The film industry right across the world is patriarchal. Though cinema is more than a hundred years old, its character has remained dominated by men – as directors, editors, actors, cinematographers, music directors, lyricists and so on. Most of the stories have men as the dominating character and women reflect their real life situations as wives, mothers, lovers and daughters. Interestingly, the audience does not complain including the women in it.

There seems to be a turn in the tide of happenings since films with women in dominating roles began to make their presence felt. Names like Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo come up at once as they dominated the frames of the films they featured in, sometimes in male masquerade – dressed up in male costumes but basically understood as women, or, as characters with a negative slant, or as sexy females. Indian cinema has been less lucky in placing women in the centre of the narrative and cinematographic spaces of films.

But there have been a few exceptions in recent Bollywood films. A recent Bengali film Onek Diner Pore (After a Long Time) was released on a network website which has four women in lead roles and hardly any males worth talking about. The film is directed by Debarati Gupta, a woman filmmaker. The film is about four beautiful and daring women in their mid 30s meet at their school campus to reminisce about their good old schooldays. However, recollection of the past brings out a few hidden dark tales of rivalries, insecurities and undercurrents beneath their "almost perfect" friendship and life.

(Still from Onek Diner Pore )

Says the director who has made unusual feature films earlier, says, “After my first movie Hoichoi, this time I got the chance to tell my own story... to work in my own domain... And the absolute pleasure was to work with these wonderful actors! Swastika, Sudipta, Palomi and Rupanjana made my characters alive, real and more believable... As a writer and director I wanted to tell a story of my girlhood and womanhood! I am happy to see audience is appreciating our efforts.” It is reasonably a well-knit film with the four women demonstrating how childhood friends can grow up and progress quite differently from what their girlhood hinted at. The actresses show how emotionally involved in their characters and in the film itself resulting in spontaneously natural performances by all four of which only one is a model-turned actress (Palomi) and the other three are very established actors.

The girl who stood first in class every time (Swastika Mukherjee) is now a middle-class housewife quite happy and content as wife and mother in her small world with no regrets about how her life has progressed. The girl who had dreams of becoming a star in films (Rupanjana) is reduced to playing small parts and involved in the trafficking of young girls who want to make it in films. Palomi teaches at Stanford University in the US, is a single mother and leads a sexually permissive life. Sudipta portrays a gutsy single woman who cannot get rid of the bitterness resulting from a deeply abusive girlhood in her hostel and this comes across when the girls meet. The film has a few men characters too who are marginalised but not given a negative slant which is really good. It is not a very “empowering” film but a well-made film that rises above mundane issues to tell a different story helped greatly by wonderful performances.

Sonata is Aparna Sen’s latest feature film. After a long time, she made an English-language film which was the language she chose for directorial debut 36, Chowringhee Lane more than 30 years ago. Sonata means “a composition for an instrumental soloist, often with a piano accompaniment, typically in several movements with one or more in sonata form.” In this film, Beethoven’s famous composition is used but the term also stands as a metaphor for the ‘solo’ lives of the three women taken in individually while the ‘togetherness’ is comprised in the ‘accompaniment in several movements with one of more sonata form.”

(Sonata poster)

““We do not have many films based on female bonding, the normal one without suggestions of alternative sex. I liked the changing moods and their interplay among these three women, each her own person, living life on her own terms and yet feeling close to one another. I wished to demolish the common belief that when two women get together, they are at each other tooth and nail or, sit down to have a gossip at the expense of others. I do not believe this is true. It happens but it is not a stereotype and I wanted to break this stereotype. Sonata is more an exploration of the feminine conscious than anything else,” says Aparna.

Sonata is the psychological exploration of three unmarried women facing a mid-life crisis namely Aruna Chaturvedi (Professor), Dolon Sen (Banker) and Subhadra Parekh (journalist) played by Aparna Sen, Shabana Azmi and Lillite Dubey respectively. The 103 minutes film revolves around these three friends and their lives.

Sen is a master in expressing female bonding in the language of cinema and she breaks every rule in the cinema book to explore this in great depth through Sonata. The film is almost totally devoid of male presence except in a few snippety modes that are well brought out. Youth is another market factor that is absent in this film. Sen excels in portraying three middle-aged women of which two live life entirely on their own terms and yet try to discover happiness and fulfilment in ways they choose to.

Parched is a story about four women of different ages but similar geographical backdrops who find themselves trapped in diverse ways in a criminally patriarchal world. Are they aware of the tragedy of their lives? Or do they continue to live within the pain and the humiliation till their deaths? It is a story that unfolds alternately with doses of fun, biting satire, humour, irony and a lot of sex and sexual innuendo.

(Parched - film poster)

Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), widowed at 15, is in her thirties and has a 17-year-old son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen). Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is married to Madan, an alcoholic and a womanizer who uses sex not as a fulfilment of his physical hunger but as a weapon of torture on his wife. Janaki who is childless and is punished for being so. Janki (Lehar Khan), 14, is married off to Gulab for which Rani pays a dowry of Rs.4 lakh by mortgaging her small hut-like home. Bijlee (Surveen Chawla) is an item dancer in the touring circus that strikes tent in the village and also entertains customers at night for a fee.

This is a powerful feminist statement against patriarchy that defines a woman’s life as a point of no return never mind if she is a very young girl, a dancer-cum-sex worker, a widow or a married woman. The dialogue is full of sexual innuendo mainly indulged in by the women led by Bijlee who is one of the most lovable item numbers one has seen on screen in a long time and the character is enriched by the sparkling performance of Surveen Chawla In one scene, .she asks, “Why should every expletive be prefixed by words like ‘mother’, ‘sister’ etc? We should we not invent invectives and dirty expletives with men as prefixes such as “fatherf…..r”, “brotherf….r’ ourselves?” she asks and leads Rani and Lajjo to a hilltop and the three shout out their own expletives deriving their own joy out of it.

Lipstick Under My Burkha won The Spirit of Asia award at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai International Film Festival in October. It will be travelling to the Stockholm International Film Festival (9-20 November) and the Cairo International Film Festival (15-24 November).in 2016.

(Lipstick Under My Burkha poster)

Lipstick Under My Burkha produced by Prakash Jha and directed by Alankrita Srivastava is a powerful political statement on how women can strategically use two extremely polarised items of women’s use - the lipstick and the burkha to express and articulate their undiluted sexual desires, irrespective of caste, class, age, community, faith and social status. Therefore, the CBFC today dictated by the powers-that-be at the centre are really scared of what impact this film will have on the audience in general and females of all ages in particular.

This film openly and without embarrassment explores not only the woman’s sexuality but also the ingenuous and devious ways women invent to try and fulfil their sexual and other desires clandestinely, using the veil to their advantage and the lipstick for their satisfaction in a way they like to and not because they are forced to.

Noted film critic Mythili Rao says, “Lipstick Under my Burkha does not get a censor certificate after it has done the festival rounds with a fair amount of success because "the story is lady-oriented their fantasy about life" and contains words of abuse and “audio pornography.” The CBFC thinks that the semantic fudging of women into the more "cultured" ladies justifies their decision. Pray, are ladies not women? They are not allowed fantasies - be it about life, including sex - while mainstream cinema so often objectifies women to cater to male fantasies? Not just raunchy item numbers but discreet pandering to pious, so-called Indian values?”

The film is about how, even in a small-time city like Bhopal, with a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims living in harmony, four women are forced to lead double lives filled with a string of lies because of the socially conditioned patriarchal pressures they are oppressed by. These zero in mainly on their sexual fantasies and personal choices – in forms of dress, in choosing a profession she likes, in wanting to build a career and so on.

It is scathingly honest, it is sometimes scary, and it is a lot of fun too. The humour is as naturally structured into the script as is the satire and the scathing attack on the double standards of morality forced on intelligent, talented, spunky and creative women. You writhe in anger and you laugh at the double entendres. You are pained and then, you are happy when they are. And the same goes for the other films discussed above.