Beauty in popular Indian Cinema has served the male gaze for a long long time. As someone who came of age in the early noughts, the leading ladies I was exposed to often appeared polished and flawless. It was not until I watched Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) in college that I knew I had been betrayed. It was a kind of reverse culture shock: the world and women, created by the auteur were strange to me. Thus began my film education. Since then, I’ve actively sought women’s stories especially brought to life by women, with empathy and realness. Indeed, beauty seen through the lens of a female creator is unique, but what exactly makes it so?
On a closer look, it is revealed that the magic lies in the remarkable details that make up female characters in films made by women creators. The unkempt, Day Three hair on Bhumi Pednekar in Zoya Akhtar’s Netflix anthology Lust Stories (2018) is in-line with the disassociation her character is shown to be feeling. The women in films written and/ or directed by other women look like our mothers, neighbours, sisters, peers and strangers on the street. Just look at Konkana Sen Sharma’s bare-bones portrayal of a disillusioned housewife on the brink of a breakdown in Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2020).
For Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (director of modern gems like Nil Battey Sannata (2016) and Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), the essence of beauty lies in the character itself. “After keenly observing my actor, I discuss them with my cinematographer, what kind of lighting will elevate the simplicity. Good camera work does not need a lot of make-up. It just needs knowledge and ideas to explore the potential of an actor without making them conscious of how they look. Whether it’s Swara’s love for her kohl eyes despite the character’s background or Kriti’s no make-up plump cheeks and bright eyes enhanced by lighting and camera work–every face is defined by the backstory of the character, which the actors emit through the eyes of the storyteller,” she reflects.
Ashwiny also added, ”To be raw and confident about your inner beauty which reflects externally is what is most important for me. It’s challenging to be simple and have complete clarity and confidence to emote beauty. Especially when it has been subject to immense crucifixion concerning the colour of the skin, the shape of your chin, including the little pimple that just arrived. Seeing my actors let go of their inhibitions is worth every effort of believing in minimalism and the balance of inner beauty and external beauty.”
Screenwriter Kanika Dhillon, who wrote Size Zero (2015), Manmarziyaan (2018) and Judgementall Hai Kya (2019), creates her leading ladies from women who deserve to be role models in her head. “My leading lady is someone who knows her mind, has ambition and wears her flaws proudly. We are a nation that idolizes the notion of a woman who is beautiful inside out. But somehow, my women do not adhere to that. Instead, they adhere to perhaps a norm of wanting to live a full life, doing what they want, having an agency of choice— and that is for them a beautiful life.”
“My women also challenge the moral yardsticks that are handed down from generation after generation of what a very desirable woman should be like. The expectation from women is to be coy, graceful, obedient, and not too opinionated. Strong women are looked down upon in real life, the society does not take to them too kindly and are very quick to judge them. My ladies challenge that because they are at the center of the narrative and are not apologetic about their choices. This is the only way they know how to be,” Kanika further elaborates.
But do filmmakers actually think about beauty aspects while creating their characters on screen? Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) saw Shefali Shah in stunning nude lips and a fresh face, exactly how we were seeing women in their mid-30s. Kanika revealed that she often looks for how much power her characters give to beauty. “It takes a lot of experience and living life to truly understand how to cherish and define beauty. Frankly, we are very age-obsessed and filter-obsessed suddenly; everybody is looking perfect. The idea that a woman loses her grace and looks when she reaches a certain age is what I want to challenge. Youth is not the only definition of beauty, and neither and certain look or size.”
This thought process is apparent in her work on Size Zero where Anushka Shetty’s character flips the negative societal perception of plus size into an empowering experience. The film focuses on beautiful things about her life, experiences, and how she’d like to define beauty. Kanika also hinted towards downplaying one’s attractiveness to fit the idea of a proper woman in society. “Erin Brockovich was shamed for being attractive in the way she dressed. People do not want women to not play up their sexuality because they are intimated by it somehow. I’d say that it is disabling concept that if women are shamed for expressing themselves via beauty. Society should not be given the power to burden them with judgements. What an exciting time to be a movie buff! With so many women taking leadership roles behind the camera and at the writing tables, we are finally treated to stories that may have previously gone unheard. I am sure that my generation of women is ready, our BFFs in tow, to rush to theatres of movies made by women—after all, we’ve waited for long enough.
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