There are coughing mothers, sick wives, and the legendary dizziness signalling pregnancy, as are efforts made towards critical issues like reproductive rights, menstrual hygiene, and mental health.
Speaking of Hindi cinema's treatment of women's health, the first image that invariably comes to mind is of a sick, frail, coughing, often elderly woman whose sole contribution to the film's narrative is to remain in a perpetual state of ill-health so that her devoted son – the hero – could go unimaginable lengths to procure her prized dawaai.
The ailing mother trope in Hindi films dates back to the 1950s and took shape in the socio-economic context of that time. Since most film projects back then featured either a working class man or an unemployed youth, an ailing mother who has slogged all her life to make ends meet and lost her health in the process, made the most relatable and compelling aspect of the hero's struggle. It mirrored the experiences of multitudes of toiling Indians.
Sometimes blindness, anemia or starvation wreaked havoc on her but most often it was the dreaded tuberculosis, or TB as it was commonly known, that tormented filmi moms. Topping the table was the doyenne of on-screen mothers, Leela Chitnis who spent much of the '50s and the '60s agonizing in bed with a fever cloth on her forehead. In Kala Bazar (1960), her fragile health compels her black-marketeer son to question his path while in Dosti (1964) her accidental death changes her meritorious son's course of life. The actress also played a wealthy woman with deteriorating health in Sadhna (1958), pining to see her son married before dying – a track that would continue to appear in multiple future films like Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Woh Saat Din (1983) albeit with tweaks.
If mothers were battling health woes, the hero's sister would often be seen struggling with a physical disability (Chhoti Bahen, Sachaa Jhutha, Majboor) that left her despairing and prone to misfortunes. Filmi wives, too, didn't fare better. A man taking to crime to pay for his wife’s medical treatment was a recurring plot point in '70s Bollywood. And keeping up with the cinematic image of the long-suffering and sacrificing Bharatiya naari, the wife would do her best to not burden her family.
The sick wife formula in Manmohan Desai's beloved multi-starrer Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) is hands down the most fantastically frenetic one. There's a lot going on in the film's opening sequence where Kishenlal (Pran) returns from jail to find his kids starving and wife Bharti (Nirupa Roy) suffering from tuberculosis. As he goes off to set things in order, Bharti sets out to end her life leaving behind a note requesting Kishenlal to not waste his income on her treatment but rather invest it on their children's future. But Bharti's plan doesn't materialize. Instead she gets hit by a tree branch, loses her eyesight, gets separated from her family, and is misinformed about their demise. And just like the many many logic-defying twists and brain-racking questions – hallmarks of MMD's films – that go unanswered, one never hears of Bharti's TB again.
On cardio-vascular diseases, Bollywood’s go-to conditions have been heart attack and “dil mein suraakh” i.e. hole in the heart (perhaps last featured prominently in Dhanwaan, 1993). Sometimes complex medical terms popped up. In Yaad Rakhegi Duniya (1992), the leading lady suffers from Tetralogy of Fallot. In Dil Ne Jise Apna Kahaa (2004), the heroine is hospitalized after suffering a myocardial infarction, which is the medical name of what else but heart attack. Compared to the filmi dads and uncles, fewer female characters have been shown succumbing to cardiac arrest — though real-life stats may have a different story to tell.
Another medical cliché surrounding women has been the understanding of pregnancy and its tell-tale signs – dizziness and throwing up or chakkar and ulti as Bollywood would have you remember. This, along with a wise doctor reading their pulse and declaring with unmistakable accuracy, “Yeh maa ban'ne waali hain.” The number of times this line gets repeated in our movies can easily be a believe-it-or-not level trivia. But the obsession with “khush khabri” takes a ridiculous turn in this laughably bizarre sequence from Masterji (1985). In the film, as the news of the newly-married heroine puking spreads, her parents and neighbours rush to congratulate her. But upon discovering she only has an upset tummy, everyone walks away in utter disappointment with no one inquiring about her health or offering any assistance or medication including the physician who came to examine her.
Bollywood has since come a long way with contemporary filmmakers' treatment of pregnancy and parenting being far more nuanced. Badhaai Ho (2018) addressed pregnancy of an older couple with great empathy and grace and focused on the physical and mental well-being of its heroine, while others have discussed relevant themes – like surrogacy in Filhaal (2002), a complex medical procedures like IVF in Good Newwz (2020) – and what they held in store for women and their bodies. The male partners in these films are shown to be supportive and involved in the wellness of the expectant mother. It's noteworthy that the majority of these stories unfold in an urban milieu and Badhaai Ho is the only one featuring a middle-class family.
That is not to say health concerns of rural women haven't found representation on screen. Though not strictly Bollywood, Shyam Benegal's Hari-Bhari (2000) is a remarkable attempt that explored women's reproductive rights, and is in fact, one of the few films made with a steadfast focus on women's health. A multi-generational story of five women in a lower middle-class household in rural Uttar Pradesh, Hari-Bhari stresses upon critical issues like malnutrition among women, contraceptives and family planning, long-term effects of both multiple and underage pregnancies, postpartum depression, and women's ignorance about their own bodies.
More recently, important health causes like menstrual hygiene and access to toilets found impetus with highly-discussed projects like Padman (2018) and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) – both headlined by Akshay Kumar. Though the central subjects were the shocking lack of basic necessities like sanitary napkins and a safe, hygienic place for women to relieve themselves – especially those in the rural areas – the makers remained fixated on the hero's saviour persona with hardly any female perspective on the health challenges faced by women and how it affected their quality of life.
Traditionally, the themes, elements, and actions in Hindi cinema's storytelling are devoted to the hero and other male characters in them, akin to the male-oriented society we live in. So naturally, our films' engagement around health, nutrition and fitness, too, has been male-driven. If you recall, plenty of such images from old and new Hindi films will come rushing – ones where the hero is being offered a glass of milk while studying for it'll help sharpen his memory, him returning from a jog or workout, or visuals establishing his skills as a sportsperson or fitness enthusiast. One can argue these are routine innocuous depictions but can you really think of as many significant images with women?
The recent rise and success of women-centric sports films provide a gradual shift in this direction. While Shimit Amin's hockey classic Chak De! India (2007) set the ball rolling, the phenomenal box office run of Dangal (2016) and the growing interest in the sports biopic genre has gravitated the discourse towards women's fitness, nutrition and health. Remarkably, successive films in this category have covered a diverse base. If Dangal follows the journey of the school-going Phogat sisters into world-level wrestling champs, Mary Kom (2014) and Panga (2020) highlight the social and systemic challenges faced by sportswomen in their thirties, their rigorous training to get back in the game post maternity, and their overall commitment towards fitness. Saand Ki Aankh (2019) tells the inspirational real-life story of two sexagenarian sharpshooters grannies who didn't let advancing age, declining health or patriarchy stop them from achieving excellence.
Finally, how would one assess Bollywood's handling of mental health of women? There are a few instances of films dealing with life-threatening diseases (Pernicious anemia in Mili, 1975 and Leukemia in Dard Ka Rishta, 1982) as well as conditions pertaining to mental health like paranoia in Arth (1982) and schizophrenia in Woh Lamhe (2006) in a practical, empathetic manner without turning their heroines into caricatures. Some have also recognized the role of caregivers and the toll it takes on them. An excellent study of this is Waheeda Rehman's 1970 film Khamoshi where she plays a brilliant psychiatry ward nurse who ends up being institutionalized. But on the whole, Hindi cinema is guilty of stigmatizing mental illness irrespective of the gender. The repeated image of an unkempt, hysterical individual muttering "main paagal hoon" has severely damaged the average viewer's understanding of mental health through ignorance and misconceptions.
As progressive conversations surrounding mental health are slowly gaining ground in mainstream media and in pop culture, Bollywood, too, is taking baby steps in this direction. The 2014 offbeat rom-com Hasee Toh Phasee's heroine Meeta's compulsive behaviour and social awkwardness point towards anxiety. Depression became the central theme of Dear Zindagi (2016) while Judgementall Hai Kya (2019) makes a spirited attempt to subvert the pyscho/mental trope with a fascinating female lead. The growing presence of such films and characters, though not entirely on the mark, signal one thing: it's a start.