In difficult times, we often look towards popular culture to give us those icons and heroes who can inspire us to be better. And there can be nothing greater than a notable heroine, one who (often) overcomes adversity and years of subjugation under a patriarchal order. The fact that some of the greatest film practitioners of all time are women actors, writers and filmmakers is a constant reminder that we are fearless and enduring in any walk of life. Here are some of the best films that you can stream right now with female protagonists to feel inspired, to feel represented, and carry forward the legacy of great filmmaking.
1. Atlantics (2019)
French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop made one of the finest debuts in recent times with her genre-bending drama which combines folklore and black feminism from a part of the world which is rarely heard in a film. A forbidden love turns into tragedy but returns to haunt the city folk as strange sightings and symptoms begin to occur for its women. They unite to take revenge in this Grand Prix winner.
2. Aruvi (2017)
For a cinema that often portrays women as damsels in distress, Aruvi came as a breath of fresh air in the year that it released. A small-town girl with big dreams, Aruvi is wronged by many in the city. But she is strong enough to know that she doesn’t need a shoulder to cry on. Instead, she holds a TV station at gunpoint, seeking justice for the violence and discrimination against her. The characters, including her transwoman partner, are all real - some friendly and some not so. But the story is ultimately about self-love and acceptance.
3.Bandit Queen (1995)
Based on the life of notorious Indian dacoit Phoolan Devi, Bandit Queen is one of the seminal biopics to be made in Hindi cinema. While it is certainly not an inspiring watch, Seema Biswas breathes life into the character who faces many upheavals in her journey - from the exploitation she faces by men (relatives, partners, goons and the police). The sheer determination and grit it takes for Phoolan to emerge amidst the ashes of those she has destroyed is a story worth visiting.
4.Chandni Bar (2001)
There is a reality to the sad history of human trafficking and exploitation, and Chandni Bar weaves a dark web for Mumtaz, a young girl who is sexually assaulted as a child and then forced into the world of dance bars and prostitution. It is only her inadvertent involvement in the mafia and criminal underbelly of the city that motivates her to find an alternative life for her children. Through Tabu’s unforgettable performance, we get a look at the helpless lives of numerous such women.
It is rare to learn lessons on friendship and loyalty in a romantic comedy but this reimagining of Jane Austen’s novel Emma delved deeper into the bonds that hold the film’s meddling protagonist together. Clueless is, of course, a rather quotable (and emulatable) teen movie with all its funny moments and preppy clothing. But it is also about a pure-at-heart heroine who devotes her life to inadvertently growing to be a better person the way she knows how - going out of her way to help others and being a selfless friend and companion.
6.The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The Devil Wears Prada is one of those rare movies that transcend the deliciousness of its original source material due to its superlative casting. Breaking through the artifice of the fashion world, the movie dares to show women (who are often stereotyped to be dim or superficial) as leaders in the workplace. While Miranda Priestly’s behaviour is by no means warranted towards assistants Emily or Andy, she cares about her job and gets it done perfectly. And in the end, it is also about the realisation that one can progress towards a wholesome life with a career that they love.
Nagesh Kukunoor’s story of two women who find their lives intertwined by tragedy and redemption is as much about the triumph of the human spirit as it is about feminism. Gul Panag and Ayesha Takia form an unlikely friendship which not only helps them break the shackles of social tradition but also to find a sense of freedom within themselves.
8.English Vinglish (2012)
Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish paved the way for a wave of films in Hindi (and regional cinema) which featured women protagonists over a certain age who were either restarting their lives to find their passion or just gaining a new perspective on self-love. Shashi Godbole has a business and is a doting daughter-in-law, wife and mother. But not being able to converse in English constantly plays with her confidence. A short and sweet journey of self-discovery through an eclectic and whimsical language class follows.
9.Hidden Figures (2016)
The biggest middle finger to history that Hidden Figures can possibly give is the fact that if it weren’t for its three protagonists - real NASA figures Katherine Coleman, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - America’s space programme wouldn’t even exist as we know it today. As black residents of Virginia and black employees of the prestigious organisation, they have many battles to win, racial segregation and the discriminatory practices at their workplace. But it is a strong contender because it presents a piece of counter-history which we can all feel inspired by.
For all those who thought those good thrillers need men, well… this one had one lady and a very solid script that weaved a tale of discovery, revenge and deception with the beauty of its setting. Vidya Balan plays a pregnant woman who comes to Calcutta in search of her missing husband. What she ends up doing is discovering a coup that goes till the top, all the while keeping arm’s length at being involved herself.
11.Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
You’d argue that this film isn’t centred around women, but what better testament to how resonant a film’s strong female lead proves to be than her character is central to the plot far more than the titular character itself. Imperator Furiosa may be the driver to Max but she is actually a symbol to free and dignified women whose livelihood will determine the future of their generations.
12.Mirch Masala (1987)
A fiery tale which is a progressive commentary in a pre-MeToo movement era, Mirch Masala has rural two women who are at opposite sides of the social and economic spectrum. Yet they come together to fight the evils of patriarchy. In a delicious twist, the film’s female protagonists are prepared to defend themselves from a predator, simply by uniting to take them down.
Even though Frozen would make it to the list for giving us exceptional female heroines who are funny, brave and loyal, Disney’s Moana is the first of its kind - a Disney film which has absolutely no love interest and doesn’t need one to drive the story either. Our girl sets out on an adventurous journey to save her people, along with many cute and funny sidekicks, and all in her teenage years. Moana is a happy story which is suitable for everyone.
14.Mother India (1957)
You might have heard a lot about Mehboob Khan’s classic Mother India if you haven’t watched it yet, and even with all that’s already been written and said, it still won’t be enough. Mother India came at a time when male actors would often lead grand epics and went on to break casting and box office stereotypes. What starts out as a happy married life soon turns to woe as Radha’s husband flees their poverty-stricken life due to his own guilt. Radha’s life with her two sons is a constant struggle to make ends meet while protecting her virtue. It is a story of choosing honour and duty even in the worst of times.
Before Disney remakes its own classic with a real and more gritty look at the classic tale, watch the sweet animated musical first. Of course, it has its share of issues (strangely American voices for traditional Chinese characters, for instance) but it is still a successful departure from the usual narrative style of the company’s films. Based on the legend of Hua Mulan, a young woman who became a warrior taking her father’s place to fight in the army, the film is more about the strength of determination and character. In the end, it doesn’t matter what she looks like or whether she possesses brute-strength because her courage and wit wins the day and saves China.
A courtroom drama which boasts of an impressive ensemble cast, Pink still deals with a theme which plagues women (and men) by shedding a spotlight on three of them. What is consent and why a woman’s choice to say no does not warrant questioning? It also looks at the way society often puts independent and strong women through the filter of their characters, stereotyping them as per its own opinion. The film also questions equality and how men rarely get to experience the same level of scrutiny.
While the aesthetic and style of Cuaron’s film may seem otherwise, Roma is actually an evocative ode to all the women who helped shape this filmmaker’s childhood and subsequent vision as an adult. Based on his memories of growing up, the film centres on two women who come from completely different backgrounds but have one thing in common - both have been abandoned by their men. Not only is it a unique look at the life of a domestic worker, but it teaches us how important it is for us to reach out to those with the same suffering and leverage our collective voices.
In a small village in Rajasthan is the continuing practise of hiring women as ‘professional mourners’ - they cry at funerals for a living, even as their lower social and economic background gives them no avenue to share their real internal grief. Kalpana Lajmi embraces the story which speaks of tears (often associated with emotional femininity) as they are used to exploit women. Dimple Kapadia’s portrayal of the titular character led her to win some of the most prestigious awards of the year.
19.Sindhu Bhairavi (1985)
While the main character is Balaganapathy, a renowned Carnatic singer, Sindhu Bhairavi was aptly named after its two female leads because they drive the story home. Caught in a moralistic dilemma when he falls in love with a fan even though he is already married, perhaps Bala has little to do with Sindhu’s coming-of-age. She is a feisty, bold and independent woman who isn’t scared to show off her talent as much as she fearlessly falls in love.
In Netflix’s Soni, women are in a constant state of fear. Probably the most realistic look at what Indian women often feel, the film is about two female cops in a man’s world. They cannot afford to ruffle any feathers with their seniors, even as they fight the scrutiny and fear of their families and the regressive outlook of their peers. Soni is a terribly understated film which deals with a lot of issues subtly - gender politics, police violence, sexual harassment and class discrimination - but proves to be realistic in the way it shows that the struggle never actually ends.