The raw representation of beauty in Indian cinema
Beauty in popular Indian cinema has long served the male gaze. As someone who came of age in the early 2000s, the leading ladies I was exposed to often seemed polite and flawless. It was only when I watched Deepa Mehta The water (2005) in college that I knew I had been betrayed. It was a sort of reverse culture shock: the world and the women created by the author were foreign to me. This is how my cinematographic training began. Since then, I have actively sought out women’s stories that are particularly driven by women, with empathy and realism. Indeed, beauty seen through a designer’s lens is unique, but what exactly makes it?
On closer inspection, it turns out that the magic is in the remarkable details that make up the female characters in films made by female creators. Day Three Unkempt Hair on Bhumi Pednekar in Zoya Akhtar’s Netflix Anthology Lust stories (2018) is in line with the dissociation his character feels. Women in films written and/or directed by other women resemble our mothers, neighbors, sisters, peers and strangers on the street. Just look at Konkana Sen Sharma’s stripped down portrait of a disillusioned housewife on the brink of crisis in Alankrita Shrivastava. Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2020).
For Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (director of modern nuggets like Nil Battey Sannata (2016) and Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), the essence of beauty lies in the character itself. “After carefully observing my actor, I discuss with my cinematographer what kind of lighting will elevate the simplicity. Good camera work doesn’t need a lot of makeup. All it takes is knowledge and skill. ideas for exploring an actor’s potential without making them aware of their looks, whether it’s Swara’s love of her kohl eyes despite the character’s background or plump makeup-free cheeks and glowing eyes from Kriti enhanced by lighting and camera work, each face is defined by the character’s backstory, which the actors emit through the eyes of the storyteller,” she recounts.
Ashwiny also added, “Being raw and confident about your inner beauty that shines through on the outside is what’s most important to me. It’s hard to be simple and have complete clarity and confidence to move beauty. Especially when he suffered huge crucifixions regarding skin color, the shape of your chin, including the little pimple that just happened. Seeing my actors let go of their inhibitions is worth every effort to believe in minimalism and the balance between inner and outer beauty.
Screenwriter Kanika Dhillon, who wrote Size zero (2015), Manmarziyaan (2018) and Judgment of Hai Kya (2019), creates his leading ladies from women who deserve to be role models in his head. “My leading woman 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 on the other hand, my wives don’t buy into that, instead they maybe buy into a standard of wanting to live a full life, to do what they want, to have an agency of choice – and for them it is a good life.
“My women also challenge moral standards passed down through generations of what a highly desirable woman should be. Women expect to be shy, graceful, obedient and not overly opinionated. Strong women are looked down upon in real life, society doesn’t take them too well and judges them very quickly. My ladies take issue with that because they’re the center of the narrative and don’t apologize for their choices. It’s the only way they know how to be,” explains Kanika again.
But do filmmakers really think about aspects of beauty when creating their characters on screen? At Mira Nair monsoon wedding (2001) saw Shefali Shah in gorgeous bare lips and a fresh face, just like we saw women in their mid-thirties. Kanika revealed that she often searches for the power her characters give to beauty. “It takes a lot of experience and life to really understand how to cherish and define beauty. Frankly, we’re suddenly very obsessed with age and filters; everyone looks perfect. The idea that a woman loses her grace and appearance when she reaches a certain age is what I want to challenge.Youth is not the only definition of beauty, neither appearance nor size.
This thought process is evident in his work on Size zero where the character of Anushka Shetty transforms the negative societal perception of plus size into an empowering experience. The film focuses on beautiful things about her life, her experiences, and how she would like to define beauty. Kanika also alluded to downplaying her attractiveness to fit the idea of an appropriate woman in society. “Erin Brockovich was ashamed of being attractive in the way she dressed. People don’t want women not showing off their sexuality because they’re intimidated by it in some way. I would say it’s a crippling concept that if women are ashamed to express themselves through beauty. Society shouldn’t have the power to overwhelm them with judgment. What an exciting time to be a movie buff! With so many women taking on leadership roles behind the camera and at the writing tables, we are finally treated to stories that may have never been heard before. I’m sure my generation of women are ready, our best friends in tow, to rushing to movie theaters made by women – after all, we’ve waited long enough.
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