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Women's Day Popular culture is slowly moving away from its infallible female characters and is portraying them with their flaws and quirks

turning tidesAditi Rao Hydari in ‘London, Paris New York '
turning tidesAditi Rao Hydari in ‘London, Paris New York '

Remember when Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was considered the ultimate campus love story, where Shah Rukh Khan as Rahul goes around flirting with every girl in a mini skirt on campus only to fall in love with the woman who visits the temple every week? The 80s and 90s popular culture was filled with only two kinds of female characters - the virtuous and unblemished Tulsi or Parvati and the demoniac vamp who is never up to any good and lusts over the perfect and loyal man. Of late, female lead protagonists have come out of their one-dimensional shell and are portrayed in shades of grey. Whether it's the character of Lalitha in the recently released film London Paris New York or Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, these female characters have a dark past and define moral issues on their own terms.

“I love Liz Lemon's character from 30 Rock ,” says 27-year-old Shalini Soni. “She is 40 something, unmarried, workaholic and extremely opinionated but all these quirks add to her character. She is such a refreshing change from the usual stereotypes you see on television.” Shalini says American television series like 30 Rock , New Girl , Ally McBeal and Sex and the City have found relevance among the Indian audience for their quirky and relatable female characters.

Advaita Kala, author of the chick lit novel Almost Single , says that while television is dominated by female viewers' choices, cinema has been a male bastion. Kala, who also wrote the script for Anjaana Anjaani and upcoming film Kahaani starring Vidya Balan, says, “As a writer I have consciously steered away from popular stereotypes. Earlier female characters were driven by one idea of beauty but now it's possible to show women in a vulnerable light like suffering from heartbreak and having a dark past. In Kahaani it is the story of a pregnant woman in search of a husband. Crafting such a character on screen has definitely been a challenge.”

The author of Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas , Madhuri Banerjee feels that social media networks have opened many forums for discussion of taboo subjects. That has helped writers delve into the complexities of female characters.

“In my book, I have explored the beauty of female sexuality and many male readers have thanked me for giving a female perspective,” she says. She adds that, with the evolution of society, the characters in books are getting aspirational and edgy, even though television still prefers to hold on to the traditional roots for its family audience. “I want more female writers to explore the female erotica without making it sleazy,” she says.

While female characters are getting complex, the objectification of the female body is still persistent in popular culture. “The change is superficial, where the cinema and television serial is sold under the guise of modernity,” points out K. Suneetha Rani, Professor of Women's Studies, University of Hyderabad.

“The television serial Mann ki Awaaz Pratigya was on an educated woman who is out to make changes in the society but as the serial progressed all her good qualities were attributed to being a good housewife.” She says that even though item numbers are sold in the name of sexual liberation, it is nothing but commodification of the body, male and female both.

Advaita Kala feels we'll have to wait a long time before the definition of on-screen beauty will change.

“My character in Almost Single is overweight and has some bad habits as a part of her lifestyle. I don't think the character will be adapted on screen.”

Ironically, popular culture is experiencing a strange role reversal where the female leads are more character-based and human and the male leads are desperately trying to revive a superhuman macho image of six-pack abs and a mouthful of honour and pride. No wonder Madhavan is unhappy about scrutiny from various quarters of his ever-expanding girth.


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