40 best Bollywood films that champion female empowerment

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Cinema is a reflection of the society we live in.  These Bollywood movies reflect on every strong, empowered female character over the years that championed a cause, touched issues of stigma and helped shape a feminist outlook to some extent. Here are the silver screen stories and characters that exude the women-oriented positivity!

MOTHER INDIA (1957)

A mother’s character has always been depicted as sacrificing, loving and all-forgiving – the one who would goes extra mile to do the best for her children. But Radha (Nargis) in Mother India played a challenging, different and strong character who killed her own son when he became an outlaw. She was a perfect example showcasing a woman’s strength, willpower and sense of righteousness. 

GUIDE (1965)

The character of Rosie played by Waheeda Rahman in this 1965 classic showed women in a different light. At a time women were expected to be dutiful and follow their husbands even when unhappy, Rosie left her cheating and unsupportive husband and decided to choose her passion for dancing and someone who valued her as a person. Later, she again followed her heart and drifted apart from her lover when he did not turn out to be what she had expected. Rosie was one of the rare characters in Hindi cinema who stood for what she believed in and made her own choices in life. 

BHUMIKA (1977)

Shyam Benegal’s 1977 film ‘Bhumika’ starring Smita Patil, is based on the issues faced by a female entertainer in 20th century India. The film is reportedly based on accounts from the life of a famous Marathi actress and it went on to win two national awards.

ARTH (1982)

The Mahesh Bhatt directorial ‘Arth’ depicts the story of a woman who is in search for her identity. It is based on the story of a filmmaker who is leaving his wife for another woman.  Shabana plays a housewife who is betrayed by a cheating husband. Fighting with depression and much more, she manages to find the strength and courage to not only move on but also “forgive and let go” of the husband.

MIRCH MASALA (1987)

Smita Patil’s directorial 1987’s ‘Mirch Masala’ was set in the backdrop of colonial India. The film depicts the journey of the female lead character ‘Sonbai’ who flees her village after slapping a subedar who commanded her to sleep with him.

ASTITVA (2000)

The critically acclaimed film ‘Astitva’ is one of the finest directions of filmmaker Mahesh Manjrekar. The film that starred Tabu in the lead role is based on the story of a woman, who after being deprived of love from her husband, who fails to give her the time she desires, seeks love from another man. The film is a strong attempt to liberate a woman from male chauvinism.

DOR (2006)

Nagesh Kukunoor’s 2006 film ‘Dor’ follows the tale of two women whose stories are bound together as a result of a tragedy. The film stars Ayesha Takia, Shreyas Talpade, and Gul Panag. Ayesha and Gul’s characters show a heartwarming friendship, the virtue of forgiveness and mercy.

KAHAANI (2012)

Vidya Balan’s 2012 film ‘Kahaani’ played an important role in changing the course of women-oriented films in new age Indian cinema. The story of the Sujoy Ghosh film revolves around a pregnant woman’s search for her missing husband.

QUEEN (2014)

Kangana plays a simple innocent girl who turns into a liberated woman, decides not to wallow in self pity after her boyfriend ditches her, and travels places on her own. Rani questioned society’s norms by proving that a woman can enjoy all she wants in her own company. The film also touches upon the societal taboos such as the mental trauma a girl and her family go through when a marriage alliance is suddenly called off.  Kangana Ranaut and Lisa Haydon also showed us, on-screen, how strong female friendships can be and how women can lift each other up.

MARY KOM (2014)

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This character needs no introduction. The powerful portrayal of boxer Mary Kom by Priyanka Chopra is one of the strongest female roles in Indian Cinema. How Mary Kom went against her family and chased her dream to become a boxer is very inspirational. In a country where sports is not taken seriously as a career, especially for girls who are supposed to get married and look after their family, Mary Kom sets an example for all of us.

THAPPAD (2020)

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Taapse Pannu’s film Thappad which talks about the topic of domestic violence is a hard-hitting and thought-provoking which was single-handedly carried by Taapsee on her shoulders. Fans salute her courage to take up such a sensitive topic and gives a strong message on how women who face domestic violence should raise their voice.

BANDIT QUEEN (1994)

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Whilst the Shekhar Kapur movie was criticised for the strong profanities and explicit content, it truly chronicles a shocking true story. The film is a biopic based on an Indian dacoit, Phoolan Devi’s life and portrayed by Seema Biswas who was sent to prison in 1983. Phoolan was prosecuted by the Indian police and turned into a legend by the people. It highlights how a woman who fights all the mayhem done to her by the men, from the police to the goons. Ultimately she overpowers them all and emerges as a formidable woman.

LAJJA (2001)

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Rajkumar Santoshi’s 2001 film ‘Lajja’ depicts a stark contrast in the way women in the country are treated as Goddesses and tortured at the same time. The story is based on the lives of four women who attempt to fight for their rights and dignity going against societal norms. Madhuri Dixt portrayed a powerful character as Janaki in Lajja who fights with herself and finally finds the courage to speak against her own beloved, for the sake of her self-respect.

LIPSTICK UNDER MY BURKHA (2017)

Also directed by a woman, ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ was neck-deep in controversy before its release for being “lady-oriented”. The film, however, rose against all odds and hit screens in 2017. ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ starring Konkana Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah among others is based on the lives of four women who are attempting to break away from the norms set by the conservative society.

NH 10 (2015)

Anushka’s first production venture, NH10 portrayed her as the woman who commands her right in her relationship, protects herself and even fights for her own good.

MARDANI (2014)

In Mardaani, Rani plays a typical self-righteous inspector from Bollywood that happens to be a woman. All her traits – from strength to commanding nature are irrespective of her gender. Rani Mukherjee’s portrayal of a fierce cop in Mardaani perfectly showcases the true strength of a woman. The character is based on a real-life cop who solved several child trafficking cases. Shivani Shivaji Roy not only single-handedly beat up some of the baddest criminals but held her own against the evildoers. The perfect mix of strength and respect, Roy is an inspiration.

ENGLISH VINGLISH (2012)

Sridevi’s character, Shashi, plays a housewife in a judgemental family and decides to earn some respect. Not only does she succeed in that, but she also reiterates that she gets to choose what she wants to do.  Shashi navigates a foreign land, makes new friends, learns to speak English, finds a new identity and wins respect for herself without compromising on her duties as a mother, wife, and sister. Gauri Shinde’s heart-touching story English Vinglish shows Shashi breaking many stereotypes without compromising her values.

PINK (2016)

Amitabh Bachchan played a major role in Pink but Taapse and her gang of girls play extremely confident and strong women who are ready to go to any limit in order to get justice. The courtroom drama talks about the importance of consent in a sexual relationship. India is a country where power and money allow criminals to escape from the punishment, no matter how heinous the crime is. In such a place, the movie inspired many to fight against the wrongs done to them. With their impactful dialogues and memorable acting, the three female protagonists Meenal, Falak and Andrea inspired many girls to understand the power of consent in a relationship.

GULAAB GANG (2014)

In Gulaab Gang, Madhuri plays a very vital role of a village woman who fights against domestic violence and dowry system.

PIKU (2015)

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Shoojit Sircar’s Piku captures human relationships as they are. It redefines the duties of sons and daughters as the protagonist takes care of her nagging father by keeping every other engagement in her life on the back seat. The film normalizes talking about sex, it emphasizes that women should take their life decisions independently. Nobody in her family pressurizes Piku to get married. Bhaskor Banerjee, played by the evergreen actor, Amitabh Bachchan never refrains from talking about women’s liberation.

SWADES (2004)

When most of the youth in villages seem to be migrating to urban cities for better jobs and opportunities, the simple character of Gita (played by Gayatri Joshi) from Swades sets an example of an empowered woman who can make her own decisions. This highly educated village girl gave up lucrative offers in the city and chose to stay in the village to teach kids and reform the village. Her unconditional love for the villagers and her selfless acts made her a strong character which many women would aspire to.

CHAK DE (2007)

Though all the girls in Chak De did justice to their character, there was one girl who stood out and gave a fresh and powerful answer to the male-dominated society. We are talking about Preeti Sabrawal (Sagarika Ghatge) who portrayed the character of an independent, self-respecting and dignified hockey player in Chak De India who refused to give up her career for her celebrity boyfriend. She not only stood up for herself but was an inspiration to all the ladies who sacrifice their dreams at one point or another because of their partners’ different priorities.

NO ONE KILLED JESSICA (2011)

Yet another powerful performance by Rani Mukherjee as Meera Gaity in No One Killed Jessica, a feisty journalist who stands for the truth and brings an influential culprit to justice when all odds were against her. She not only single-handedly reopened the case but also got the public involved and finally gave the much-needed closure to the family of the innocent girl who was murdered. Gaity is the perfect example of a modern, empowered woman who can bring a larger change.

MANTHAN (1976)

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The character of Bindu portrayed by Smita Patil in Manthan, gave a glimpse of a strong, independent woman who never feared to stand up for her and her community’s rights. She went against higher authorities to set up a local milk cooperative that could help villagers earn a better livelihood. She was not afraid of raising her voice against wrong and stood up to influential personalities with confidence.

PARCHED (2015)

Parched Starring Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla and Tannishtha Chatterjee in lead roles, Parched is not just a movie but a fight against patriarchy, domestic violence, and marital rape

DAMINI (1993)

Meenakshi Seshadri in and as Damini, not only stood her ground for truth and justice, but also fought against her own family to save the life of a house help. A true story of grit, determination, and courage of a woman against the ignorance and neglect of the society’s wrongdoings.

RAAZI (2018)

Here the daughter chooses to follow in her father’s footsteps by becoming a spy for her country. In Sehmat (Alia Bhatt’s character in Raazi), we found a hardcore, headstrong, patriotic and sharp female spy that we’ve hardly seen in our movies so far. Giving one of her best performances, her restrained and composed act of a true patriot was also a welcome sight in the times of the dramatic, chest-thumping desh bhakti.

UDTA PUNJAB (2016)

Alia Bhatt as a nameless, impoverished young migrant from Bihar, who turns into a drug-addicted sex slave, gave one of the best performances of her career in Udta Punjab. Even after being abused on a daily basis, she doesn’t give up, as she stares out of her small window every day and yearns to be free and happy one day. It was a true survivor’s tale.

TANU WEDS MANU RETURN (2015)

This film Tanu Weds Manu Returns had not just one, but two strong female characters, and both played to perfection by Kangana Ranaut in a double role. The first being Tanu, who finally changes her wild ways and becomes more compassionate for the man she loves, without giving away her identity. And the second, Kusum, a champion athlete who doesn’t let go of her pride when she realises that the man she loves is still in love with his wife. It was double the awesomeness.

MASAAN (2015)

As Devi in Masaan, a small-town girl fighting against taboos around sex, Richa Chadha blew everyone off with her performance. She doesn’t give up till the end and fights against the patriarchal, hypocritical mind-set of the Indian society.

DIL DHADAKNE DO (2015)

It’s not an easy task to stand out strongly in an ensemble cast, but Priyanka Chopra in Dil Dhadakne Do did, in her portrayal of Ayesha Sangha. She had the guts to walk out of a dull marriage because she was not happy. The scene where she faces her parents and her in-laws and asks for a divorce from her husband is both empowering as well as heart-breaking.

MARGARITA WITH A STRAW (2014)

Kalki Koechlin broke one societal norm after the other, with her portrayal of a teenager with cerebral palsy named Laila in Margarita With A Straw, who’s also in love with another woman. Kalki won the Special Jury Award at the prestigious National Film Awards for this role.

EK LADKI KO DEKHA TO AISA LAGA (2019)

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A pivotal aspect is also about accepting one’s identity. Shelly Chopra Dhar’s ELKDTAL is a brave endeavour in showcasing same-sex relationships at a mainstream and commercial level. Sweety (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) comes to terms that her family and society may not accept her for being a lesbian and being in love with Kuhu (Regina Cassandra). The movie is a brave endeavour in breaking the stereotypes regarding conventional love-stories. Furthermore, the fact that Sweety herself stands up to her traditional father (Anil Kapoor) in a confrontation makes this bollywood movie progressive. ELKDTAL is emblematic of how equality can easily translate into empowerment.

YEH JAWANI HE DEEWANI (2013)

Naina’s conviction in her own way of life and lack of desire to change for a man, however much she might love him, is what makes her character exemplary in this bollywood movie. Not only that, the narrative of the film ends with Ranbir Kapoor leaving his job and coming back to her, instead of Naina – the woman – doing so.

TUMHARI SULU (2017)

Sulu takes the idea of your neighbourhood aunty and turns it on its head. She’s fun, she’s woke, and she is boldly ambitious – everything an Indian woman might want to be, but cannot. Vivacious and adept at finding unique solutions to common problems, Sulu is an icon for the middle-class ‘bhartiya nari.’

HASEE TOH PHASEE (2014)

Very few lead female characters in Bollywood are portrayed as geniuses. Parineeti Chopra’s Meeta from Hasee Toh Phasee was one of those rare characters. A total nerd with nothing going for her but her brilliant mind, she manages to make the good-looking hero fall for her just by virtue of her intellect.

SALAAM NAMASTE (2005)

Ambar is one of the first sex-positive, independent female characters to be glamourised and shown as the lead heroine in a mainstream Bollywood film. Played by Preity Zinta in Salaam Namaste, she not only gets into a live-in relationship but has pre-marital sex and decides to have a baby outside marriage on her own.

ZINDAGI NAA MILEGI DOBARA (2011)

A rare strong and independent character in Katrina Kaif’s roster of roles, Laila in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is a free bird who lives on the edge. From scuba diving to motorbiking, she doesn’t ascribe to girly stereotypes, and that’s what’s refreshing about her role in this Bollywood movie.

KHOON BHARI MAANG (1988)

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The story of a woman who rose from the ashes like a phoenix, Khoon Bhari Maang sees Rekha become a vengeful femme fatale. A glamorous take on a classic tale of revenge, the story is unlike anything else Bollywood has ever seen!

MANIKARNIKA (2019)

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Last but not the least, the very first lesson of a brave woman that we studied, was Rani Lakshmibai and Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika was a portrayal of patriotic royalty and fearless bravery, that inspired us to no end.

So, given that female-oriented movies are on the rise, one hopes that this progressive turn in Indian cinema continues. Happy Women’s Day!