A few months ago, I watched Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird alone one night on my laptop. I hadn’t expected much, but to my surprise, this seemingly normal coming of age film ended up blowing me away. Mind you, I shouldn’t have related to it the way I did. Lady Bird is a very white film about a 17-year-old girl living in Sacramento, California who makes everyone call her ‘Lady Bird’. A 17-year-old sitting in India should not have connected to it so strongly. Yet, something about the wholeness of Lady Bird’s female characters struck a chord with me, and many other Indian women like myself.
As this Time article noted, women in films often exist just to be looked at; however in this movie, “Gerwig makes Lady Bird the one who looks: at boys but also houses, magazines, books, clothes and at the city of Sacramento.” That’s why I felt more seen and represented in Lady Bird than I ever have in any Bollywood film.
Realistic representations of women on screen are an anomaly, and Bollywood is no exception. Female characters in Bollywood often pander to patriarchal tropes, and even when they don’t, they tend to be unrealistically unidimensional. Saoirse Ronan, who plays Lady Bird, has said that her character keeps trying on different identities to see what fits best. Unlike Lady Bird and her mother Marion, Bollywood’s female characters rarely get the chance to show that they contain multitudes within themselves.
Marion’s character often lashes out at her daughter, and their fights are so intrinsically human. I rewatched the film recently with my mother. After gushing about how much she loved it, she looked at me and said, “It’s a relief, you know? That other mothers say things like that and act like that.” And I did know. I felt relieved too. Lady Bird is a girl who’s unabashedly confident, who goes after what she wants and, for once, isn’t shamed for it. In a culture where so many young women are forced to shrink themselves or risk seemingly inevitable consequences for chasing their dreams, women who are confident and unapologetic, and so completely themselves make me feel relieved and not so out of place.
Recently, Aayushi Jagad and Sumedh Natu made a fantastic video about the capitalisation of feminism by a popular comedy group. They argued was that while this comedy group makes some very strong feminist content, they don’t cast women in roles that are not explicitly female.
The same concept can be applied to Bollywood as well. Only in films like Pink and Lipstick Under My Burkha, which are undoubtedly brilliant and necessary films, are women portrayed with any nuance. Yet, I wish Bollywood would realise that stories about women need not be revolutionary to be worth telling. Women are more than vessels for social or moral messages, more than plot devices or oversexualised item girls. We exist even when we aren’t facing rape cases or grappling with being forced into burqas. Patriarchal oppression is a part of our daily lives, more for some of us than others depending on variables like economic and social privilege, but we do exist beyond that.
Women are strong, confident, funny, kind, passionate, deeply flawed and complex beings. I know this to be true because I see their depth in all the women around me. In my mother, in my best friends, my mentors and in the women I interact with on a daily basis. Yet, often when we ask for better representation in mainstream media, we’re told that change is gradual and our expectations are ‘unreasonable’ and ‘unrealistic’. How unrealistic is it to ask to be represented in a fair, authentic light? We’ve been settling for pencil-sketch representation in movies when we deserve oil paintings that highlight every pore, every blemish and every tiny, trivial detail.
In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Naina takes off her glasses only for Bunny to see her in a different light. I’m waiting for the day when the gaze shifts. When we can finally see women on the big screen as human. Because honestly? We deserve better.
Yamini Krishnan is a 17-year-old from Pune, who writes poetry and will be pursuing a liberal arts degree come August. You can find her on Instagram at yaminikrishnan_