Bollywood and the Portrayal of Women

With the growing popularization of Bollywood films around the world and its successful globalization outside of South Asia, the culture and society represented in the films is now reaching those outside of that particular culture. This means that those living abroad are now viewing Bollywood films and are most likely equating them with Indian culture. Specifically looking at how women are portrayed in Bollywood films is important. They way they are portrayed in film can show how women are viewed in the culture or how woman are treated in the culture. A sexualized woman can symbolize the culture’s sexualization of women. A westernized woman character can portray an actual trend towards westernization of women in the culture. A traditional Indian woman character can express ideals of the cultural traditions or be an actual representation of the majority of women in the area. To find and analyze this connection, I chose to watch Bollywood films and analyze women’s actual experiences living in India to determine the connection between media portrayal and reality.

To analyze this connection, I watched one movie in completion and sections of several others to make sure my analysis was diverse. The movie I chose in full was Khabi Khush Khabi Gham (KKKG), one of the most well known and loved Bollywood films. This film came out in 2001 and won countless awards. When doing my research this film was recommended to me multiple times for being a perfect reflection of a typical Bollywood film. The 3.5hour movie tells the story of the Raichand family. The traditional and extremely wealthy family consists of the business mogul father, the loving and happy mother, and two sons, the older one, Rahul, being adopted, and the younger son, Rohan who ends up being a major character in the second half of the film. The film is more or less split into two parts; the first half consists of the united family. Rohan, the adopted son was the prized possession of the family and was destined to inherit his fathers business and fortune. All this falls apart when Rohan falls in love with a girl from the village in a completely different social class. His mother, Nandini, believes that times are different and Rohan should be able to marry whomever he loves. Unfortunately, his father, Yash, completely disagrees and forbade the marriage. Rohan married the girl, Anjali, anyway, ripping the family apart. Rahul is away at boarding school but his return marks the second half of the film. The second half is present day when Rohan returns home to find that his brother has been disowned and is now living in London. He makes it his mission to unite the family once again. Along the way, Rahul falls in love with Anjali’s younger sister Pooja who is now a westernized college girl. Through all of Rahul’s effort, it is Nandini that finally unites the family by standing up for herself and calling out her husband for his misjudgment and claiming that he is the one to blame for the ruin of their family. Yash finally agrees to see Rahul and all is forgiven.

The movie focuses on the men in the family and what they go through and whom they love. The supporting characters are the women involved. Right from the beginning this designation is noticed and speaks a lot about how women are represented in the film and Bollywood as a whole. In Indian society, women are the supporting role. They are not the main characters in their own life. An example of this is seen in the initial creation of women’s rights and women’s rights movements in India in the 19th century. The men realized the need to improve women’s rights so they took it upon themselves to make the changes needed to improve their standing in society. Women didn’t have a say in these changes and were left out of their own fight.

Focusing in on these specific women characters, one finds that each represents a different kind of woman and a different aspect of Indian culture and attitudes towards woman. First, there is the mother of the two sons, Nandini. Her sons and her family are her life. She lives and breathes by traditional family values. She is shown at the beginning of the film saying, “ [The mother] keeps repeating [I love you] whether her son listens to it or not…. No one can fathom the amount of love that a mother has for her son, not even the mother. Because there is no measure for a mother’s love. It’s an emotion that can only be felt, a mother’s emotion.” These first lines symbolize Nandini’s character so clearly. Throughout the film, her son’s come first. She wants her son to be happy and marry whomever he wants and is shocked by her husband’s rigid persistence on an arranged marriage. Out of the entire family, she is the one who carries the most hurt from the event as well. She had no say in the matter and was forced to say goodbye to the love of her life. In the final scene, Nandini finally stands up for herself and speaks harshly to her husband, Yash. She states,“ Do you know what mother always said, that a husband is God. No matter what he says no matter what he does, he is right….” This perfectly illustrates the ideal Indian wife. She is to honor every word and decision of her husband without question. The husband is the god. In Padma Anagol’s “Rebellious Wives and Dysfunctional Marriages,” she talks of this marriage dynamic stating that, “Bengali men had effectively forced the creation of a ‘state within a state’ by insisting that the household space remain a zone of autonomy and self-rule for the Hindu male.” Angol’s observation is based off of Bengali men’s reaction to women’s reformist movements. Their desire to have final say in the home is threatened when women’s reform movements start progressing. This is illustrated when Yash’s power in the family crumbles as soon as Nandini stands up for herself and her son and confronts her husband. She leaves saying, “You separated a mother from her child. It was wrong….Then how does a husband become God? God can’t do any wrong. My husband is just a husband…. Not God.” By standing up for herself and her family, she demolished the family structure and was able to make change.

Pooja, Anjali’s younger sister, represent a completely different kind of woman and brings forth many more questions about South Asian culture and expectations of women. In the present day portion of the film, Pooja is attending a University in London. When we see her for the first time she is completely unrecognizable compared to the 10-year-old girl running around in the market at the beginning of the film. She is shown waking up singing is, “It’s Raining Men” and begins to dance scandalously as she dresses for the day. Everything around her is western. Western magazine are sprawled on the table, her make up is all name brand designers, her clothes mimic that of early 2000 Britney Spears complete with sequins and showing complete midriff. She sings entirely in English and it’s almost forgotten that this is a Bollywood film. Her personality and character coincide with this vibrant, almost unflattering portrayal of western pop culture. She is utterly obsessed with herself and her looks. She is rude to her family and friends and seems to only have the attention span for boys. These boys are shown gawking at her like she is a trophy they need in their trophy case and nothing more. This characterization represents the sexualization of women in film industry, which inevitably translates to the sexualization of women in every day life. Unfortunately, that sexualization isn’t as glamorous once it is taken to the streets.

There is a great disparity between Bollywood and real life; this is a known fact upon viewing the “out of this world” films. According to Shakuntala Rao’s research in ”The Globalization Of Bollywood: An Ethnography Of Non-Elite Audiences In India,” this disparity is commonly blamed on Bollywood’s creation of “dreamworlds” or “kalpanalok.” Rao states, “the dreamworld is not about the form of the films (drama-musical) but a recognizable disconnection between the content of the films from the lives of the audiences.” The students that Rao interviews for the piece talk of this dreamworld aspect and how there is zero connection between the characters in the films and the people within their own life. The student Krishan says, “They [characters in films] are not connected to our real lives.” The issue with this falsification of reality is that it has detrimental effects on people in real life. In a short documentary titled, “No Country For Women,” the over sexualized, barely clothed, promiscuous women dance through the screen; clip after clip, movie after movie scenes flash by making it blatantly obvious just how prominent this sexualization is. Then the images switch to interviews and news clips. Young boys explain that they “eve tease” or cat call women if they are wearing tight clothing or short skirts. Women in burqas say that they feel safer wearing them in the street because of constant harassment from men when they don’t. News stories talk of men brutally beating women attending pubs because they are acting immoral.  All this is compared to the fact that watching sexy women dress in their underwear in a Bollywood film is okay and desirable. Women are praised on the screen and then beat on the streets. The hypocrisy is outstanding.


Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham. Dir. Karan Johar. Prod. Yash Johar. Perf. Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan. Dharma Productions and Yash Raj Films, 2001. Netflix.

Forbes, Geraldine H. “From Purdah to Politics: The Social Feminism of the All-India Women’s Organization.” Separate Worlds: Studies of Purdah in South Asia. Ed. Hanna Papanek and Gail Minault. Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1982. 221-22. Print.

Anagol, Padma. “Rebellious Wives and Dysfunctional Marriages.” Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader. Ed. Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008. 283. Print.

Rao, Shakuntala. “The Globalization Of Bollywood: An Ethnography Of Non-Elite Audiences In India.” The Communication Review (2007): 64. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. Web. 2016.

“No Country For Women.” YouTube. Transhuman Collective, 17 July 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.

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