By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI, Sept 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An elderly woman seeks a Mills & Boon romance with her swimming coach in Hindi film, 'Lipstick Under My Burqa', that battled the Indian censors ahead of its release in theatres last month and is now going strong on streaming service Amazon Prime.
In another Bollywood film this year, 'Anaarkali of Aarah', inspired by a real-life incident, a nautch girl who sings innuendo-laden songs at functions in a small town called Aarah takes on a powerful official who molests her in public.
A fresh crop of Hindi films - or Bollywood as the industry is popularly known - are telling stories of ordinary women seeking sexual and financial freedom, or tackling tags of being "available" because they are in the company of men or are out until late.
"Bollywood is a male-dominated industry but there is a sudden influx of women-oriented films that are also doing well," Avinash Das, writer-director of 'Anaarkali of Aarah' told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Triggering the change in Bollywood's narrative was the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, that led to massive protests across the country and put a spotlight on women's safety in India.
"After the Delhi gang rape case, people are taking note of these films. Such films were made in the past too, but after the protests following the 2012 case, people are alert, and no longer casual about these stories."
Bollywood films, often characterised by their song and dance sequences and male-dominated story lines are influential in India and beyond, and objectification of women and their use in titillating songs is often blamed for stoking sexual crime in the country.
India has only 10 cinema screens per million people as against 124 in the United States and 90 in China for the nearly 1,000 films Bollywood churns out every year, but it has the largest number of people going to the cinema.
The films that tell women's stories, though still perceived as commercially unviable, have done well at the box office.
Alankrita Shrivastava, director of 'Lipstick Under My Burqa' said viewers were drawn to her film as "an honest story about them" and that the film remains the most watched since Amazon Prime's launch in India last December.
The makers of Anaarkali too could prove naysayers wrong when the film did commercially well and even a movie exploring lack of sanitation as a women's rights violation - Toilet: A Love Story - has been a major hit this year.
"When issues matter to people ... they are bound to come into popular entertainment media," said veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, whose award-winning films explored India's caste divide and told stories of ordinary women.
"Films like 'Toilet: A Love Story' ring a bell with a large section of the audience who identity with the problem and that explains why they are doing well."
In April, popular actor Abhay Deol took on fellow actors for endorsing skin whitening creams and slammed the popular Indian belief of "fairer is better" as racist.
This off-screen voice of leading actors is creating awareness on subjects that were never discussed, be it fairness creams or even sex trafficking, campaigners said.
"Celebrities have a huge following and the message goes out to people that campaigners would never be able to reach out to," said Samarth Pathak, spokesman at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Pathak interviewed Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham on World Day Against Trafficking in July where he described trafficking as a "serious threat to humanity".
"This was our first interview with a filmstar and it created quite a buzz. A lot of young people are reaching out on (to understand) trafficking, which is unprecedented," Pathak said.
A couple of days before the interview, Bollywood's most sought-after actor Akshay Kumar, who plays the male lead in 'Toilet...' and is now working in a film on menstrual hygiene, spoke about the need to protect children from abuse at an international sex trafficking conference in Mumbai.
These star voices matter as Bollywood's handling of prostitution had been restricted to portraying women as "call girls" without delving into the problems of sex trafficking and modern day slavery, said Sanjay Macwan, regional director of anti-trafficking charity International Justice Mission.
"When Bollywood celebrities speak against sex trafficking, exploitation and bonded labour, it brings the issue before every Indian."
Last year's release 'Dangal', which shows an ageing father train his two daughters to become wrestlers, defying social norms in conservative Haryana state in northern India, is among Bollywood's biggest ever hits, beating fluffy romances and epic revenge dramas in box office collections.
While arthouse films in the 1980s and a crop of independent filmmakers have tackled social issues, gender and small town India in their films, the backing of such projects by major studios seems a recent phenomenon - but in some ways is simply following an old Bollywood tradition.
"Hindi cinema has been dealing with social issues since the 1920s, even in the silent era," Meenakshi Shedde, South Asia consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals and festival curator told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A 1937 film - Duniya Na Mane (The World Does Not Agree) - that showed a young schoolteacher from a poor family refusing to consummate her marriage with an old man.
Some of India's most successful filmmakers from the 1930s to 60s such as V Shantaram and Bimal Roy had social themes at the centre of their stories.
"Bollywood is often perceived as monolithic, masala films with stars, six songs and a happy ending. But it is many different things," Shedde said. It is wonderful that social issues are becoming fashionable in Bollywood again." (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)
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