After years of being as devoted a Bollywood fan as Paro was to Devdas, I now realize that this relationship was also just as toxic as theirs—especially after rewatching some of my favorite classics.
Bollywood has always been a huge industry, whether in India or across the globe. We have all seen the videos of fans running to meet Shah Rukh Khan, or that Diljit Dosanjh’s tickets sold faster than Olivia Rodrigo’s. Bollywood has always reflected important values like how important family is like in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, or how everybody is unique in their own way, like in Taare Zameen Par.
Bollywood films stayed with me throughout my move from India to a foreign country, changing five schools, and figuring out my first relationship. I saw the two leads falling in love after having the best friendship in Hum Dil De Chukke Sanam. I loved how patient Aditya was with the fiery, talkative, overly energetic Geet. I prayed for a romance like Raj has with Simran in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
But it was only recently that I noticed how the perfect leading lady is portrayed and realized how deeply it had impacted me.
I noticed how confident, funny and loud girls like me were often seen merely as friends, before they “evolved” into saree wearing divas with long, flowing hair who smiled shyly.
Often this change is reflected when women go from being single to getting married—which represents their evolution into “womanhood.” Independent, fun-loving girls change their persona within seconds just to impress a potential suitor.
For young girls watching how they are expected to behave in relationships and in front of potential partners, this can impact them in a harmful way.
In Bobby Deol’s Humraaz, the leading lady is a fun cruise ship dancer who talks a lot, laughs loudly, and wears clothes that are anything but “typical”—as she chooses to wear revealing Western clothing that is not accepted by society around her.
Yet when she is invited on a date with the protagonist, she wears an Indian saree and talks only when spoken to. They somehow end up getting married and she promises to be the ‘perfect’ wife, which is reflected by a montage of her quitting her job, staying home and obediently waiting for her husband to come back from work—all instead of having a career herself.
In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, we see a love triangle between an athletic, good-looking guy, a gorgeous, stylish diva named Tina, and a tomboy girl named Anjali who loves basketball and has not worn makeup once in her life. Anjali sees how Rahul chooses Tina over her, and we see her ten years later as a completely different person, who has let go of the essence of her personality.
In a more subtle example, in the movie Tumhari Sulu with Vidya Balan, the leading lady is this amazing, funny woman with the most beautiful voice, who starts working at a radio station and becomes widely beloved by the audience. Her husband is super supportive and proud of his wife until the moment she starts to garner “too much” attention.
When he feels threatened or like he is secondary to her friends and family, he tells her to quit. He says it is not right that the wife should be out earning when he himself was having issues with work.
This taught me that the “perfect” girlfriend or wife can shine, but she cannot outshine. She must be funny, entertaining, and different, but agreeable, as well.
She can be Anjali, as long as she one day aspires to be like Tina.
Watching movies with this common theme, along with other forms of media meant I too changed my behaviour whenever I met a new guy whether at school or work.
If we were playing soccer, I wouldn't try hard at all, regardless of the fact that I always played competitively because I subconsciously began to fear I would scare any guy away with my competitiveness and aggressiveness. I had watched movies where the guy teaches the girl how to hold the golf driver right, or how hard he can kick the soccer ball, so I automatically stopped trying, instead letting the boy give me little tips on how to do something better.
I tried the most ridiculous schemes. I asked for their help during science (yes, I got this from Mean Girls), and tried to channel my inner Tina by being coy.
Because of these films, I had even internalized the idea that I had to stop acting so sure of myself all the time. I felt that I had to try and act like I am in need of help, so that a guy will try to provide for me.
Bollywood always showed me that it’s guys that are expected to naturally be loud, to have a sure presence, to look as if they need for nothing. It’s even considered atypical when they are not— when they are dismissive, insecure, shy, moody, quiet. Mind you, I have guy friends that I am proudly myself with, but when it came to romantic matches, I had to make sure I was giving these guys confidence boosts every once in a while.
However I started noticing that many of my outgoing, crazy loud girl friends were getting into relationships, and I couldn’t understand how guys were finding them attractive when they represented everything girls are “not supposed to be.”
I thought they had found the few rare boys left but turns out there’s a reason why many guys are choosing to go for the ‘atypical’ choice. While reading Trevor Noah’s autobiography, when his mom explains: “the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He's attracted to independent women. He's like an exotic bird collector. He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”
Boys are attracted to girls like Geet, (the firecracker, marching to her own bhangra beat Punjaban lead from Jab We Met), because she is almost like a challenge to be conquered. Boys seem bored dating girls who have grown up learning how to be the ‘perfect wife’ or girlfriend. They all desire for someone different, who despite her well developed personality, chooses to be in the background. She can be the manager, or supervisor at her workplace, but at home, in her relationship she must be or atleast show to be submissive.
With all of that being said, as a reformed Bollywood fan, I really just want to see more female-led movies where a confident, hilarious, loud female lead can live her life without a big “lesson.”
When we watch a movie like Jab Tak Hai Jaan, we should not feel the need to sympathize with risk taker, funny Akira (played by Anuhka Sharma), about how the Samar (played by Shah Rukh) chooses beautiful, princess like Meera (played by Katrina Kaif) over her.
We should not feel the need to nod along as Samar and Meera embrace, shaking our head as we feel bad for Akira for believing that she had a chance with him in the first place .
I want more movies such as Queen with an independent female lead who goes on her honeymoon alone after her fiance breaks the marriage, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani where the female protagonist does not leave her job like the heroine usually does in Bollywood films.
I want to see strong female leads living life just as happily as all the heroines in soapy romantic movies are shown to be living, and choose to create a life for themselves that is added to by a romantic partner—not overtaken by.
I want young girls to watch these movies and see herself on screen without batting an eye at the “uniqueness” of such female portrayals, (unless maybe if Varun Dhawan walks on).
Movies with strong female leads should become the norm and not just a rare occurrence, so young girls can finally start to enhance their personality when they meet a boy for a date, not hide parts of it.
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