By Priyanka Khanna, IANS
New Delhi, March 6 (IANS) Though films by and about women in Bollywood are numbered, nonetheless, as the world gears to celebrate International Women's Day Tuesday there are a few reasons to cheer for women in the trade.
Strong and articulate women came alive onscreen in movies like "Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon", "Samay", "Pinjar", "Tehzeeb", "Anaahat" and "Chokher Bali" last year.
For the most part of the last two years, Bollywood has been churning out films that were virtual skin shows - just a few films had strong women characters and a relatively better understanding of female sexuality.
This year, we have already got women-oriented films like "Black" and "Page 3" and women directors are being seen and heard more often.
None other than the grand old man of Bollywood, Yash Chopra, presented his female lead as a relatively strong-willed individual in "Veer Zaara". While Aishwarya Rai shone in "Shabd", directed by a debutant female director Leena Yadav, this week is one for Vinta Nanda's "White Noise". After a long gap, viewers are feasting on films that have handled women characters sensitively and boldly.
As Sushmita Sen recently said: "It used to be an industry where actresses were considered props - maybe a vase on the sideboard. Now at last, the vase has reached the centre table."
The films have, however, not been too successful in transforming the original screen-image of the perfect woman - of being the ever-sacrificing, helpless female who has no aspirations, who finds fulfillment only in serving her husband and children.
In fact, some of the commercial hits in the last few years show a decided nostalgia for a traditional way of life where women are the homemakers, says writer S. Raza.
For example, in "Chalte Chalte", an internationally-trained fashion designer meets a truck company owner and marries him. She then ends up spending her time putting his shoes in their proper place.
In "Aitraaz", Akshaye Kumar dumps Priyanka Chopra when she prioritises career over having his child.
In "Main Hoon Na", the woman must don traditional clothes to get her man and a teenybopper in "Ishq Vishq" fasts on 'karva chauth' (a fast observed by married women for their husband's longevity) to entice her boyfriend from the career-oriented independent 'other woman'.
The "masala" films ignore the reality that about 26 percent women in urban and rural India work (2001 census).
Instead, our films are increasingly depicting heroines only as homemakers, albeit educated ones, according to Raza.
At the most, they are "allowed" professions like doctors, teachers and journalists. But in general, the heroines are college-going teenyboppers who settle down to matrimony by the end of the film.
Take the latest Bollywood offering "Bewafaa", in which Kareena sacrifices the love of her life to marry the husband of her deceased sister.
The Dharmesh Darshan film got bad reviews, but the opening can be termed good in Mumbai, Delhi, Uttaranchal and was certainly excellent in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The only places where the opening can be called ordinary are east Punjab and other sub territories. Overseas too, "Bewafaa" collected good money.
Clearly, Bollywood film writers need to work harder at catching up with Indian women who have progressed much.
A handful of female filmmakers have contributed considerably in changing the silver screen portrayal of women from the all-sacrificing mothers and wives to the exceptionally well-crafted characters - like Lady Macbeth.
This has been made possible because of female filmmakers bringing in their distinctive style to an industry dominated by male directors and leading ladies plunging into direction, production and heading industry associations. Yet another factor is that popular female actors like Aishwarya Rai, Urmila Matondkar and Kareena Kapoor seem keen on winning the national award rather than simply raking in the moolah. This means that directors are taking up women-oriented films since they get star power without considerably boosting their budgets, since popular female actors are willing to cut fees for good roles, says trade observer Deepa Gehlot.
There are lots of women making a name for themselves in the world of documentaries, where budgets are bottom-of-the-barrel low. But, where there is big money involved, the doors are immediately slammed on women - as always.
A half-witted male has a better chance of getting funding than a super-talented female, says Gehlot. "Male directors have always been making films about both men and women. Then why aren't female directors attributed this flexibility?" asks female filmmaker Meghna Gulzar.
Film distributors think their films will only address a limited section of the society and are not too enthusiastic about selling the films.
With the inflow of corporate finance into Bollywood making small budget commercially viable films a reality, a lot has changed for women in the trade.
Audience loyalties have been shifting rapidly, and it turns out that no hero can guarantee a hit.
Actresses who have reached the stage where they are fed-up of playing bimbettes, or, have been displaced by anorexic young beings needed as the essential decorative arm candy for the 'heroes', are looking for strong female parts.
And well, they are getting them on a platter.
Juhi Chawla is still around, even as the trade is craving for Kajol to make a comeback. Tabu is a regular face seen at the marquees in spite of her giving the thumbs down to routine stuff.
We are waiting for Sai Paranjpye, Aruna Raje, Kalpana Lajmi, and new entrants, Meghna Gulzar and Revathy to make a mark - like Aparna Sen, Suhasini Mani Ratnam and Suma Josson have.
However, they need not follow Farah Khan's lead who gave into all the commercial diktats for her debut film "Main Hoon Na".
With more and more clean money and corporate finance flowing in, there is hope for women to say 'Bollywood is no more a man's world'.