Women in Cinema: THE NEW HORIZON

This article aims to highlight areas of concern to women, both behind and in front of the camera; while there are many opportunities and possibilities there are also major issues that need to be addressed immediately. With the increase in the number of women in the work place, the empowerment of women has become a global topic of discussion. Yet, the issues about unequal work pay and huge difference between the numbers is one of the prevalent scenes within the largest film industry, Hollywood. Representation of women in cinema has been studied and revised for decades but sitting here in Bangladesh we still see people cheering when the ‘item girl’ takes an entrance on the screen, well inspired by Bollywood songs like, ‘Munni Badnam Huyi’ or ‘Sheela Ki ‘award’. There was a time when women only played submissive roles as a character that reinforces the actions of the male protagonist. Even Jean-Luc Godard once said that cinema revolves around two atavistic imageries and imaginaries: war and women’s beauty. Coming to the twenty-first century, it is a mix of having strong women protagonists who are entirely driven by their choices, the ones who act as a concept of attraction for the viewer and the actors throughout the narrative, and the women who get a little screen time to woo the audience with their sensual presence. However, all these different kinds of representations depend upon the director’s eye and varied intentions. A narrative’s role distribution is taken from reality, also what people watch in films influence shaping reality.

How women are represented in cinema thus, has a major role to play in the spectator’s perception of the film. Looking back at history, during the period of silent films, The Passion of Joan of Arc fell offside with a central woman character and then until the 1970s films were only made for men to watch, women did go to the theatres but there was no idealistic benefit to grab from the female characters except for fashion. Feminist cinema came into the context with the idea of eliminating how women are looked at to obtain visual pleasure. Since then, films have been made where we see women in action, diverging from the conventional role as a passive character. A particular genre was also created which is now popular as the chick-flick, films that centers women interest. At the same time, classical Hollywood’s film style is still visible in today’s filmmaking; it turns out, visual pleasure through the female presence is a great source for commercial success. Women within the independent filmmaking practice exhibit women in a more individualistic approach concentrating upon the protagonist’s journey which includes emotional and psychological ups and downs.

A thin line can be drawn between European and Hollywood’s cinema. Characters like `Hermione’ from Harry Potter, ‘Katniss’ of Hunger Games, The Bride’ of Kill Bill, ‘Mathilda’ from Leon: The Professional, ‘Amelie’ from Amelie, Mulan and most recently Wonder Woman are of course exceptionally incredible characterizations that took the entire world by surprise. This series of films began to be both commercially and critically acclaimed after the 90’s to the present. Women representation in Elms is slightly different in countries like Iran, and India. They mostly reflect women amidst a difficult social reality. The existence within multiple social boundaries and overcoming it is the central dialogue for the plots. Jafar Panahi’s The Circle and Offside are notable works that reflect female existence within a highly restricted social context. However, Panahi was banned from making films for twenty years in 2010. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten is a film where a woman drives city and issues of being a woman and how the society is constructed are presented in a subtle way through conversations. Then comes Samira Makmalbaf whose films The Apple and Blackboards are highly attributed.

Indian cinema has portrayed women in diverse ways like its diverse culture. Satyajit Ray’s depiction of women in his films is ahead of time from his contemporaries in the 1950’s. Characters like Durga, Charulata and Arati are groundbreaking female leads who are inevitable within the feminine sensible and charismatic nature. Ray portrayed women in their vulnerability, boldness and despair; all striving to break stereotypes. The region of West Bengal still follows the glory of Ray. In contradiction, Indian cinema is highly popularized for its glamorous depiction of women, reflecting gender issues through dialogues and placing women as an object to keep the audience glued to the screen. There are many credible female directors at present in the Indian film industry; also, the representation is gradually changing. Thus, better days are ahead for Bollywood considering the presence of directors like Deepa Mehta and Zoya Akhter.

In African cinema, the factors of male gaze, visual pleasure could not be applied. From the 1960s, there were women who were cast as fighters, working alongside men, unafraid and bold characters involved in politics and war. It appears African directors focused on the unity needed during social instability and crisis as opposed to heroism based on manhood. Sadly, in the film industry women filmmakers still struggling to occupy more space at the table. However, the seats of producers, screenwriters, documentarians are widely occupied by women as is in the rest of the world. Filmmaking in Bangladesh began long after the rest of the world. As a result, feminist films did not appear actively into the picture, the films that did come where women hold strong roles cannot be attributed as feminist films. Here, we exist within an extensive sexual prejudice. In urban areas the scenario is gradually shifting but with minimum security and in the rural areas, the idea of empowerment has only been introduced. Like the independent filmmaking practice in India and Iran, Bangladeshi films also circle around the social reality. In the early days of Bangladeshi films, there were no issues regarding objectification but women surely played a passive role as the bearer of meaning or an inspiration for the protagonist’s actions. Undeniably, film narratives of today still holds the female’s role as such. Zahir Raihan’s Kacher Deyal is considered the first film that leads with a female protagonist’s journey of being accepted in a household. After the liberation war, filmmakers of Bangladesh, for a long time, worked on plots around this event of history. Rape during the war became an event associated with the female characters in war films in which they mostly ended up dead or lived with shame; which is nevertheless, related to how rape survivors are looked upon in our social realm. Guerilla directed by Nasiruddin Yusuf Bacchu diverges from this trend by showing a woman in action during the war. Children of War is another film that involves the story of a woman during 71 although directed by an Indian director. Guerilla is the only film from Bangladesh that follows a woman directly participating in war. The character of Mother is another significant character in the landscape of Bangladeshi cinema. The ones with a nationalistic approach often depict her as a metaphorical symbol for the mother nation entwining the character with fiery, inspiring dialogues. Amjad Hossain’s Bhat De makes an exception involving the story of a daughter surviving through famine. The history of popular cinema in Bangladesh has met its highs and lows. From the 1990s, with the decline of the film industry, women’s presence in film also declined only to be sexually objectified. With Bollywood hegemony, the sense of nationalism and traditional motifs and aesthetics shifted. There had been strong female characters in these films as well but only defined according to the pleasure principles of the male viewer, shameful for women and inappropriate for children. Situations began to change around 2006. Around 2006 women were provided roles as important and multidimensional as men. Female directors began to emerge who took the responsibility of telling women’s stories in the context. Bangladeshi film industry is growing in a slow pace and there happens to be a silver lining in the years to come. Rubaiyat Hossain’s Meherjaan, although technically banned from the country, tells a story of a Bangladeshi woman falling in love with a Pakistani soldier during 1971, controversial in plot but also breaking stereotypes considering a girl’s emotions. India, a country having a similar issue regarding sexual prejudice is releasing films that discuss the traits of women that are considered as taboos. These films despite being criticized are paving a way towards a more broad-minded audience and will make it possible for more unconventional and groundbreaking films in the future. In our country, filmmaking is established as the man’s job. Trusting a female to lead as a director is a questionable concept in the producing sector despite the fact that women actors are paid lesser than their male counterparts in films. Receiving a government grant for fictions is a struggle, the case is slightly different in terms of independent filmmakers. Women need to push and prove their way up until one is settled with the designation. There are documentary filmmakers like Shabnam Ferdousi and Humaira Bilkis and many women involved in the producing sector. In a conversation with Sarah Afreen, the producer of Suchona Productions, she mentioned “there is a lack of women working in the technical sectors of filmmaking like cinematography, editing and sound design. Although, there are young women working as costume designers and assistant directors, most after training in film schools abroad or just due to the intense enthusiasm towards filmmaking. We need properly designed film schools to prepare women to be confident and efficient enough to work in cinema.” However, considering safety in Bangladesh is important especially in an industry which has no limit to working hours. As a result, many students choose a profession with a fixed time and decent salary. The industry as a whole is lagging behind due to several factors regarding economy, distribution and professionalism. The difference of ratio between men and women is not changing soon but, in few years, the country would manage to walk on the same pace with the rest of the world. Proper education of filmmaking would be able to provide a number of students every year efficient enough to contribute in better filmmaking. Female presence may be scarce at present but if we take a look around, there are young female enthusiasts making short films, documentaries, experimenting the different aspects of production. With the world opening more opportunities for women filmmakers we can look forward to a group of leading ladies representing the country in various platforms.

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