has taken to express her feeling. Paroma for the first time voices her opinion to her family members about her ideas to work as a sales assistant. Even after each one trying hard to persuade Paroma to go through the therapy, so that her life could flow in the direction as before she stands up for her self. This act is again refreshing from the Paroma earlier on in the film and the rejuvenated Paroma.

The climax has us all thinking metamorphic derivations. We see Paroma spill the beans to her shocked family about her new plans of taking up a job. And then her husband’s reaction is worth noting at this point as it comes as a shocker to him. He is taken by surprise at Paroma’s decision and asks what people would think if his wife worked as a sales assistant for a very menial pay. In spite of all the pushing and probing from the family Paroma stands stable no matter what her family brands her as. She pans left to notice the plant sitting by the window sill and the name flashes across her mind –

‘Woh Patte! Calendula kaise? Haan Euphobia contenopholia – Krishnapallavi!?’ (Those leaves! Not Calendula! Yes, Euphobia contenopholia’)

There by telling us that she has definitely come out stronger than before by finding her inner-self and may be more. As Anshoo Sharma (2009: 117) says: ‘In conclusion one can say that like phoenix she rises from her ashes – stronger, more capable. It is the rebirth of Durga , the Paroma who has realized her ‘Shakthi’ but in a new form, a different context.’


  1. Bindoo Nair (2009) ‘The Female bodies and the Male Gaze: Laura Mulvey and Indian Cinema’ in Jasbir Jain and Sudha Rai (ed.) Films and Feminism, Jaipur, Rawat Publication.
  2. Vrinda Mathur (2009) ‘Women in Indian Cinema: Fictional Constructs’, in Jasbir Jain and Sudha Rai (ed.) Films and Feminism, Jaipur, Rawat Publication.
  3. Anshoo Sharma (2009) ‘Crossing the Boundaries: Woman in search of Self’, in Jasbir Jain and Sudha Rai (ed.) Films and Feminism, Jaipur, Rawat Publication.
  4. Shoma A. Chatterji (2002) The Cinema of Aparna Sen, Calcutta: Parumitha Publication.
  5. Mini Nanda (2009) ‘Symbolism and Space in Aparna Sen’s Paroma and Deepa Mehta’s Fire’, in Jasbir Jain and Sudha Rai (ed.) Films and Feminism, Jaipur, Rawat Publication.
  6. Mulvey L. (2975) ‘Visual Pleasure and narrative cinema’, Screen, 16, 3, Autumn


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