To fully celebrate Women’s History Month, we are shining a light on these powerful Bollywood movies showcasing women empowerment on and some even off-screen. These stories and characters hold up a mirror to our society and make us think. Get ready for an epic movie binge.
1. “Lipstick Under my Burkha”
Starring: Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sen Sharma, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
The film is moving because it’s rooted in the reality that many women in the Indian society brave through. The director weaves a tale of four women whose lives intersect at crucial moments in their journey. Pathak Shah plays Usha, an older, lonely woman struggling to be accepted by a younger man she has a crush on. Sharma plays a saleswoman who is successful at her job but has hidden it from her abusive husband. Kumra plays a beautician who longs to travel the world with her true love with whom she is having a secret affair. Borthakur is a college freshman who, while struggling to make ends meet, is also trying to have the perfect college experience. Initially banned from release by the CBFC despite winning several awards at film festivals across the world, the movie received rave reviews.
2. “Angry Indian Goddesses”
Starring: Sandhya Mridul, Sarah Jane Dias, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Anushka Manchanda
Director: Pan Nalin
A Bollywood movie that’s dedicated to a bachelorette party, one that is full of intelligent, fun women who embroil themselves in a mystery? It’s a rare sighting but it totally works. Freida (Dias) invites all her friends to her family home in Goa, India, and tells them she is getting married but doesn’t reveal to whom. Their girl-bonding consists of impromptu conversations between the actresses about topics ranging from sex, their desires, harassment of women. We also learn that Freida is actually marrying one of the women, Nargis (Chatterjee), which is illegal in India. The story takes a dark turn when one of the women ends up dead and they have to seek help from the police. It’s a gritty movie that somehow still eludes entertainment and harsh realities.
Starring: Rani Mukherjee, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Jisshu Sengupta, Priyanka Sharma
Director: Pradeep Sarkar
We’ve often seen stories of a strong-minded cop single-handedly chasing down the bad guy. Usually, that cop is almost always a bulky actor like Salman Khan or John Abraham. In this case, we have a powerful heroine at our disposal in the form of Mukherjee’s Shivani Roy, a police officer in Mumbai who is chasing down a drug kingpin and child trafficker, Karan Rastogi. She’s personally involved after he kidnaps a young girl she was mentoring. Shivani uses her strength and wits to catch him, including laying traps for him and hunting down his partners, before finally facing him off in hand-to-hand combat. I guess no one can use ‘you fight like a girl’ as an insult after watching Mukherjee kill it in the action scenes here.
Starring: Vidya Balan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Parambrata Chatterjee, Indraneil Sengupta
Director: Sujoy Ghosh
This movie will keep you at the edge of your seat the entire time. It’s a crime drama that perfectly wrapped in a story about women empowerment and brings out some of the finest work from Balan. She plays Vidya Bagchi, a pregnant software engineer who comes to Kolkata from London in hopes of finding her husband who’s been missing for two years after he moved there for work. She gets help from a local cop, Rana (Chatterjee). They find it hard to trace her husband’s tracks because there are barely any records of him. The two go through obstacles like a spooky assassin named Bob, two IB agents who are also trying to locate her husband. The entire cat and mouse chase culminates in a truly magnificent and thrilling way, only showing off the prowess of Vidya, the actress and the character.
5. “English Vinglish”
Starring: Sridevi, Priya Anand, Adil Hussain, Mehdi Nebbou
Director: Gauri Shinde
The late Sridevi made her epic comeback in Bollywood after 15 long years with this heartening dramedy. In it, she represents the power of a modern-day housewife through her character Shashi. She is a homemaker who cooks and sells laddoos for a living and is often berated by her husband and young daughter for not knowing how to speak English. Shashi visits her sister in New York City to help with the wedding preparations for her niece. As a way to pass time, she secretly enrolls herself in a 4-week class to learn conversational English. She befriends her classmates, all from different countries. As she grows more independent and learns the language, the rest of her family arrive in the city, causing her to fall back to old patterns. The movie makes you root for Shashi to power through and it totally delivers.
6. “Mother India”
Starring: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kumar
Director: Mehboob Khan
India’s first submission and nomination for an Academy Award in 1958 , “Mother India” is a stunner of a movie. It broke barriers for the film industry in its time. Nargis’s Radha is viewed by many as an iconic female leader of pop culture. She’s considered as the mother of her village and while inaugurating an irrigation canal, she recounts her younger days. This includes her tumultuous marriage to Shamu due to a loan they are struggling to repay. Unable to contribute, he leaves her to fend for their family. After her mother-in-law and two children die, she still convinces villagers to not evacuate after a crushing storm and floods but to rebuild instead. Radha’s life is the epitome of struggle but she overpowers all the hurdles she faces. No wonder the movie continues to receive accolades even now.
Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Lisa Haydon, Rajkumar Rao, Mish Boyko
Director: Vikas Bahl
One of Ranaut’s most impactful performances, she’s effortless in her role of Rani in this movie, aptly titled “Queen.” After her fiancé Vijay (Rao) abandons her a day before their wedding, she goes to their planned honeymoon in Europe to mend her broken heart. In Paris, she meets Vijayalakshmi (Haydon), who helps her out and the two embark on several adventures. Rani continues her journey to Amsterdam and lives in a hostel room with three men. Initially, she is hesitant, but quickly befriends them. All her travels make her confident and self-assured, qualities she earlier lacked, mainly because her husband-to-be was very controlling. “Queen” is a very reflective storyline that is offered to us as a great comedy.
Starring: Madhuri Dixit-Nene, Manisha Koirala, Rekha, Mahima Choudhary
Director: Rajkumar Santoshi
If you’ve ever wanted to see a group of fierce and talented actresses create magic on-screen, this is the movie for you. It definitely gets dark and sometimes out of control but the message “Lajja” sends is powerful. The four women at the center of the film are going through troubling times. Koirala’s Vaidehi is pregnant and on the run from her abusive husband, Choudhary’s Maithili is escaping getting married into a rich but criminal family, Nene’s Janki is an actress in a small town whose theater director is lusting after her and creates a rift between Janki, who is pregnant, and her lover, Rekha plays Ramdulari, an independent midwife in the village who is constantly battling male ego. In their own ways, these ladies come together and support each other in tough situations. #girlpower, Y’all.
Starring: Tabu, Namrata Shirodkar, Sachin Khedekar, Smita Jaykar
Director: Mahesh Manjrekar
A story for the ages, this one tackles male chauvinism; something so relatable and common in the Indian society. “Astitva” is a special movie because of its simplicity. Tabu stars as Aditi and Khedekar plays her husband Shrikant. While they’re hosting a party for guests, including their son Aniket’s girlfriend Revati, Shri finds out that Aditi slept with another man many years ago and Aniket isn’t his biological child. He calls her sinful and makes her explain the truth in front of their friends. Aditi reveals that after marrying her, Shri spent all his time traveling for work and forbade her from working. She pursued music and one night, out of loneliness, slept with her teacher. Shri’s friend points out that often, he committed these so-called sins himself. He refutes by saying it doesn’t matter because a) he’s a man and b) he never brought his affairs home. All of it leads to an ultimate speech by Aditi pointing out the flaws in our view of men and women.
10. “Dear Zindagi”
Starring: Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Ali Zafar
Director: Gauri Shinde
“Dear Zindagi” deals with the very taboo topic of mental health. Desi parents and the community in general don’t regard it as a real issue. It’s unfortunate but luckily, times are changing and this movie is a step in the right direction. Bhatt’s Kaira is undergoing severe stress because of a recent breakup, her rocky relationship with her parents, and her mediocre career as a cinematographer. She returns home to Goa and seeks help from a psychologist, Dr. Jehangir (Khan). His unconventional and friendly therapy sessions help her open up about her abandonment issues. For almost all viewers, especially young women, it’s easy to find a part of ourselves in Kaira and the problems she faces. It’s inspiring to see a Bollywood movie not only feature them but also use therapy as a progressive way to overcome them.
Starring: Ayesha Takia, Gul Panag, Shreyas Talpade, Prateeksha Lonkar
Director: Nagesh Kukunoor
This movie is a tale of two very different women whose paths clash in unfortunate ways. Takia’s Meera is a Rajasthani Hindu who is happily married to Shankar and lives in a haveli but is bound by all traditional customs. Panag’s Zeenat is a free-spirited, independent Muslim woman who is happily married to Amir. The two don’t know each other but their husbands are roommates in Saudi Arabia, where they work. However, Amir accidentally kills Shankar one day and under strict Saudi laws, is sentenced to death. The only way for him to be free is if the family of the deceased forgives him. Zeenat decides to travel to Rajasthan and ask for their help. The two women strike a friendship that helps them both discover new facets of life. Meera, especially, learns how to open up to life and finally be free. It’s an unlikely buddy drama that works well.
12. “Mary Kom”
Starring: Priyanka Chopra, Sunil Thapa, Darshan Kumar, Rajni Basumatry
Director: Omung Kumar
Based on real-life ace boxer Mangte ‘Mary’ Kom, this movie gives us a glimpse into her National championship-winning career. Chopra plays her with a grit and passion we haven’t seen from her before, making the movie what it is: an ode to Magnificent Mary, as she is known. We learn how once she got into boxing, she received training from a local champion Narjit Singh. She became an expert but her father did not approve, asking her to choose between him and the sport. It was only after she won and he saw just how good she was that he reconciled with her. She married footballer Orien Kom and voluntarily quit boxing to raise her kids, later jumping back into the boxing game. Mary Kom is a real inspiration, as is Chopra.
Starring: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Jim Sarbh, Yogendra Tiku
Director: Ram Madhvani
Dedicated to Neerja Bhanot, this movie chronicles her life as she got out of an unhappy, forced marriage and pursued her career goals by becoming a flight attendant with the now-defunct Pan Am Airlines. On September 5, 1986, the plane she was working on from Mumbai to Frankfurt was hijacked while halted at the Karachi airport. Neerja warned the pilots in time and they could escape. The hijackers then went on to control the plane for almost an entire day while negotiating with Pakistani officers. Neerja and her fellow airhostesses strived to protect the passangers. It’s a harrowing movie to watch because you know they went through this trauma in real life. However, its also shining a light on the story of Neerja and other brave women whom we don’t hear about. In the end, Neerja died while protecting young kids from the hijackers shooting and was posthumously awarded India’s highest military decoration award, the Ashok Chakra.
14. “Page 3”
Starring: Konkona Sen Sharma, Sandhya Mridul, Boman Irani, Tara Sharma
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
This movie takes on the superficial world of gossip journalism through the eyes of Madhavi, who moves to Mumbai and begins working for the page 3 column, writing celebrity news. Initially finding it glamorous, she grows disillusioned with the entire system. She moves on to the crime beat but after covering a bomb blast, it affects her emotionally. While investigating the story further, she discovers that the police officer in charge was attending a big film shoot, which delayed the entire response to the blast. Her two worlds merge in unexpected ways as Madhavi realizes the corruption and lack of trust in the business. The movie, which brings out Sharma’s finest work, is eye-opening and revelatory.
15. “Bandit Queen”
Starring: Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Aditya Srivastava, Manoj Bajapayee
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Nothing about this movie is easy. It is based on the life of Phoolan Devi aka the real bandit queen, however, Devi vehemently opposed its release until she was paid to end her protests. Biswas plays her in the movie. She’s led a rough life, to say the least. She was married at a very young age and unfortunately, sexually abused at the hands of her husband. She returns home to face similar attacks from the higher Thakur clan because she belongs to a lower class. There are several instances in the movie when she is attacked and even raped. The trauma is severe but she pushes through it and joins a gang, seeking revenge on those who have harmed her. Phoolan emerges as a victorious leader and tales of her glory are spread. That’s what leads the police to her doorstep and she is arrested. It’s an intense story but one that shows her incredible strength and power.