A few days before the release of 2016 Bollywood hit “Dangal” (“Wrestling Bout”), which is based on the true story of two medal-winning Indian female wrestlers and their father, the filmmakers unveiled a promotional music video. In the video, the two actresses who play the wrestlers are seen mostly in silhouette while Indian superstar Aamir Khan — who plays the father’s character — is seen on a throne, atop a chariot, sermonizing all around him in verse.
This, unfortunately, is an all-too-accurate representation of the film — and encapsulates a problematic trend in mainstream Bollywood: While plenty of Bollywood films take on gender inequality and women’s experiences, frustratingly few do so in women’s voices, and their attempts at feminism thus fall short.
The narrative around “Dangal” leading up to the film’s release revolved around female empowerment, and with good reason. Its real-life subjects, the sisters Geeta and Babita Phogat, are an inspiration for countless Indian families. Geeta qualified for the 2012 London Olympics, the first Indian female wrestler to do so. Their achievements are rendered more extraordinary by the fact that they hail from Haryana, a northern Indian state with a highly unequal sex ratio — 879 girls to 1,000 boys, going by the latest census in 2001 — and documented practices of female feticide and dowry payment.
To its credit, “Dangal” has put the spotlight on female excellence in sports and stimulated a national conversation on sports other than cricket, which dominates headlines otherwise. On the film’s opening weekend, Geeta became the most Googled celebrity in India. The governments of six Indian states, including Haryana, exempted the film’s tickets from taxation and endorsed it as part of their campaign to protect and educate girls. (I have two young nieces; since “Dangal” took over multiplexes, the running joke in the family is that they will be made to learn wrestling.)
However, this neither undoes nor atones for an extremely disturbing element in the film: its gender politics. It is true that Geeta and Babita’s father, Mahavir Singh, was instrumental to their success, but the film suggests that he was the sole reason for it. In real life, Geeta had a promising and award-filled run up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, where she won the gold medal in the 55 kilogram (121 pound) category. However, the script for “Dangal” creates fictitious subplots designed primarily to punish Geeta for harmless displays of independence and freethinking and to elevate her father. That she chooses to grow her hair and polish her nails — against Mahavir’s wishes — leads to (imaginary) failure inside the ring. By the end of the film, we see Geeta grovel and beg him for mercy — and it is his magnanimity alone that ensures that her career gets back on track.
“Dangal” is, sadly, not an aberration. Last year also saw the release of “Pink,” a much-hyped legal drama about three young women who are sexually harassed by a group of influential men. The film aimed to tackle issues that Indian society has long been criticized for, such as misunderstandings around consent, stereotypes about sexually active women and institutional apathy toward victims. However, the voice the film relies on for addressing these topics is that of another male Indian superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, who plays a heroic lawyer emerging out of retirement to help the women. Throughout the film’s courtroom proceedings, the three women are shown as impetuous, emotional and high-pitched characters who need a man’s discipline.
Another 2016 Bollywood hit, “Sultan,” a sports drama headlined by superstar Salman Khan, follows along the same lines. In the film, the female protagonist is an accomplished sportswoman herself, but she is reduced to an object of conquest for her male counterpart. Midway through “Sultan,” she gets pregnant — dashing hopes of sporting glory forever — a profound crisis that the film dismisses in one glib scene, choosing instead to focus on the male’s celebration. By the climax, she is merely standing on the sidelines, cheering for her husband.
Hollywood has frequently been lambasted for deployment of the “white male savior” trope, in which people of color are rescued (often from clumsy representations of their own cultures) by enlightened white men. Bollywood is often guilty of the gender equivalent: The female empowerment in these films is often just a form of male gratification. There is little autonomy or agency on the female’s part; she would be lost if left to her own devices. The burden of her improvement and happiness ultimately fall upon the man’s shoulders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Dangal,” “Pink” and “Sultan” were all directed by men from scripts also written by men, which is a shame: Bollywood has no shortage of talented women artists capable of producing strong work. Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, for instance, is a female director whose film “Nil Battey Sannata” (Good for Nothing) was released in 2016. It is also a story about an overbearing parent and a respectful but rebellious daughter. In contrast with “Dangal,” however, “Nil Battey Sannata” presents its female characters with innate respect: The mother’s anxiety is relatable; the daughter’s chafing is a moving cry for help. In terms of inspiring dramas based on real-life women, “Neerja,” about the courageous head purser of the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73, was co-written by a woman and refrained from any paternalism while bringing forth genuine thrills.
With women writers and directors like these around, there’s no need to refract women’s stories and experiences through male creators. Often, doing so fails to honestly reflect women’s interior lives and agency, which makes for underwhelming drama. With a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people, Bollywood should use its influence to make sure that viewers are hearing women’s stories in women’s words.