8 inspiring feminist films you should not miss
Most films these days center around the male-lead. They give very little importance to female actors, regardless of whether it is the lead role or otherwise. Often, female-leads serve as mere props — to the extent that removing them from the story will not impact the narrative in any way. Most such portrayals are rendered through the male gaze, with no constructive narrative arc that represents the female through thought, action or choice.
And yet, among these pitfalls, there are some films that portray women in the right light, offering great storylines and narrative arcs of and around women.
This is my list of eight feminist films that impacted and inspired me. I yearn to see the day when these films are no longer termed as feminist or women-centric because portraying women right becomes the norm. I yearn to see the day when we aren’t praising a writer for writing a bold story about women but rather praising it for its technical aspects. I yearn to see the day when women from all walks of life have equal representation on screen as the men do.
- Legally blonde
One of the few films that passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, Legally Blonde breaks several gender-based stereotypes and reminds women that they can achieve anything they put their minds to! What I love about this movie, is that it is not your typical romantic-comedy. Even though the events of the movie are pushed forward by her quest for a husband and a heart-break, the fact that she ends up with a decent guy who appreciates her is only a side note. This movie is truly Elle Woods’ (Reese Witherspoon is fantastic in this movie) own — an incredible woman who is perceived to be a ditzy blonde, coming to her own, realizing her potential, honing her skills and finding passion in a place she never expected to. She forges strong relationships with fellow women (who would have been her competitors in other movies) and empowers them to accept and love themselves for who they are. She even inspires confidence and leadership in other women. She nails the L-SATS, gets into Harvard law and proved everyone who second-guessed her wrong. But most importantly, she shows the world that femininity and bad-assery can go hand in hand and work beautifully!
Queen is undoubtedly one of Bollywood’s landmark films that showcased a multi-layered message of beautifully portrayed feminist ideals. Foregoing the ‘log kya kahenge’ nonsense, Rani’s (Kangana Ranaut’s career best role) parents are supportive and empathetic towards Rani when her wedding is called off. They do not treat her like her life is over or her integrity gone and actually encourage her to go and find herself through travelling. Queen is also all about the unlikely yet amazing friendships formed between Rani and those she meets in her travels. Roxette, a sex-worker, is humanized as a kind, fun, morally-intact and financially stable person. Vijaylakshmi is an unapologetic and jovial single-mother who is not afraid of living her life on her own terms or fending for herself and her son. Rani’s hostel-mates are not portrayed to be macho men but are instead given insecurities, fears and vulnerabilities — a rarity in Bollywood’s often beefy portrayal of men. What I love the most about Queen is Rani’s story arc which beautifully shows her transition from a heartbroken, timid and apologetic woman to someone who is empowered and non-judgmental; someone who knows and realizes her worth through the amazing friends she finds along the way.
I have always loved and respected the Malayalam film industry for their unique stories and honest portrayal of characters. The female leads are rarely glamourized or given insignificant roles in movies — something worthy of praise in our largely ‘heroism’ dominated Indian film industry. A tantalizing love story that won numerous awards including the Kerala State Film Award for both Parvathy and Dulquer Salmaan, Charlie is a fast-paced, thrilling and bold story about seeking adventure and solving mysteries. Right from the onset of the film, Tessa (Parvathy) flees her home to escape being tricked into a marriage she doesn’t want. Tessa is an adventurous, free-spirited and non-conforming graphic artist who is independent and lives her life unapologetically and on her own terms. Tessa’s almost-obsessive determination to fulfill her tryst to search for the bohemian vagabond is contagious! She is daring, bold and unique — qualities that make her stand out from the crowd and defy the mold often used for female leads in Indian cinema.
4) Kumari 21F
Kumari 21 F is as unconventional as a telugu film can get. For one, it is a rarity to see the movie named after the female lead (while also indicating her age- 21 and gender- F). The story revolves around Siddhu, a reserved and introverted chef-in-the making and Kumari, an outgoing and extroverted aspiring model from Mumbai. Kumari’s character is one for the feminist hall-of-fame in Tollywood cinema. She wants her boyfriend, friends and family to accept her as she is and refuses to change her personality for anyone. She refuses to accept Siddhu’s proposal, even though she loves him, because he is not mature enough to trust her. In the gripping climax, a hard-hitting letter written by Kumari questions the audience and holds the accountable for judging a woman based on what she wears, who she hangs out with and what rumours are spread about her. She tells Siddhu (and therefore the audience) that just because a girl wears short skirts, doesn’t mean she is spoilt. She tells Siddhu just because she was framed for being part of a brothel, doesn’t mean she is a prostitute. She also tells Siddhu that it is wrong for society to label a woman as ‘impure’ if she is not a virgin. The ending is dark, intense and twisted but this film should not be missed for Kumari (Hebah Patel’s outstanding performance) and her unchained attitude towards life.
5) How Old Are You?
How Old Are You? marked the comeback of actress Manju Warrier after a 14 year sabbatical. She stars in this age-defying, stereotype breaking film about the transformation of a 36 year old married Nirupama Rajeev from an underconfident clerk to a pathbreaking and innovative entrepreneur. Her character is largely relatable — she lives a monotonous and routine life and there is nothing extravagant about her. When her husband and daughter move to Ireland and a meet-and-greet with the President of India goes wrong, Nirupama feels low and defeated. She decides to re-visit her passionate younger self, and with the help of her college friend, she revives her organic roof vegetable garden that soon becomes successful through word-of-mouth. She overcomes her daughter’s low expectations of her and pushes past her husband’s lack of support and interest to become and empowered and independent business woman. Nirupama’s character is extremely admirable and her transformation arc from a dependent and meek housewife to a badass boss who only seeks approval from herself is very inspiring. Kudos to the Malayalam film industry for showing audiences the really perseverance and strength of housewives who demonstrate that age is no barrier!
6) English Vinglish
One of my all-time favorite films, English Vinglish is a beautiful story of self-love and empowerment. I am so happy to see directors like Gauri Shinde doing excellent work in bringing unconventional cinema and subject matter to audiences. Presenting a down-to-earth and relatable woman’s life experiences can be a daunting task. English Vinglish is a story that can happen to any of us and as a viewer, I was able to connect to the realistic characters (that many of us must have come across in our lives) without ever feeling bored. Shashi (Sri Devi reminding us what a legend she is) is a humble housewife who uses her culinary talent to sell and distribute ladoos. Her family seems to suffer from the colonial mindset where people’s worth is judged based on their English-proficiency. Her daughter makes fun of her poor English and doesn’t want her mother to come to school and meet other mothers or teachers at her Convent school. Satish, her husband is complicit in derided Shashi’s weakness. When in Manhattan to help plan her niece’s wedding, Shashi enrolls in a crash-course in English where she meets people from diverse backgrounds who uplift her self-esteem and make her realize her worth. She feels empowered for seemingly trivial things like when she is called an entrepreneur or when she makes no mistakes when ordering her meal. By the end of the film, Shashi realizes the importance of loving herself and schools her family (in well-rendered English!) about being non-judgmental and appreciating her competency in her own way. The film is all Shashi’s, tracing the story of how she comes to accept herself, feel proud of herself, carve a role for herself outside her role as a mother/wife and make those around her appreciate her worth. It is a must watch-film, especially for the tear-jerking speech she makes at her niece’s wedding.
Mozhi is one of the groundbreaking films that propelled a range of women-centric films in Kollywood. Jyothika lives the role of Archana, a deaf and mute woman whose fierce independence and bravery make the male-lead admire her to the point of calling her his Jhansi-ki-rani. Archana’s disability is never portrayed as a shortcoming but her ultimate strength. This film should also be lauded for its portrayal of a widow (Sheela, Archana’s friend) as a woman who has moved on with her life and does good for those around her. It also destigmatizes the negativity around the remarriage of a widow. Radhamohan, the director doesn’t miss any opportunity to point out the philosophical implications of showing the union of a deaf woman and a man whose passion for music can never perhaps be understood by his partner. However, this is exactly works in the movie’s favor: it treats the woman as an equal to the man despite her inability to hear or speak. The beautiful love story that results is actually a melodious and pleasant one.
8) Margarita with a straw
Path-breaking, progressive and open-minded are apt words to describe Margarita with a Straw. This is not a film about disability alone but also queerness, sexuality and individuality. Margarita is about an aspirational and free-spirited girl who suffers from cerebral palsy. Despite approaching bold and taboo subjects like masturbation for a disabled woman, it never views her disability through a sympathetic lens. The film makes sure it sensitive to Laila, played by Kalki Koechlin, as a person and not a wheel-chair bound object. Kalki pulls off the role with such finesse and ease — her curiosity about sex is not perverted or uncomfortable. Margarita is unapologetic about lesbianism, just like it is unapologetic about her disability. The film also does a great job in defying the patriarchy by showing the mother as the head of the family, showing the father crying and being vulnerable, an inter-religious marriage and no partiality between an able-bodied man and his disabled sister. Another great point about this movie is that it normalizes desire and shows experimenting with sexuality in a positive light. My favourite part of the movie is when Laila is out on a date with herself at the end of the movie, showing that she values her relationship with herself as much as her relationship with her boyfriend and girlfriend. Margarita with a Straw is an exemplary coming-of-age tale that smashes the boundaries of heteronormativity, patriarchy and pity surrounding disability! I still don’t know how the stringent censor board allowed this movie reach audiences!
Writers, directors, actors and producers take note! Making more films about women, the struggles they face and the stories they have to tell is not a risk, but very rewarding both monetarily and emotionally! How about giving the audiences more of these meaningful tales in place of cheap masala-flicks?