Freedom Films: Where Have Indian Women’s Revolutionaries Gone?

What was the first patriotic or deshbhakti movie you watched? If you’re a millennial, here’s an example you might relate to. The first patriotic movie I watched was about Doordarshan, in the 1990s: Kranti. This multi-starred film explored the interactions between fictional men who fought their own battles against British rule in 19th century India, played by industry giants like Manoj Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Shatrughan Sinha and Shashi Kapoor. Hema Malini and Parveen Babi were the “main” women in this film, but all I remember are a few scattered scenes and songs, with very little character development, and a controversial nude scene (before which I was kicked out of the room).

Young as I was, I didn’t notice the highly sexualized and stereotypical portrayal of Indian women in this film. But the 1990s also saw actor Varsha Usgaonkar bring the immortal legend of Rani Lakshmibai from Jhansi to the small screen, and the idea that a patriotic/nationalist story led by a woman can work without resorting to stereotypes, was solidified. But when you see the same actor playing a demure supporting role in another multi-star patriotic film, Tiranga– a staple on all DD channels in the 1990s and other channels in the 2000s – you start to question that whole trope in Indian films.

Much has been said and written about the portrayal of Indian women as forgettable secondary characters in Indian films, regardless of their region of origin. When it comes to Hindi films about patriotism – whether historical stories about freedom fighters or war films – the lack of women playing significant roles and contributions to the movement becomes very perceptible.

But how realistic is this depiction, given that we know of many female freedom fighters who have contributed to the struggle for freedom? Not real at all. So if a girl growing up in India was looking for role models, who would she find? Here is an exploration of this oversight in Indian patriotic films and the very welcome change in this narrative in recent times.

The cast of the Kranti film included only two women: Hema Malini and Parveen Babi.

The mother of revolutionaries, but not one herself?
When you think of the Indian freedom struggle, films about the lives of leaders like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose are plentiful. But pick any of these movies, and you’ll find the portrayal of women in the lives of these leaders, and their contributions, sidelined by the mainstream male narrative. Kasturba Gandhi was a constant companion of the father of the nation, but before Gandhi, my father (2007), you’d be hard pressed to find a film that explores his perspective on what freedom really means.

The same goes for films about Bhagat Singh, be it Ajay Devgn’s or Bobby Deol’s (both released in 2002) – or even the 1965 film Shaheed starring Manoj Kumar. The sacrifice made by this incredibly inspiring revolutionary was immense, but so was that of his mother. Despite the casting of extremely talented women for the role of Vidyavati Kaur – Kamini Kaushal, Farida Jalal and Amrita Singh in the three films mentioned – the role itself remained limited to scenes where these mothers supported the leader or lamented his premature and unlawful hanging.

Soha Ali Khan as Durga Bhabhi in Rang De Basanti.

Worse still, the portrayal of Durgawati Devi, better known as Durga Bhabhi, is extremely limited in the same films. Nirupa Roy and Divya Dutta portrayed this fiery freedom fighter, who evaded capture for years and was a comrade in arms of Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and others. But even these actors can only do what the script allows them to do, the scope of which should have been immense considering the legend that was Durga Bhabhi. The only film that explores the sheer brilliance of this unsung hero of the freedom movement is Rank of Basanti (2006), where Soha Ali Khan is rightly presented as an equal partner of Singh’s men in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

What does a woman do in a war?
But while female freedom fighters themselves have been given limited screen time in movies about male freedom fighters, the case gets worse when we come to war movies. No film revolving around Bose’s life focuses on the Rani regiment of Jhansi and the revolutionary, modern young women trained in combat. Isn’t it high time to make a film about the life of Captain Lakshmi Sahgal at least, if not the whole regiment?

Bose isn’t the only revolutionary whose story has been captured in movies, but the trend of ostracizing women from revolutionary groups has. Take films about Surya Sen and the 1930 Chittagong Armory Raid, for example. Same with Deepika Padukone as Kalpana Dutta in Ashutosh Gowariker Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se (2010), the life of this revolutionary has barely received attention. Come to post-independence stories of patriotism and wars for Indian integrity as a nation, and you will find the same.

Deepika Padukone as Kalpana Dutta in Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se by Ashutosh Gowariker.

Border (1997) and LOC: Kargil (2003) were two JP Dutta blockbusters that defined the way war films are made in India, and yet the women of both were always in the background. The real lives of thousands of wives and widows in the Army, Air Force, Navy, BSF and CRPF are so much more inspiring, simply because of the courage of conviction, of the sheer will and sense of patriotism it takes to support the soldiers who fight for the nation. These women, many of whom also contribute to the running of the defense infrastructure with their own individual social work, certainly deserve more screen space.

But what about the women who are actively working in these defense forces, you might add? While it is true that women in these defense forces are not allowed in combat units except in the Indian Air Force, their contribution to wars cannot be denied. With Gunjan Saxena: Kargil’s Daughter (2020), perhaps this trend could change, and we could see the lives of women in the defense forces today portrayed on screen. Or, if filmmakers were to draw inspiration from Lakshya (2004), the role of women in auxiliary support systems such as the media could also be better explored. Honestly, the scope for the realistic portrayal of women in war movies is immense.

Jhanvi Kapoor as Gunjan Saxena.

The change in his cinematic history
Two movies in recent times have marked something of a threshold in this trend: Raazi (2018) and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019). The first was directed by Alia Bhatt and told the true story of a young Indian girl, Sehmat, who turned into a spy for India in 1970-1971 in Pakistan. The latter, directed by Kangana Ranaut, was a retelling of Rani Lakshmibai’s story and included some great action sequences not only by the lead but also by the women of the Durga Dal. Both films also did well at the box office, underscoring the fact that patriotic films directed by women can work when done well.

Alia Bhatt as Sehmat in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi.

This welcome change in trend parallels that on the international front. movies like A call to spy (2019), depicting the life of Indian-born spy, Noor Inayat Khan, is in the works. Action and thriller films directed by women, patriotic or otherwise, are increasingly popular in India and the rest of the world. Whether it’s Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Charlize Theron as The old guard– or even with Hindi films like Pink, Kahaani, Naam Shabana, Sherni, etc. – female characters broke the stereotype of being limited to lead roles in rom-coms only.

It’s clear that now is the time for women’s lives to come to life on the big screen like never before! And, if thrillers starring women in the lead can work, then why not a few about the incredible lives of women who contributed to India’s struggle for independence? Or, for that matter, the women who even now work with the defense forces and have played a huge role in our wars?

What kind of patriotic film directed by women would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below.

Thelma J. Longworth