The neoliberal feminist gaze:
contesting “female empowerment" narratives in contemporary Bollywood films

by Mallika Khanna

“My Choice” — commodification and the
“empowered Indian woman”

In 2015, an ongoing, heated debate over the limitations of contemporary Indian feminism turned vicious. YouTube saw the release of the infamous “My Choice” video (VOGUE India, 2015), featuring Deepika Padukone—Bollywood darling and, not coincidentally, one of the ten highest paid actresses in the world. The short film presents a series of shots of women as a voiceover by Deepika reels off lines designed to empower and invigorate female viewers:

“My choice. To marry or not to marry, to have sex before marriage, to have sex outside of marriage, to not have sex. My choice.”

Despite its lack of dialogue and plot, “My Choice” captures a narrative arc through visual and auditory spectacle. The two-and-a-half minute film begins with slow shots cutting between a seemingly heterogenous group of 99 women. The music is somber, ominous. The women are restrained in self-presentation at first, one clutching her knees to her chest, another holding a sheet up to hide her body. As the music beat picks up, the women begin twirling, smiling, looking coyly into the camera. A woman licking her lips connotes lust, bindis and rings connote4 tradition. As the music builds to a crescendo, Deepika speaks: “My pleasure may be your pain, my songs, your noise.” The women become angry. Deepika holds her head between her hands, others punch their fists towards the camera. A woman in black dances with fluid, bold movements, in a musical crescendo. Stop. The music returns to its original upbeat pace and once again the women are smiling, gentle, appeased. The last shot features Deepika looking straight into the camera, her hair blowing effortlessly in a manner that only the most elegantly placed wind machine could enable. She proclaims: “I am the universe. Infinite in every direction. This, is my choice.”

Tradition is embodied through a Bindi on her forehead. Deepika holds her head and screams as the music picks up, symbolizing women’s rage.
A woman in black dances, driving the music to its peak. The music slows. Deepika’s smile signals the end of the narrative arc. The women are unchained, empowerment as been achieved.

Even without a plot or characterization, the film manages to display resplendent female triumph. From reserved to raging to vindicated, the women in “My Choice” are portrayed as having agency over their own stories, as the title of the video suggests. These women fight the system and come out unscathed—the women, the title implies, we can all choose to become.

Within hours of the video’s release, comments flooded in on YouTube accusing “My Choice” of being “sexist hypocrisy,” and a “cancer which will destroy Indian society.” Criticism ranged across the spectrum: that it was too elitist, that its production by Vogue India, a magazine known for its promotion of unrealistic beauty standards, represented a hypocritical double standard, that its message was selfish rather than liberating.

“My Choice,” produced by Vogue India as a part of their #VogueEmpower campaign, provides a fraught, contentious example of the exclusion and hypocrisy facilitated by profit-motivated ventures’ hijacking of mainstream Indian feminism. For example, Swetha, a contributor to Feminism in India, a (self-evidently) feminist blog writes:

“In recent times, it is a fad to sell to the empowered independent woman. Having clearly positioned itself as a magazine for women, Vogue also decided to use the feminist movement as a marketing tool. However, this just dilutes a movement that is trying hard to include everybody and focus on real world issues. These campaigns harm the purpose of feminism by saying things we don’t wish to say… The campaigns are structured in a way that focuses on who is speaking instead of what is being said.” (Swetha)

The “empowered independent woman” has become something of a feminist trope in contemporary India. She can afford to buy the feminism that cultural productions like Vogue are selling; she demands to see her aspirations represented and fulfilled in the commodities she buys. This desirable consumer does not wish to see women who are quiet, women who acquiesce, women who fail. She looks for roaring triumphs, overt challenges to the patriarchy and for choices that affirm liberation.

Nowhere is this new woman more visible than in the goals of the contemporary Hindi film industry. An industry that has felt global disdain, criticized for its escapist fantasies, is steadily shedding that older image image by championing films that embrace a certain kind of realism, often tinged with social critique. This new iteration of the industry, “Bollywood,” now tries to  cater to an urban elite consumer, relegating the “masses” to B or C grade status (Ganti). And a whole genre, christened “women-centric” films, has been created to service the desires of the “empowered independent woman,” whose income has become a driving force for the filmmaking industry (Jha).

Analyzing three films from this genre, I will examine the growing prioritization of a narrative trope about the “empowered independent woman” in contemporary Bollywood. Through Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin, 2015) (Henceforth Angry) and Veere di Wedding (Shashanka Ghosh 2018) (henceforth Veere), I investigate the impact of what I term the “neoliberal feminist gaze.” While both films offer faithful renderings of the “empowered independent woman” and her expectations, they inhabit different spaces in Indian media, proving just how widely these expectations have permeated. Angry, the earlier of the two, primarily had an international audience in mind, and as a niche film, it did far better on the international film festival circuit than in India. The more recent Veere signals a shift in mainstream Bollywood, which has now embraced the women-centric genre with full-force, as is evident from its 100-crore (approximately 14.3 million dollars) box office revenue despite having no mainstream male lead.

To establish a contrast with these films, through a third film, Lipstick Under My Burkha (Alankrita Srivastava, 2016) (henceforth Lipstick), I suggest the existence of an alternative: women-centric filmmaking that evades the demands of the neoliberal feminist gaze. I argue that a film like Lipstick, which allows its women to be weak and to fail while still ascribing them value, expands the ambit of the very idea of “woman,” giving a voice to women marginalized not just by the patriarchy, but also by neoliberalism.

Indian feminism: an historical overview

The trope of the “empowered independent woman” comes packaged with a steadily growing form of feminist activism, stemming from India’s neoliberal turn in the 1990s. Hemangini Gupta documents this emergent “entrepreneurial” feminism through reporting on recent social movements like the Blank Noise Campaign[1] [open endnotes in new window], an organized campaign against street sexual harassment in urban areas around India:

“Recent forms of gender organizing in India suggest an imperative for individuals to ‘take responsibility’ for themselves and to ‘be action-heroes,’ as the Blank Noise initiatives encourage, or 'not to play victim' (which suggests passivity) as the organizer of The Friday Convent[2] explained. While both groups cannot be conflated, they express an understanding of neoliberal entrepreneurial self-making that foregrounds citizenship and consumption… Emergent forms of entrepreneurial activism work on the self to cultivate action—heroes that are immediately responsive to women’s own imaginations and desires for the public spaces that they inhabit.” (Gupta 164)

Vogue’s Empower campaign, represented in the “My Choice” video, comes out of this neoliberal entrepreneurial fervor:

“middle class women formulating a neoliberal feminism [who] assume individual responsibility to transform public spaces by emphasizing their personal desires and dreams as the basis for their articulation of feminist freedom.” (Gupta 165)

Contemporary India’s shift to neoliberal feminism is a particularly drastic one within the women’s movement. As Alka Kurian explains, Indian feminism has historically been a socialist endeavor in which the empowerment of the individual has often been sacrificed to fight for the empowerment of marginalized communities:

 “The first wave of the Indian women’s movement is understood to have begun during the nineteenth-century social reform movement with women’s organizations battling against both patriarchy and colonialism. The second wave of women’s political activism in the post-colonial India of 1950s and 1960s took on a radically different form and method of mobilizing and embodied class and anti-caste struggles. These included tribal landless laborers’ movement against feudal oppression, rallies against price rise, black marketeering and corruption, formation of trade unions for women working in the informal sector, and agitation for land by landless peasants. The third wave of the Indian women’s movement that grew in late 1970s was self-consciously feminist at its core. Deliberately sidestepping party affiliation and hierarchies, this 'autonomous' women’s movement led agitations against dowry oppression and custodial rape… However, the anti-rape campaign championed by the IWM [Indian Women’s Movement] was far too sporadic and episodic for it to be transformed into a genuine civil rights issue...

“The 1990s NGO-ization and careerism of the autonomous women’s organizations owing to sudden influx of donor funding, along with people’s inexplicable detachment from political and civic life undermined the essence of a genuine feminist movement in India after it peaked in 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Further, the arrival of governance feminism, i.e. the incorporation of feminist knowledge within state, led to a greater policing and monitoring of citizens, especially of women, viewed by the regressive, neo-liberal state as vulnerable and passive victims (Kapur 2014; Iyer 2015)....” (Kurian 62)

Kurian’s analysis reveals two important things. First, feminism in India has historically been deeply intersectional and community-oriented. The second wave was particularly so, meaning that questions of choice and individual agency went largely ignored. Second, the turn to neoliberalism in the 90s came intertwined with a deep nationalistic paternalism that infantilized women, turning them into wards of the State. The corresponding protectionist rhetoric combined with a new neoliberal entrepreneurialism led to push-back from women. They now demanded new forms of individual autonomy: freedom of movement, desire, aesthetics. The individual body became a locus upon which questions of choice—earlier disavowed in service of the larger community development movement—were inflected.

The shift from a development rhetoric to an individualistic one was inevitably class-based. Middle to upper-middle class urban women who were in the privileged position of being relatively unaffected by poverty, religious discrimination and casteism led this movement towards individual freedom and choice. Consequently, expression of “personal desires and dreams” became the benchmark by which women’s empowerment across India was measured. Now, culturally and economically, by virtue of having significant disposable incomes, these women have become the key demographic at which ads and campaigns like “My Choice” are aimed.

As Kurian calls it, to dismiss such a movement reclaiming female bodily autonomy and desires simply because it is led by the privileged classes “smacks of exclusionary elitism.” Certainly, movements mediated by the privileged have long had their own revolutionary potential, particularly if they take up the causes of minorities. Unfortunately, this has largely not been the case in contemporary mainstream Indian feminism. Expressing opposition to abandoning socialist perspectives, widespread resistance to exclusionary choice feminism is now seen across social media, where minority women express their ideas more directly. Yet mainstream pop culture continues to prioritize the neoliberal feminist, whose desires and choices seemingly take precedence above all else, consequently disavowing the wider Indian women’s movement whose development agenda has lost currency.

“Women-centric” films

In her book, Feminism in India, Maitrayee Chaudhuri writes:

“Liberalization brought in its turn a public discourse redolent with ideas of ‘choice’... A central consequence of this is the primacy of lifestyle and its inevitability for the individual agent… In India, .. the association [between lifestyle and consumerism] is obvious.. The corporate sector, advertising copywriters , management gurus and media barons worked towards the dissemination of a concept of selfhood defined by choice and consumption…” (my italicization) (Chaudhuri 271)

As Chaudhuri highlights, choice, selfhood and consumption have become deeply intertwined in contemporary Indian media. The post-liberalization iteration of feminism has produced a distinct class of consumers for whom individualized choices have taken primacy over all else. This identity has been latched onto by brands across the spectrum—for example, with consumer goods behemoth Titan spearheading a “her life, her choices” campaign (Titan Watches), fashion brand FabAlley releasing an ad that shows comedian Radhika Vaz deliver a scathing critique of the need to conform to fashion trends all the while naked (Radhika Vaz Comedy), and, most recently, global dating app Bumble, launching its app in India with the #equalnotloose campaign featuring “independent, modern women” who take choice into their own hands (Stanley).

This transformation came hand-in-hand with the government’s granting Bollywood industry status in 1998; later in 2000, “filmmaking or the ‘entertainment industry’ was recognized as an ‘approved activity’ under ‘industrial concerns.’” (Ganti 150) The streamlining and industrialization of Bollywood led to a shift away from government’s considering it a social tool to seeing it as a potential vehicle for economic growth. Its industry status officially created new avenues for financing, from banks and corporations to industrial houses and the stock market. Thus a film sector once intertwined with socialist aspirations of national development, encouraged by the State, became an entirely consumer-driven industry motivated largely by profit (Ganti).[3]

With a keen eye on the market, this new iteration of Bollywood has been responsive to social trends in an unprecedented way. When neoliberal entrepreneurialism reinvigorated and commodified Indian feminism, filmmakers were quick to sniff out this new category of spectator: the “empowered independent woman.” As a new genre of “women-centric” films emerged around the turn of the decade, films like The Dirty Picture, Kahaani, Neerja, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Mary Kom, Queen, Raazi all were released post-2010, right around the time social media took off in India in a big way. This new crop of films explore far ranging themes from motherhood to careerism to arranged marriages to sexual desire, abuse, abortion and sacrifice. Yet the diversity of themes does not mean a diversity of protagonists. The main female characters in these films echo the identity of the “empowered independent woman.” From the ditzy Punjabi Rani in Queen to the patriotic Sehmat in Raazi, these protagonists almost ubiquitously make controversial choices and fight to break out of conventional molds of Indian femininity. This aspirational feminist ideal comes hand in hand with what I term the neoliberal feminist gaze.