From a gungi gudiya to an autocrat
THE last year saw the release of six mainstream Bollywood films and web series, portraying female politicians either as protagonists or in key roles, these include Madam Chief Minister, Thalaivi, Bellbottom, Maharani, Tandav and Family Man. All of them were widely popular for having either a large viewership or critical acclaim or just for the controversies that surrounded their release.
This sudden rise in media showcasing female politicians follows an older trend of Indian cinema’s engagement with the subject, dating back to when it was most uncommon for films to have female protagonists, films centred around the female politicians defied the norms and allowed female actors to take centre stage. These include Aandhi (1975), Satta (2002), Gulaal (2009), Gulab Gang (2014), Revolver Rani (2014) Indu Sarkar (2017). What are some of the popular imaginations of the female politician? What do these portrayals tend to miss? How do these portrayals shape, reaffirm or challenge the perceptions of women political leaders?
Today, one not only sees these political women in cinema but cinematic women in politics, the likes of which include Jayalalithaa, Smriti Irani, Hema Malini, Jaya Bacchan, Moon Moon Sen, Nusrat Jahan, Kiron Kher, Jaya Prada, Urmila Matondkar. Cinema has become a launchpad for film stars to kickstart their political careers. While scholars have investigated how cinema became a tool through which male actors turned politicians (MGR, N.T. Rama Rao) projected images of themselves being generous, moral, brave and virile, to attract voters,1 there is limited enquiry into the impact of cinema in furthering female politicians’ careers. In fact, it has been claimed Jayalalithaa tried to actively erase her onscreen image of the seductive female lead, who wore revealing clothes by emphasizing her Convent school education and Brahmin identity, in order to appeal to voters who were relatively conservative.2
There is also an interesting contrast, that while male actors turned politicians have encashed on the production of a larger than life persona generated on screen, female actors have leveraged their images as middle class housewives, emphasizing domesticity as non-threatening, empathetic and homely characters. Most prominently perhaps, is Smriti Irani, who before joining politics was popularly known as the lead in iconic television series Kyuki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi, which revolved around the story of an ideal daughter-in-law and ran for eight years. Similarly, Jaya Bachchan and Hema Malini joined politics when they began playing doting mothers and wives on screen in films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum and Baghban. Like onscreen personas have helped shape the political lives of these women, their real lives have also inspired the characteristics of the female politician in reel life.
Despite the increasing representation of women political leaders in popular imagination today, it seems these portrayals are wrecked with Bollywood cliches and caricatures, we see repetitive tropes in the narratives and stereotypical qualities in the female characters. In fact, four common archetypes of the female politician seem to be prominent onscreen, ‘the woman who is catapulted into politics’, ‘the gungi gudiya who begins to speak’, ‘the autocrat’ and ‘the mother’. These traits cannot simply be dismissed as idiosyncrasies of characters, created to fascinate the audience, but are intentional choices that convey, as well as shape the imagination of women politicians in popular culture.
To draw parallels with reality, Mukulika Banerjee has argued that the personality traits of female political leaders aren’t simply to be dismissed as individual quirks but serve to capture the imagination of the masses.3 They have especially been effective where parties lack a clear ideology and a grassroots cadre, and instead rely on personality driven politics to mobilize voters. Similarly in the reel life of these women, even the most insipid forms of speech, their smallest of gestures, the most banal form of representations are ways through which these leaders (and creators) craftily engage in self making on the screen, utilizing and fortressing pre-existing ways of knowing the female politician.
In as much as these portrayals tell us about the imagination of female political leaders, there is a lot that they don’t tell. We rarely see women who enter politics without the help of others around them, like those who rise from the grassroots and make their own way through the party. There is also a limited imagination in the type of office these leaders occupy, all of these portrayals (except for panchayat) show women occupying the highest political office at the state or centre. There are no portrayals of female ward members, MLAs, spokespersons, party cadre. Would such representations sustain popular interest? Most importantly, what tends to be missed in these imaginations is the intersectionality of caste, class, religion and region with gender, since gender identity does not simply work in isolation from these other axis’ around which the character is often built.
In Aandhi, Raajneeti, Satta, Tandav and Panchayat there is no engagement with intersectionality, these depictions showcase the impact of gender and sometimes (very fleetingly) class, on their political lives. Madam Chief Minister uses caste as a gimmick to create Tara’s character, only Maharani does justice to exploring inter-sectionality and provides depth in the female politician’s character. Nevertheless, there is still value in critically analysing what we do see in these circulating images of female politicians that dominate popular imagination today.
The disinterested female character, who is catapulted into politics to fill in for the disappearance of the husband, is a hackneyed repetitive trope in Indian cinema. In Raajneeti, the film ends with the widow of the male (lead) politician, Indu, being forced to contest elections after he is assassinated. Similarly, in Satta Anuradha, who has a great ‘indifference’ towards politics is suddenly forced to run for office on behalf of her politician husband, who has been jailed. In Maharani, Rani, the protagonist is seen living a mundane life in rural Bihar, cooking using a chula, washing utensils and milking the cows. After her husband is gravely injured in an assassination attempt and hospitalized, he shocks everyone by naming Rani as the next CM of Bihar.
The sharp transition of Rani from a dutiful housewife to the CM is marked by her being caught unaware, receiving garlands from party workers, while she holds a tray full of teacups, and begins to cry from shock! It is important to ask, why does this theme of ‘being shoved into politics’ continue to dominate the portrayals of female politicians? In real life, so many examples of female political leaders, who have paved their own path into politics exist today, so many have worked at the grassroots as party cadre and risen through the ranks, however, there seems to be no representation of female politicians in this way.
While these women are pushed into political office by the sudden demise/disappearance of their husbands, what follows is an interesting transition from being the ‘gungi gudiya’ (dumb doll) to indomitable leaders. A scene from Maharani best captures this: we see the Speaker of Parliament getting ready for Rani’s swearing in ceremony and speaking to his wife. His wife starts, ‘Wow! The whole party was dumbfounded as Rani stole the chief ministership from under her veil’, her husband responds, ‘Rani is simply a puppet, the govt will be run by Bhima and Mishra, Rani Bharti is a gungi gudiya who will just put a rubber stamp on the files approved by them.’ To which the wife quips, ‘remember who else was considered a dub doll in politics?’(insinuating Indira Gandhi who was called the gungi gudiya of politics in her initial days).
And sure enough, by the end of the episode, Rani delivers a fiery speech in Parliament, justifying her suitability for the position. As another few episodes pass, the Speaker, while watching Rani take independent and strong stands in her role as the CM, wryly smiles to say, ‘Gungi gudiyan bolne lagi hai’ (the dumb doll has started speaking).
Once in political office, we see these women transform in three different ways, depending on the kinds of power they possess and their personalities. First, where these women emerge all powerful and fuse into their parties; they command power even without being in office. This is visible in Thalaivi and Madam Chief Minister, as we see these women politicians transitioning from being proteges to becoming the face of the party. The second type of transition is where these women possess a temporary form of power, as long as they are in political office. In Satta, Tandav and Maharani these female characters emerge powerful and assertive but this is only by the virtue of the seat they occupy. Even then they have to continue to create a space for themselves as they often fight against their own party members to hold onto their positions.
Last, and perhaps most rarely represented form of transition is a third kind, a tentative type, where despite holding a post, the female protagonist is stooped in hesitation to adopt her post and leveraging her position to assert herself. This last kind is a much more nuanced understanding of gender and political office and warrants a deeper engagement.
In Panchayat, Manju Devi is the Pradhan of the village, simply because the seat is reserved for women and she has contested the elections as a proxy for her husband. So while on paper Manju is the elected representative, her husband performs all her duties and acts like the Pradhan in office. In the very last episode, however, Manju is encouraged by the new panchayat secretary to take her role more seriously. Starting with the small yet powerful act of hoisting the flag on the occasion of Republic day, which while rightfully her honour, has been done by her husband, for many years previously. She declares to her husband, that this year, she will hoist the flag. In her minor confrontation with her husband about this, we catch the first glimpse of Manju being strong willed and moving slightly towards embracing her role as the pradhan.
Next, we see her spending many hours memorizing the national anthem, with the help of the secretary. Even till the very last minute on that day, no one is sure if Manju will show up, while her husband readies to hoist the flag. In the meantime, the ceremony catches the attention of a stern female District Magistrate (DM), who at the sight of this, questions how Manju’s husband can occupy her position, by creating an imaginary post of the Pradhan Pati? At this very moment, Manju arrives at the venue with five other women (who are the ‘real’ ward members). What follows is Manju pretending that she always hoists the flag. A nervous Manju unfolds the flag and begins singing and the DM who sees through this charade, still encourages her when she finishes. Suddenly, Manju reassures the DM that from now on, she will try her best to execute her duties despite being semi-literate.
This last scene leaves the viewer confused, with these few moments of sincerity from Manju’s side, but also keeps one wondering if she is just putting on a show for the DM and whether we’ll actually see her occupy the post in the next season. It is this back and forth, the will she, won’t she assert herself more, and fully adopt her role to come out of the shadows a new version of herself? Which leaves the viewer disconcerted, wondering whether Manju’s story is one of celebration or of disappointment? Although Panchayat keeps the viewers guessing, it is this very negotiation, Manju’s (slow) steps that are sometimes firm, sometimes feeble, which feels like a more authentic representation of reality than the overnight transformations of women when they come to occupy political office, from homely characters to indomitable leaders overnight and in some cases even autocrats!
Whether it is Aandhi, Satta, Family Man or Tandav, the female politician in office has been shown as an authoritarian figure. In Family Man, PM Basu, does not step down from her resolve of capturing the President of the Tamil government in exile, despite being warned that this would lead to a lot of unrest in the country. She again ignores the advice of her cabinet ministers when she insists on carrying on with diplomatic talks in a city, where she would be a sitting duck of an assassination plot that has been hatched against her. Throughout the series, we see her giving orders, often making decisions either without taking those around her into counsel or by counteracting their advice. Her character is direct, strict and seems to strike some fear in those around her. She is shown to be more dictatorial than deliberative.
Similarly, in Tandav, the female PM, Anuradha makes decisions almost unilaterally, only trusting her secretary to know what she is thinking. In the first Cabinet meeting she convenes as the newly elected PM, she declares, ‘mein portfolio batana chahati hoon’ (I am here to tell you the portfolios for each position) to which the senior most party leader rhetorically asks, ‘Batana? Ya discuss karna?’ (are you here to tell us the portfolios or discuss), she reasserts emphatically ‘batana!’ (tell).
However, while these portrayals showcase such traits of women occupying office, one is left being apologists for their behaviour, justifying ‘she needs to act this way to survive the male dominated set up of politics’. These representations show that in order for women to thrive in the androgenic space of politics, they must project ‘hypermasculine traits’, they cannot afford to delegate power, or be more consultative, but need to command respect by cultivating intimidating personas of disciplinarians and often even act impervious!
This set-up then merely reaffirms what feminist study scholars have already propounded by studying political leaders in real life, that the conception of an ideal leader privileges ‘hegemonic masculine traits, such as aggression, assertiveness, rationality, and ambition.’4 Whereas, traits labelled as ‘feminine’, such as kindness, nurturing, emotionality, and warmth tend to be of less value. Research shows that women political leaders then carefully negotiate between the two and project an image of themselves which is a mix between of these types of qualities.5 Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the popular imaginations of women politicians in media, that while showcasing the authoritarian leader, simultaneously visualize them as mothers.
‘Par mera dil toh ek maa ka dil hai!’ (But I possess the heart of a mother!) proclaims a teary eyed Basu, as she recounts her act of benevolence (signing off on a relief package for a flood hit state) for the people who had protested against her while she was campaigning there. This is the first time we see her animated with emotion, a break from her relatively composed and stern image. She continues, ‘Zindagi ho ya raajneeti, jab bachon ko yeh lagna lagge, ki maa ki mamta unconditional hai, toh bacche sar par chad jaate hai’ (In life or in politics, when children begin to think that a mother’s love is unconditional, they begin taking you for granted). The use of these metaphors highlight Basu’s own understanding of the role as the PM, as a ‘mother’ to the people, who isn’t afraid of showing some tough love.
Similarly, in some other depictions, the relationship between the female politician and her mothering role is conveyed more tacitly. In Raajneeti, when Indu becomes the CM, she almost simultaneously declares that she is a soon to be a mother, as if the other face of being a woman politician is being a mother. In Indu Sarkar, the female politician is introduced to the audience several times as ‘mummy’ rather than the PM, through the mentions of her son, who is also a politician. In Tandav too, Anuradha’s visualization as a mother is too important to her role as the politician, her whole ploy and sinister schemes to gain power, she justifies are to secure a position for her son.
More conspicuously, in the biopic based on Jayalalithaa, the film ends with the dialogue ‘Agar mujhe maa samjhogey toh mere dil mein jagah milegi, aur agar mujhe aurat samjhogay toh....’ (if you think of me as a mother then I will have space in my heart for you, and if you think of me as a woman...) and Jaya looks threateningly at the party members. While in real life, Jayalalithaa’s adoption of the role of the mother was evidently clear in the way she was addressed popularly, as Amma (mother), the fact that the makers chose to foreground this, again depicts the importance of the self-fashioning of the female politician as a mother, which seems to be recurring and paramount theme in both reel and real life of these women.
These portrayals of female politicians seem to emerge from familiar understandings and are authentic of what the public has seen in everyday life. Then the question arises, why and how do female politicians in real life project themselves as the mother/protector of the electorate? The example of Jayalalithaa has been studied by scholars and is the perfect case in point. Her self-expression as ‘a mother’6 to the people is best explained by the kind of politics her party practiced, that of ‘paternalist’ or ‘protectionist’ populism. Narendra Subramanium has argued that in this type of populism, the leaders project that they protect the community, especially the most disadvantaged by distributing benefits, such as ‘freebees’.7
This is particularly visible in the distribution of free lunches for public school children and ‘Amma’s canteens’ where food is served at a highly subsidized price by Jayalalithaa’s party. Moreover, the distribution of these benefits are accredited to the ‘benevolence’ of the leader and the beneficiaries do not perceive them as entitlements. This ‘encourages supporters to assume an attitude of reverence and gratitude towards the leader’.8 For the female politician then, the carefully constructed image of her as a mother/protector is central for her to carry out the politics of paternal populism. Perhaps then while in real life the female political leaders cultivate a persona of themselves as the ‘mother’, this very commonly accepted and shared understanding of the female politician is used by film makers, and the trope of the mother gives birth to the female politician in reel life.
The power of popular imagination is yet to challenge and radically reimagine the female politician not as ‘being shoved into politics’, ‘the gungi gudiya who begins to speak’, ‘an autocrat’ or ‘a mother’. In this way, these portrayals make use of familiar paradigms about how these women gain and remain in power in order to create their characters on screen. At the same time, they assign agency to these female political leaders by exploring how they position themselves in order to leverage dominant discourses of leadership in gendered ways, by self-fashioning themselves as autocrats and mothers. Once these characters are established, these visualizations provide more nuance to unveil how they utilize the power of their position to challenge misogyny both at the personal and professional front, exploring if this change is permanent, temporary or sometimes just tentative.
1. Sara Dickey, ‘The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India’, The Journal of Asian Studies 52(2), 1993, pp. 340-372.
2. Mukulika Banerjee. ‘Populist Leadership in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu: Mamata and Jayalalithaa Compared’, in Rob Jenkins (ed.), Regional Reflections: Comparing Politics Across Indian States. Oxford University Press, 2004, p 290; pp. 285-308.
4. Proma Ray Chaudhury, ‘The Political Asceticism of Mamata Banerjee: Female Populist Leadership in Contemporary India’, Politics & Gender, 2021, p 2; pp. 1-36.
5. This is explored in Chaudhury, 2021, ibid.
6. Similar kin terms that showcase a relationship of paternalism have been adopted by other female politicians such as Mamata Banerjee, known as ‘Didi’ (elder sister), Mayawati as ‘behenji’ (elder sister) and Mehbooba Mufti is called ‘bhaaji’ (a Kashmiri term for elder sister).
7. Narendra Subramanian. Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization, Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.
8. Ibid., p 75.