12 Books on Women in Indian Cinema You Must Read Now!

Women in Indian cinema
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Like other socio-political aspects, the portrayal of women in Indian cinema has been tricky from the beginning. While, on one hand, it’s been a source of aspiration for thousands and millions of women, it’s also propagated social evils and re-enforced patriarchal structures on the other, time and time again. Watching how women characters in Indian cinema have evolved over the decades can also reflect the changing dynamics and imagination of women in real world. Today’s article looks at some of the must-read books on women in Indian cinema for cinephiles and general viewers alike. If you think we missed a title that should’ve been included, comment below and let us know!

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Books to Understand the Evolution of Women in Indian Cinema

Women in Malayalam Cinema

Title: Women in Malayalam Cinema

Author: Meena T. Pillai

Publisher: Orient Blackswan Private Limited

Price: 525

Pages: 266


This book about women in Indian cinema provides a comprehensive and critical analysis of how Malayalam movies have portrayed women over the past century. It examines how both mainstream and avant-garde Malayalam films presented stereotypical and subordinate imagery of women and restricted them to traditional domestic roles for serving their male counterparts. From early classics like VIgathakumaran to more recent works like Achanarangathaveedu, they deconstruct the patriarchal dominance of these movies. 

Meena shows how the film industry has failed to show the progress made in women’s empowerment and historical matriarchal traditions, persisting with the obeying, love-struck character trope. It shows the paradoxical nature of the state’s cultural politics, where an improvement in social indexes hasn’t translated to meaningful changes on screen. The book also focuses on the Malayalam films in the “New Generation” movement with more nuanced depictions of women and the presence of more socially relevant themes.

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Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema

Title: Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema

Author: Usha Iyer

Publisher: OUP

Price: 1497

Pages: 288


Dancing Women analyses the connection between dance, labour, and how female stardom is constructed in Hindi cinema. Usha looks at the histories of the dancing women who’ve shaped the industry to show their material and cultural realities. The book studies the industrial and material practices shaping the production and reception of dance in Hindi cinema, providing a layered history of dance, music, and cinema in India.

By examining numerous case studies, including those of Sadhona Bose, Madhuri Dixit, Waheeda Rehman, and Vyjayanthimala, Iyer shows how these women navigated the social norms in their respective eras. She shows how these women in Indian cinema challenged or subverted the norms to show their agency or artistic perspective. With theoretical, aesthetic, and formal analyses, you get a multifaceted history of Indian cinema with this book.

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Women and Resistance in Contemporary Bengali Cinema: A Freedom Incomplete

Title: Women and Resistance in Contemporary Bengali Cinema: A Freedom Incomplete

Author: Srimati Mukherjee

Publisher: Routledge

Price: 2793

Pages: 166


From gender roles and power structures to societal norms in Bengali cinema, the book discusses how hegemonic power, caste, and patriarchy interplay to silence and oppress female characters. The book also analyses three directors and their filmography to show how women’s roles are evolving in cinema and societal matrices. Srimati shows how these directors go against the norm, initiating change by challenging the traditional representations. 

By showing the changing roles of women in Bangla cinema, the book tries to understand the confluence of societal expectations and cultural influences in a changing industry. It’s a reflective work that further contributes to the discourse on gender, power, and representation in Bengali cinema.

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The Millennial Woman In Bollywood: A New 'Brand'?

Title: The Millennial Woman In Bollywood: A New 'Brand'?

Author: Maithili Rao

Publisher: OUP India

Price: 1099

Pages: 304


We all have seen the cardboard woman character from the mid-to late-20th-century Bollywood films, haven’t we? The subservient character, only gaining any meaning with her relationship to the “hero” in question, had certain defining characteristics that kept repeating through decades of cinema, with some exceptions, of course. But times have changed, and so have brands.

Maithili Rao’s book offers an optimistic perspective of the changing dynamics of women in Indian cinema through the years, with modern women breaking stereotypes and gaining influence both on and off the screen. Rao looks at how female characters in Bollywood have more nuance and depth than ever, and their positive societal impact. Through several case studies and success stories, Rao charts the new “brand” of millennial women in Indian cinema, with agency and influence, who are here to stay.

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Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography, and Cinema

Title: Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography, and Cinema

Author: Geeti Sen

Publisher: Grantha Corporation

Price: 949

Pages: 200


Over the last century, the image of women and female characters has drastically transformed in painting, photography, posters, and cinema. In a society that has a paradoxical relationship with women, both abusing and worshipping them, the modern woman and her imagery are independent, free from the patriarchal shackles binding her.

Feminine Fables attempts to chart these changes to understand how visual culture shapes the discourse around gender and identity. Whether it’s women in Indian cinema or photographs, stereotypes are constantly being challenged, and limits are regularly being pushed. The five essays of this book cover different aspects, from her identity to her body, ultimately showing how this evolution reflects the increasing assertion of women in both the public and private space.

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Gendered Modernity and Indian Cinema: The Women in Satyajit Ray's Films

Title: Gendered Modernity and Indian Cinema: The Women in Satyajit Ray's Films

Author: Devapriya Sanyal

Publisher: Routledge

Price: 796

Pages: 132


Satyajit Ray and his brand of cinema need no introduction. Simultaneously, it’s no secret that his films have influenced the portrayal of women in Indian cinema. This book connects the representation of women characters in Ray’s works with the changing sociopolitical landscape of the Nehruvian era. Using feminist film theory, she examines Ray’s films and characters, categorising them into different “types.”

From the moral beacon to the mother figure to the new woman, Sanyal also traces how the women evolved throughout Ray’s filmography, too. The book explains how Ray’s cinema was both a reflection and a challenge to the changing gender dynamics of the society and nation at large. For lovers of either Satyajit Ray or Indian cinema (or, preferably, both), this book is a must-read.

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Women In Indian Cinema

Title: Women In Indian Cinema

Author: compiled by Prakash Magdum and Binayak Bhattacharya

Publisher: Publications Division

Price: 576

Pages: 171


Divided into thematic chapters, Women in Indian Cinema traces the evolution of women in Indian cinema and how they’ve been represented throughout. With pictures from NFAI’s collection, it’s a treasure for cinema lovers, covering multiple aspects of cinema across eras and languages.

The book also shows how cinema shapes and reflects the changing socio-economic realities of the country with the portrayal of women characters changing with these shifts. Through the evolving roles of these characters, you also better understand the changing perceptions of womanhood in Indian society through the lens of cinema. This visual journey shows the struggles, aspirations, triumphs, and varied nuances of women in Indian cinema through the decades.

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Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes

Title: Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes

Author: Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur

Publisher: Penguin

Price: 337

Pages: 304


Women have played an important role in the success of Bollywood, whether in front of the camera or away. And yet, it’s taken decades for them to claim their rightful place and recognition in the industry. Changemakers is the story of twenty incredible women, from editors to makeup artists to directors, who’ve broken the stereotypes and traditional norms of the industry.

You also see their impact on cinema and society at large, changing the kind of stories being told, and the predominant sensibilities. The book is a tribute to women in Indian cinema for their roles through the decades while struggling against patriarchal hierarchies and is also a reminder of the need for diverse perspectives and authentic storytelling.

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Unforgettable: The Iconic Women of South Indian Cinema

Title: Unforgettable: The Iconic Women of South Indian Cinema

Author: Nalini Shivkumar and Rema Mahalingam

Publisher: Rupa Publications India

Price: 239

Pages: 252


Deeply researched and engagingly written, Unforgettable is the story of 34 talented women who redefined South Indian cinema. These women managed to carve their way into an industry dominated by men while overcoming different challenges, most of them acting across different languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. Each chapter has rich anecdotes, historical contexts, and intriguing insights to understand the lives and achievements of these women better.

Despite limited opportunities and the societal pressures to accept traditional gender roles, these women went on to leave an important mark on South Indian cinema and film buffs. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in learning the history and evolution of Indian cinema, particularly women in Indian cinema, while also understanding the region’s cultural heritage.

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Bollywood's New Woman: Liberalization, Liberation and Contested Bodies

Title: Bollywood's New Woman: Liberalization, Liberation and Contested Bodies

Author: edited by Megha Anwer and Anupama Arora

Publisher: Rutgers University Press

Price: 4161

Pages: 222


A fascinating journey into understanding the changes in the character of “Indian Woman” since the 1990s. The book shows how the modern portrayal of women in Indian cinema is due to a combination of factors like India adopting neoliberal economic reforms, the emergence of Indian right-wing politics, and a stronger middle-class sensibility. Thus, the contemporary woman, so to say, is similar to the New Woman phenomenon in the West of the 20th century with unique Indian characteristics.

This new woman lies at the intersection of traditions and modernity, domesticity and financial independence, societal expectations and personal ambitions. From big-budget films to more niche creations, the book looks at a variety of cinematic representations of womanhood, unpacking the contradictions and complexities lying within. The book is important for understanding gender representation in Indian popular culture.

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Films and Feminism: Essays in Indian Cinema

Title: Films and Feminism: Essays in Indian Cinema

Author: edited by Jasbir Jain and Sudha Rai

Publisher: Rawat Publications

Price: 927

Pages: 356


The relationship between feminism and Indian films is a complex and multifaceted one, and perhaps the best way to navigate it is by listening to and understanding different voices and perspectives. These essays offer just that. Written by experts who’ve spent years analysing Indian cinema, they explore the portrayal of women in Indian cinema and the impact of these portrayals on society at large. These essays also look at how feminist themes and ideas have subtly been incorporated into movies over the years.

While it largely centres on Hindi cinema, there are perspectives on Bengali and Kannada cinema as well. These 28 essays beautifully capture the cultural complexity and vividness of this region, its cinema, and its depictions of women, while opening various avenues for inquiry.

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Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema

Title: Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema

Author: Ruth Vanita

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd

Price: 360

Pages: 272


Studying 200 movies from the 1930s to the present, Dancing with the Nation examines the courtesans or tawaifs in Indian cinema. The book shows how these figures have shapes the political, erotic, and religious imagination of the country. These characters were the first instances of single and working women in Indian cinema with an agency and personality of their own (unlike the usual subservient female leads).

From Madhuri Dixit to Rekha, most female actors have played courtesans, characters with higher social and economic autonomy. With extensive research and numerous insights, the book examines a rarely examined figure, despite their common appearances, in Indian cinema. By understanding these “independent” characters can you better understand the role and evolution of women in Indian cinema over the years.

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Amritesh Mukherjee

Amritesh Mukherjee

Amritesh doesn't know what to do with his life, so he writes. He also doesn't know what to write, so he reads. Gift him a book if you chance upon him and he'll love you forever.

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