Innovative women roles in Indian films, especially mainstream cinema, are few and far between. Some creative directors, working within the mainstream format, however have given us some meaty characters. Several women-significant films were made in the early days of Indian cinema like "Achchyut Kanya," which touched the theme of untouchability. Bimal Roy made a few films inspired by the novels of Sarat Chatterjee like "Biraj Bou", "Devdas" and "Parineeta." "Biraj Bou" was a film based on a selfless Indian woman, who endured hardship and pain for the sake of her husband. Films like "Ramer Sumoti," based on a Sarat Chaterjee work, were remarkable and depicted the love and warmth which existed within the extended Indian joint family.
In later days, filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave us memorable heroine-oriented films in "Guddi," "Abhimaan", "Mili", "Khubsuroot", and "Majhli Didi". "Guddi" and "Khubsuroot" were simple films in which the heroine matures from a chirpy girl into womanhood. "Abhiman," inspired by "A star is born," dealt with ego clashes when a woman's musical talent and fame surpasses that of her husband. "Majhli Didi" was again based on a Sarat Chandra novel, about a woman's compassion towards an orphaned child. Basu Bhattacharyya's "Griha Pravesh" was a realistic depiction of the obsession of a married man for a much younger office colleague. Raj Kapoor's "Prem Rog" was a convincing portrait of the agony of a young widow. A few years back, Basu Chaterji's "Triyacharittar" was a powerful film on exploitation of women.
Bengali filmmaker Tapan Sinha has created strong female characters in several of his films viz "Jatugriho", "Adalat O Ekti Mey", "Apanjan", "Nirjan Saikate" and others. "Jatugriho" dealt with marital discord, the bone of contention being the infertility of the woman. "Apanjan" was remade in Hindi as "Mere Apne" by Gulzar, and had an elderly woman as the protagonist who finds, in some unemployed street boys, a reason to live when her own relatives forsake her. "Nirjan Saikatey" dealt with the plight of five elderly widows, while "Adalat O ekti Mey" was on a rape victim shunned by everyone. Asit Sen's "Deep Jele Jai," remade in Hindi as "Khamoshi" was on a nurse who eventually becomes insane play-acting with a patient.
Strong female roles have also been witnessed in parallel cinema. Here, Mrinal Sen appears to have an edge over others. His "Neel Akaser Neechey" (1959) was a beautiful film about a brother-sister relationship between a Chinese hawker and a Bengali housewife. "Punoscho"(1961) dealt with the question of economic need of the heroine, a theme later tackled by Satyajit Ray in "Mahanagar." The roles of the female protagonist in Sen's "Bhuvan Shome", "Khandahaar," "Ek Din Pratidin", "Antareen" and others have been an interesting mix of innovation and fresh characterization. Satyajit Ray's films have female characters of substance. In "Pather Panchali" the relationship between Durga, an innocent but mischievous girl and her grandmother Chunnibala was beautifully depicted. "Charulata" based on a Tagore's novel dealt with marital discord with much finesse. "Devi" was on religious bigotry when an elderly man starts thinking of his daughter-in-law as a Goddess after a dream.
Ritwik Ghatak's "Meghe Dhaka Tara" and "Subarnarekha" are considered path-breaking films about the agony of the Bangladeshi refugees, shown through the eyes of the woman protagonist. Aparna Sen's "36 Chowringhee Lane" is an unforgettable film exploring the loneliness of an elderly Anglo-Indian lady. Sen's other efforts "Paroma" and "Sati" questioned the traditional roles of women in Indian society. Her latest award-winning work "Paromitar Ek Din" is also a women-centric film. Nabyendu Chaterji's "Atmaja" had a power-packed role of a mother caught between the divergent ideologies of her two sons, enacted with conviction by Gauri Ghosh. Nabyendu Chaterji's latest "Sauda" (Bengali) reveals negative shades of some women characters. In this film made in the 90s, the director, possibly the first in Indian cinema, portrayed how the wife and the daughters of an accident victim, now in the operation theatre of a hospital, craved for his death instead of his recovery, because the family has been promised a huge sum of money by an industrialist (Vasant Choudhury) as compensation, whose car was involved in an accident with the victim. The latest talent on the Kolkata filmmaking scene, Rituparno Ghosh, has women-related subjects as theme in all three of his award-winning films "Unishe April", "Dahan" and "Asookh" and his latest "Bariwali" (featuring Kiron Kher). The women characters in the films of Gautam Ghose & Buddhadeb Dasgupta are equally intriguing. In Gautam Ghose's "Antarjali Jatra" a young bride is forcibly married off to a dying Brahmin, while marital disharmony was the subject of films like Buddhadeb Dasgupta's "Griha Yuddha" and "Lal Darja" and Aparna Sen's "Yugant". Sanat Dasgupta's "Janani" featuring Rupa Ganguly was a poignant Bengali film about a woman who was ostracized and labeled a "witch," but in the end sacrificed her life for her son.
Ordinary women characters, rising to extraordinary levels, were witnessed in films like Sushant Mishra's "Aasha" (Oriya), Arinbam Shyam Sharma's "Imagi Ningtem" (Manipuri) and Sanjeev Hazarika's "Meemansxa" (Assamese). "Aasha" dealt with a courageous lady journalist hounded by corrupt politicians. "Meemansxa," dealt with the agony faced by a woman when she moves to court after being molested by a powerful man.
Shyam Benegal in films like "Ankur", "Sardari Begum" and "Mammo" have given us some unusual female characters. "Mammo" was an elderly lady who went through an ordeal when she comes to visit her relatives in partitioned India from Pakistan. Govind Nihalani in "Rukmavati ki Haveli", "Dhristi", "Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa" has given us women characters of myriad hues. "Dhristi" was on marital discord, while "Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa" saw Jaya Bachchan giving a fine performance as a woman trying to cope with the death of her son. Ketan Mehta's "Mirch Masala" with the powerful actress Smita Patil demonstrated the strength of women, when a group of village women unitedly bring about the fall of a tyrant police officer. Muzaffar Ali's "Umraao Jaan" gave Rekha one of her finest roles in her career as a 'kotha ' dancer. A disabled dancer overcoming her problems to rise to great heights in her field was the subject of "Nache Mayuri," with Sudha Chandran playing the lead role. Prakash Jha's "Mrityudand" witnessed a new face of the educated Indian women, willing to rebel and fight for her rights.
Likewise, Deepa Mehta's "Fire" brought to the fore hitherto taboo subjects like lesbianism to the Indian screen for the first time. Women characters in Mahesh Bhatt's "Arth", "Swayam", "Kaash" and "Tamanna" were interesting. Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi gave great performances in "Arth" while in "Kaash," the wife tries to cope with a failed actor husband who turns a derelict and a little son diagnosed with a terminal disease. Likewise Gulzar's "Andhi", Mausam" and "Koshish" and Kalpana Lazmi's "Ek Pal" was noteworthy. "Aandhi," was on the life of a lady politician and in "Koshish," Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri gave mind-blowing performances as a hearing impaired couple. Sai Paranjype's "Saaz" and "Sparsh" deserves a mention. Amol Palekar's "Dayaara" and "Kairee," too, are exceptional. "Dayaraa" dealt with the life of a transvestite. "Kairee" is about a little girl and her relationship with her aunt. "Rao Saheb," "Chakra" "Mother India" and "Dahej" dealt with the theme of subjugated women who were exploited.
Yash Chopra's portrayal of women have been extraordinary. Be it Nanda in the role of a murderess in "Ittefaq" or that of Rekha and Jaya Bachchan in "Silsila" women in his films have been consciously different from their peers. Recently the film "Astitva" ( featuring Tabu) explored sensitively a women's role in a marriage when her husband discovers after twenty-five years that his wife had a sexual relationship with a man which resulted in an offspring, and the offspring is actually the same whom he had been considering his own son.
Lately in Assamese cinema several strong women characters was evoked, like in Bhaben Saikia's "Agnisnaan", Jahnu Barua's "Firongoti", Dr Shantanu Bordoloi's "Adajya" and others. In "Agnisaan," the female protagonist (Moloya Goswami) has a relationship with another man when her philandering husband crosses all limits. "Firongoti" was based on the life of a lady school teacher who tries to bring education among poor villagers.
In films from the South, K.S.Sethumadhavan's "Stri", Prema Karanth's "Phaniyamma", Girish Kasarvalli's "Kraurya", Balu Mahendra's "Moonram Pirai" (remade as Sadma in Hindi) or Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "Mathilukal" have intriguing female characterization. "Stri" dealt with the wife of a drunken man, who in spite of all her husband's faults and their apparent differences, could never forsake her husband. It did carry the message "Pati is Parmeswar," but in a beautiful way. "Phaniyamma" dealt with the agony of a young widow, whereas "Kraurya" dealt with the neglect of the elderly. In "Sadma," SriDevi gave a fine performance as a girl whose mental condition reverts to that of a five-year-old when she meets with an accident. Because of my ignorance of films from this region, I will have to end this here.
In conclusion, several filmmakers have earnestly tried to portray women in a dignified, realistic, and an intriguing way and have succeeded considerably. Of this genre, filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Mahesh Bhatt, Amol Palekar, Tapan Sinha and Girish Kasaravalli and a few others seems to have given us the best of such women-significant films.