It is an old cliché but true: India lives in different centuries simultaneously. This is a challenge Bollywood faces when it wants to maintain its pan-India appeal. India’s most famous brand, synonymous with Indian cinema abroad, has to take into account the societal change brought about by the entry of women in much larger numbers in media, corporate world, IT, and other fields. To continue with the old tried and tested formula does not work.

Popular media can least afford not to reflect the changes happening at a dizzy pace. Bollywood with the infusion of indie filmmakers is in tune with the changes in technology that gives films a narrative edge. They are aware that attitudes and expectations of the young are altered by the world outside. They form the largest segment of audience. This is true of other countries as well. Films must reflect this change and even be the agents of change. We see films with unconventional themes succeed because they are not too experimental and use the advantages of a flexible formula to appeal to the millennials.

Westernised but rooted too

A film like Gehraiyaan (2022) divided the audience but it could not be ignored. Deepika Padukone played a challenging role that shocked conventional morality. Alisha is a Yoga trainer, in a live-in relationship with a writer who soon proposes to her at a party. She has just met her US-based younger cousin’s fiancé Zain Oberoi (Sidhant Chaturvedi) and it is lust at first sight for both. She has a troubled childhood – her mother committed suicide and the father is emotionally distant. She is looking for investors to back her idea of an app for Yoga. Passion, guilt, vulnerability, and ambition – they churn her emotional life and Zain professes love but defers commitment.

A Woody Allenesque scenario where pleasure and sin cohabit demands a lot from actors and Padukone plunges into its amoral depths without holding back. The film ends as a noir thriller, and Alisha the accidental survivor of a murder attempt overcomes blackmail and moves on. After family skeletons tumble out of claustrophobic cupboards, Alisha regains her innate poise. A near-death experience makes her appreciate life anew. Moral ambiguity and ambivalence chasten a deeply troubled woman to emerge erect after her ordeal, so much of it self-inflicted.

Alisha could belong in Manhattan as much as Mumbai. Paradoxically, millennials, both men and women, have aspirations that are influenced by the West and yet, there is a desire to be rooted in Indian soil and ethos. The anomie of alienation is frightening for the young of a society that has grown up in the embrace (often suffocating) of authoritative patriarchy and the safety net of the extended family. Often, this instinct to have a rooted identity is not given the importance it merits because of modernity’s dazzling allure.

It is perhaps one of the reasons why the young voted overwhelmingly for Narendra Modi’s second term because he personified (for the converted) pride in being Indian – more importantly, being Hindu. A disquieting trend that negates the secular ideal so many liberals hold as the fundamental principle of Indian democracy. That is a different subject.

‘Safe risks’

The pervasive Hindu ethos of the 1990s blockbusters like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Maine Not Pyar Kiya, etc. is undeniable. What we see now is an attempt to synthesize the new millennial aspirations with a comforting and comfortable cultural familiarity: the importance of faith and in this case Hindu, and respect for family bonds. The eternal conflict between individualism and tradition takes a sharper edge now. We see its refraction and reflection in the media. Cultural deracination is not really an option because it flies in the face of box office safety.

Filmmaking finally is a business that will take ‘safe risks’ (an oxymoron) and push the envelope only thus far and no further. After parallel cinema’s high watermark, portrayal of the millennial woman is testing the limits of departure from formulaic storytelling

Millennial is not just a buzzword currently bandied about in every context. Millennials are setting the agenda for entertainment. Even though the film industry continues to be male dominated, the representation of women in films has become truer of changing social and cultural reality.

Even Ekta Kapoor, the TV czarina who made Saas Bahu unending sagas the ruling genre, has produced non-formulaic films: Dibakar Banerjee’s avante-garde triptych Love Sex Aur Dhoka (2010), Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture (2011) that made Vidya Balan a huge star. Kapoor backed the release of Lipstick under My Burkha (2016) when a hidebound Censor Chief tried to ban it in India after the film won accolades abroad. Call it a canny producer’s instinct for backing a potential blockbuster but this is happening with establishment giants like Yash Raj Films too. The largest number of rom coms with a difference – premarital sex, live-in relation[1]ships that were once taboo—were produced under its aegis

More female professionals

The number of women working in the industry has proliferated. There have never been so many women directors in Bollywood. Gauri Shinde debuted with English Vinglish (2012) with diva Sridevi coming back to cinema. It was unthinkable a decade ago to make a stay-at-home mother of two the protagonist. She works hard to learn spoken English to win the respect of her husband and daughter who were dismissive of her for her lack of fluency in English.

Zoya Akhtar crossed over into a league of her own with Gully Boy (2019), the slum to celebrity story of a rap singer. Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi (2018) is a sensitive story (based on real life) of a Kashmiri young woman who spied for the country by marrying into a Pakistani military family. Gulzar made it a humanistic story where the other side of the border is not demonized as Bollywood tends to (by male directors especially), catering to the hyper-nationalism that is assiduously fostered today.

There are other successful women directors making films of their choice without succumbing to stereotypical stories with stereotyped characters. There are women working as editors, writers, cinematographers, pro]duction designers, and marketing professionals. Their presence encourages women-centric films. It is the entertainment industry that first spoke of sexual harassment – Bollywood’s worst-kept secret – and started India’s Me Too movement. This enabled women from other fields to speak up.

Whatever course this movement takes, it initiated a very significant conversation. It produced Pink (2016), a reaffirmation that No means No. Women have partially freed themselves of stereotyped roles they are still mired in. Socialization is an entrenched process that tries to impose older, traditional role models, a permanent feature of the girl child’s upbringing. This is challenged with quiet certitude by Thappad (2020), making it a landmark film.

Excerpted with permission from The Millennial Woman in Bollywood – A New Brand?, Maithili Rao, Oxford University Press.