Two Women, One Conversation: Applying the Bechdel Test to Bollywood

by | May 19, 2024 | Gender, Women Matters | 0 comments

In 1985, a comic strip named “Dykes to Watch Out For” sparked a conversation that would ripple through the world of storytelling. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, through her characters, introduced the Bechdel Test – a playful yet potent tool to gauge the portrayal of women in fiction, especially films.

Imagine a world where women converse with each other about things beyond the realm of men. That’s the essence of the Bechdel Test. It boils down to three simple criteria:

  1. The story must have at least two women characters.
  2. These women characters must have a conversation with each other.
  3. The conversation they have must be about something other than a man. 

This seemingly simple test serves a powerful purpose. By highlighting the presence (or absence) of these interactions, the Bechdel Test exposes gender disparities and biases in media. It asks us to question: are women portrayed as well-rounded individuals with their own thoughts and interests, or are they relegated to one-dimensional roles that revolve around men?

Applying the Bechdel Test to Bollywood

A study by Ormax Media, Film Companion and Prime Video India employed the Bechdel Test on Bollywood, to get an idea about women’s representation in Bollywood. The results are sobering. Over half (55%) of the movies and web series evaluated failed the Bechdel Test. The study found that women are often portrayed solely in relation to men, either as love interests or objects of desire. 

Dishearteningly, even movies that were marketed as “women-centric” like Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Highway, Revolver Rani, and Bobby Jasoos fell short. This reveals that while these films may have female protagonists or focus on women’s stories, they may still prioritize romantic relationships or male-centric narratives in their storytelling.

All is not hopeless: some acclaimed movies like Neerja, Queen and Secret Superstar pass the test with flying colors. However, these instances are few and far between.

Where mainstream cinema falls short, OTT improves. Interestingly, web series and films produced by OTT (Over-the-top) platforms like Hotstar, Netflix, and Prime Video fared much better. Eight out of the top 18 properties promoting strong female representation were web series. This suggests a growing emphasis on nuanced female characters within the OTT space.

 Diving Deeper: Why does this happen?

The Bechdel Test, though a simple tool, reveals a stark reality – women in Hindi cinema are often confined to narratives centered around men. But what about the portrayal of men themselves? Kapoor, Bhuptani, and Agneswaran (2015) took the analysis a step further by creating a “reverse Bechdel Test” to examine how men are depicted and the results paint a more balanced picture than the female counterpart. Male-to-male conversations in cinema discussed a wider range of topics, suggesting a more nuanced portrayal of men. 

Hence, the study exposes why movies fail the Bechdel test- because there are simply more male characters than female characters in most movies. In top-grossing films, the lack of a second female character often meant there weren’t even opportunities for women to have non-stereotypical conversations. The failure of the Bechdel test is directly attributed to the lack of diverse female characters. 

This suggests a need not just for more female characters, but for stories that explore the full spectrum of the human experience, regardless of gender. Perhaps the ultimate takeaway is that true gender equality in cinema requires not just passing a test, but a fundamental shift in storytelling that allows both women and men to be fully realized characters. The takeaway? We need to write better stories. 

The author, Riti Aggarwal, is currently pursuing a B.A. in Sociology at Ashoka University and is a writer and avid reader. She is passionate about sociopolitical reform and gender equity.

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