15 films that best illustrated Women-Power in the millennium

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Alia Bhatt is a selfless fighter in Gangubai Kathiawadi. Photo: Universal Communications.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we find that thanks to changing mores in Hindi cinema, heroines—not necessarily just the frontrunners—are getting better and better roles, and superiorly-etched characters that also deal with issues. It would seem that the days of Mother India, Bandini, Sujata and later films like Khubsoorat, Arth, Damini, Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Mrityudand are back in the millennium.

But there was also a mixed bag in the millennium: some films did not do well, and thus the message could not reach its expected target audience. Some others fell short qualitatively—that is, in the execution, like Lajja, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Manikarnika: The Rani Of Jhansi, Tumhari Sulu and Shakuntala, vindicating a famous filmmaker’s axiom at his peak, “Ideas don’t work. Scripts do.” And even with four female protagonists in Pink, it was Amitabh Bachchan who emerged the real hero.

And a powerful film like Hichki falls short as we realize that it was a true story, but had happened with a male. It was only because of casting issues (buzz is that many heroes turned down the film, because the character was physically-challenged!) that the script was tweaked and in-house heroine Rani Mukerji came into the Yash Raj Films movie.

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This crème-de-la-crème list is a blend of well-made films that sent powerful messages to society. They all made strong points on specific issues and, but for three films that did not do well but are respected today (Astitva, Dor and Rashmi Rocket released on OTT), succeeded at the box-office.

Astitva (2000) / Director: Mahesh Manjrekar

Inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s novel, “Pierre et Jean”, the film saw Tabu as the woman who finally questions why her husband’s mistakes and flaws are accepted by society but not her own. In this, she gets support from her would-be daughter-in-law (Namrata Shirodkar) who leaves her fiancé, who has the same chauvinistic nature as his dad, who actually turns out to be his stepfather!

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021) / Abhishek Kapoor

The film talked about a man-turned-woman (Vaani Kapoor) who yearns to now lead a normal life as a girl. When she honestly tells her boyfriend (Ayushmann Khurrana) the truth, he is repelled, and it is left to her to accept defeat or fight the social battle, that she wins with persistence. The battle begins right at home, where her own mother had not accepted her new identity.

Ayesha Takia played a victim of regressive traditions in Dor. Photo: Video Grab

Dor (2006) / Nagesh Kukunoor

A determined Muslim wife (Gul Panag) whose husband is facing a death sentence in Saudi Arabia for having accidentally caused the death of a Rajasthani colleague, goes to meet the latter’s widow (Ayesha Takia) in rural Rajasthan. She finds her trapped in an excessive conservative environment, living the life of a young and deemed-unlucky widow. The wife can save her husband’s life if the widow signs a maafinama (document showing she has forgiven the killer). A chain of events show how the two women help each other, and the widow takes the girl back with her, into a new life. 

English Vinglish (2012) / Gauri Shinde

She’s a simple woman (Sridevi), who sells homemade sweets but is English-illiterate. Her husband demeans and always runs her down because of this last quality. Things, however, change when she visits her sister in New York and enrolls in an English class. A chain of events lead to her husband and daughter accepting her as a woman of substance.

Four More Shots Please! & Four More Shots Please 2!(2019 & 2020) / Anu Menon & Nupur Asthana

We simply must include this Amazon web series of four friends here. In a fun way, several women’s issues and social kinks are discussed in this celebration of friendship between four women, two in their twenties and two in their thirties. In the end, it’s all about gender equality, thank you!

Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) / Sanjay Leela Bhansali

The recent hit tells the story of a real woman (Alia Bhatt), who had fought for the causes connected to prostitutes of Mumbai’s famous red-light area of Kamathipura. She was herself inveigled into the world’s oldest profession, but rises in the echelons and fights with diverse inimical forces of all hues to get justice for her girls, the neighborhood of sex workers and even their kids.

Kahaani (2012) / Sujoy Ghosh

The pregnant protagonist of Kahaani is a headstrong woman who comes searching for her missing husband to Kolkata and doggedly pursues the cold trail. She will simply not take a “No” for an answer in this suspense-laden masterpiece.

Rani Mukerji in Mardaani 2 (2019), the sequel to her Mardaani (2014). Photo: Yash Raj Films

Mardaani (2014) & Mardaani 2 (2019) / Pradeep Sarkar & Gopi Puthran

This Yash Raj Films franchise has Rani Mukerji as fierce cop Shivani Roy, who goes relentlessly after a man who runs a flesh trade and, in the sequel, after a psychopath. She is ruthlessly determined to get criminals to book despite the challenges she faces as a woman cop, including from the antagonists, and is the embodiment of power.

Mary Kom (2014) / Omung Kumar

Priyanka Chopra Jonas did a truly feisty job as the Indian athlete Mary Kom, from Manipur. The real Mary Kom remained an unknown name despite her unique achievements. The film narrated graphically her story of ups and downs, not just as a woman boxer, but as a woman, wife and mother.

Neerja (2016) / Ram Madhvani

Again a dramatized real-life saga, it showed the power-packed story of an air-hostess, Neerja Bhanot, who lost her life fighting hijackers and protecting the passengers and fellow crew-members. Sonam Kapoor was brilliant as Neerja, who uses the lifelong values she had been inculcated in by her strong mother (Shabana Azmi) and family. For her, duty came first, and duty came last as well.

No One Killed Jessica (2011) / Rajkumar Gupta

Yet another real story of the notorious Jessica Lall murder case, the film saw Vidya Balan as Jessica’s sister fighting relentlessly against the system that tries to protect the influential killer and his cohorts. Rani Mukerji as a fiery journalist helping her cause was also a portrayal to match.

Padmaavat (2018) / Sanjay Leela Bhansali

The story of Queen Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) who won against the lecherous and malefic Allauddin Khilji, who coveted her based on her reputation as a singular beauty, was a well-knit historical drama. After Khilji kills her husband, as much for her as for their kingdom, the queen immolates herself rather than giving him the chance of even seeing or meeting her.

Queen (2013) / Vikas Bahl

She is ditched by her fiancé and decides to have a honeymoon on her own! Kangana Ranaut plays the Punjabi girl whose determined breakaway from the shackles of society leads to a minor upheaval back home as she enjoys her jaunts abroad and makes new friends. Ultimately, a repentant fiancé goes to meet her. But this Queen shows that women cannot be taken for granted.

Raazi (2018) / Meghna Gulzar

This time, Alia Bhatt, at her father’s bidding, marries into a Pakistani family of soldiers to get vital information on the enemy country’s possible subversive moves against India. This is done after due military training, and she has little dilemma even when it comes to protecting her country against a loving husband and his caring family. This was a very unusual shade for a woman, and what made it uber-interesting is—again!—a real-life base.

Rashmi Rocket (2021) / Akarsh Khurana

In this fictional story, inspired by multiple real incidents, the champion sprinter heroine fights against the social inequality and injustice meted out to women athletes in India—simply because of their gender. Taapsee Pannu shone as the girl who is born to win races and her fight against the forces that try and downsize women players.

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