In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey coined the term male gaze to talk about the pleasure derived by the active male viewer from looking at the passive female subject. In essence, it suggests that within filmmaking, the camera itself works as the subject and guides the audience to see what the heterosexual male perceives. For example, a shot that lingers on the female legs, breasts, hands or more, portraying them as a seductive object. The male gaze also tends to rob the female subject of its historicity, agency and more, negating the existence of her history. The camera angles and frames are such that they appear to be sexualised, devoid of agency or voice, perceived in a way that would appease the male viewer.
Bollywood was notorious for implementing the male gaze. From casting actresses to simply serve the purpose of being a love interest to hypersexualising the women in “item” songs, calling them “item numbers” — there is a whole lot of history to unpack. The dance moves are overly sexualised, the shots focus more on their body than their faces and generally, the songs are unrelated and the woman has nothing to do with the film. It is derogatory, to say the least.
However, Indian cinema has slowly begun to grapple with the concept of the female gaze. Previously, the role of the actress was pretty similar and straightforward. She would either reprise the role of a damsel in distress who would require the male protagonist to come and save her or play the role of a vamp who is the homewrecker. The presence of a female character was usually seen as an aide to the hypermasculine presence. Their misery, harassment and more was seen as a mode of gratifying the masculine attributes and asserting male dominance.
However, with changing times, the myopic vision of female sexuality and presence is changing. The female character is slowly gaining more momentum in the narrative. She is no longer seen as the sidekick but is finally getting to voice her concerns, struggles and problems. Her previous image of a naive woman in distress is being replaced by the modern Indian woman who is empowered and totally in contact with her needs and desires. She is no longer afraid to voice her desires, be it sexual, financial, social or cultural. Previously, it was unimaginable to witness films solely from a female perspective. However, the changing landscape of Indian cinema sees this changing narrative. In the future, the internalised homophobia and misogyny will further be demolished.
The female gaze cannot just simply refer to the dialogues laced with wit and sarcasm that talk about smashing patriarchy or the rampant desexualisation of the female body. It refers to altering the vision altogether and not appeasing the heterosexual male gaze. However, it is extremely important to identify the absence of universality of the female gaze. If one brings intersectionality into the picture, it is important to note that the gaze of a queer white woman would differ from a cishet white woman. Their gazes would again be radically different from a queer woman of colour. When gender, sexuality and intersectionality come into play together, the definition of the female gaze is altered and becomes more complicated.
While the 2017 film Lipstick Under My Burkha was an audacious take on the female gaze where they defied taboos and showed women openly talking about sex, orgasms and more, Netflix, too, streams a lot of films that focus predominantly on the historical and social narratives of the female subject rather than just their body as a seat of exploration. The narratives are different, they resist the male gaze and delve deeper into the politics of humanising rather than marginalising and invalidating. To talk about the evolving female gaze in Bollywood, we will explore Gully Boy, Sir- Is Love Enough?, Tribhanga and Talvar.
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy focuses on the journey of Murad, an underground rapper, as he climbs up the ladder of success. Although it predominantly focuses on Murad’s life, the film has a very fierce supporting female lead, played by Alia Bhatt. She plays the role of Safina who is opinionated, independent and expressive. She is quite protective of her boyfriend Murad and is crazy about him, despite their vastly different social positions as it lets her rebel against the imposed affluence and values of her family, within her rebellion she is given the opportunity to function as her own person.
In Rohena Gera’s Sir- Is Love Enough?, the lead protagonist is played by Tilottama Shome. She portrays the role of Ratna, an Indian housemaid who works for an affluent single man named Ashwin who quickly falls for her. Afraid of the societal implications, Ratna rejects his advances before slowly coming to terms with the situation. Indian pornography has always fetishized maids, however, this film is a refreshing take on the subculture and focuses mainly on Ratna’s life in the village, her struggles to grapple with the various stereotypes, including marriage imposed on her and her innate desire to dream. She dreams of becoming a fashion designer despite being at the lowest rung of the ladder. Her struggles, aspirations, friendships and more depth and power to her character. She resists Ashwin’s advances and her entire demeanour has a calm dignity. Ratna reclaims her agency, refuses to seek help from the employer and, in a very momentous climax, finally addresses him by his name when she gets accepted at a well-known fashion house. It is a small but indelible delivery.
Renuka Sahane’s Tribhanga not only focuses on the three narratives of three women but also rediscover the meaning of feminism from individualistic views. Unlike previous films where women were shown as ditzy and naive, these characters are strong-willed, determined and decisive. They are unapologetic and unabashed, flawed and angry, not demure or servile. They deal with the quagmire of life just like their male counterparts — with varied humanity.
After an eight-year hiatus, Meghna Gulzar returned with the scathing film Talvar that focused on a real-life incident of the rape of a fourteen-year-old teenager. She takes the audience on a thrilling journey of crime and passion, horrifying the viewers with the reality of the Indian judiciary system. Her camera shots and angles reflect guilt and passion in the most refined yet terrifying ways which won her the nomination at the Academy Awards.
While films directed by women have a distinctly female gaze and deal with topics pertinent to them, including sexuality, careers, defying misogyny and patriarchy, subverting stereotypes and socio-cultural norms, films like Lust Stories, dealt with the importance of female pleasure in relationships by showing the quintessential Indian bride resorting to using sex toys thanks to the naivete of her husband. It may seem trivial but the act shows the female subject reclaiming her agency against all taboos.
Despite the damage that Bollywood has done in the past by catering to the lewd gaze of the heterosexual male viewer, focusing on the female body and completely negating the female existence, the narrative and the landscape is slowly changing. With films dealing more and more with equality, injustice and feminism, the characters are relatable and identifiable.