When the Bengali film Bhalo Theko released in 2003, nobody knew who Vidya Balan was. And then came her big Bollywood debut Parineeta (2005), which catapulted her to stardom. Since Parineeta, she has shown her histrionic skills in a number of movies which had her as the face. Kahaani, The Dirty Picture, Ishqiya, Bobby Jasoos and Kahaani 2 were scripts that centred around the lead female character essayed by Vidya. Some films worked, some didn’t. In an interview with Bombay Times, the actress hinted at the return of such female-centric subjects because of the success of her films.
But to call her the epitome of women-centric films would be an exaggeration. Probably, she is missing out on facts. Yes, she has proved her worth in powerful roles, but to call her a trend-setter would be gross misinterpretation of facts. The advent of women centric films has a history in Bollywood. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were films that were entertaining as well as a message conveyors. Mother India, Bandini, Guide, Aandhi and others had strong female characters.
In the ‘80s we have had Rekha who won accolades for her performances in films like Khubsoorat, Umrao Jaan, Baseraa, Jeevan Dhara, Utsav, Khoon Bhari Maang, Ijaazat and others which gave her the tag: An actress with substance. Directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya and others have experimented with films with women as the lead. If we talk of Rekha despite her films with major stars, she has been roped in to do films that have been against the times. In Khubsoorat, she revolted against the archaic rules of a middle-aged woman. In Umrao Jaan she exhibited the pain of a courtesan. Khoon Bhari Maang was all about her: A woman losing her husband, undergoing plastic surgery and doing stunts.
And then there was Dimple Kapadia who gave us films like Saagar and Rudaali, which were critically acclaimed. Dimple in her comeback film Saagar stole the show despite the presence of Kamaal Hassan. in the ’90s and later, Madhuri Dixit, (Mrityudand), Tabu (Astitva, Chandni Bar and Maqbool), Meenakshi Seshadri (Damini), Raveena Tandon (Satta), Bipasha Basu (Corporate), Priyanka Chopra (Fashion and Mary Kom) and others have starred in films with a strong focus on women.
A filmmaker like Madhur Bhandarkar has risen to fame with films on women be it Chandni Bar or Corporate or Page 3. And out here we are leaving Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi out who starred in women-oriented films from the genre of art house cinema. Even Smita worked in a commercial film like Aakhir Kyon?, which had her playing the pivotal role. Shabana has been part of Swami, The Godmother and Arth, which were not typical art films as such.
So, the concept of women centric films is nothing new in the film industry. Amidst the potboilers, directors have hunted for strong story lines which put women as the focal point. So, to attribute the resurgence of such films to Vidya alone would be a mistake. Even Kangana Ranaut has made a name out of films like Gangster, Tanu Weds Manu series, Queen and others.
History has evidence that female-centric films have been the cynosure for years in the film industry. And some directors have shown the guts to work on scripts on women as central characters even at the height of the stardom of Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, the three Khans (Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir).
Vidya has played a major role in redefining women characters in Hindi films, but the trend was initiated years ago when she was probably not born. With women gaining prominence in the society, filmmakers have closed in on subjects that show women in a strong light over the years.
And hopefully, the trend will continue.