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Maithili Rao: It’s naive to judge female characters on whether they are feminist

“I must have watched at least 100 or more Bollywood films when I was writing the book,” says author Maithili Rao. Her third book, The Millennial Woman In Bollywood: A New ‘Brand’? was launched by actor Vidya Balan in Mumbai recently. The duo engaged in an animated discussion on the role of women in cinema. In her book, Rao explores the nature of female characters and the change they have undergone.

She first started writing the book in 2019 and had a draft ready by 2020. “But I lost two chapters and I had to rewrite them as I am not very tech-savvy,” she laughs.

Author Maithili Rao and actor Vidya Balan
Author Maithili Rao and actor Vidya Balan

Talking about the book, she says, “This idea has been with me since 2015 after I wrote my book on (late actor) Smita Patil. I didn’t want to focus on any one actor (male or female) or filmmaker.” Out of all the chapters she wrote, Rao reveals she enjoyed writing about the subversives — Devdas (2002), Dev.D (2005) and Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster (2011). “It was fun to write. The characters were positive and took charge of their lives.”

During her travels to the US, she was exposed to the idea of millennial women. The curiosity behind this phenomenon in India made her want to further explore it in her writing. “Millennial women are independent, don’t get involved in politics and are a part of the I, Me, Mine generation,” she adds.

Understanding and writing about female-centric characters was always her priority. The 80-year-old writer says, “My work made me consciously look at and deconstruct how women have been portrayed in cinema. It is naive to judge every female character based on whether they are feminist enough or at all. It is more interesting to create complex characters that engage with you.”

While the book looks at films from the 2000s, Rao says, “You can’t just write about the last 20 years without looking at the films that came before. I write about the idea of an archetypal Indian mother which has changed over the years. She is now younger, no longer desexualised and sitting and making aloo parathas for her laadla beta,” she explains.

The cover of the book features three female actors from different time periods — late Meena Kumari, Kajol Devgn and Vidya Balan. Ask her about it and she explains, “Meena Kumari is iconic and represents the older period in cinema, while Kajol symbolises the 20th century. For me, in the current period, it had to be Vidya as her films show the evolution (of female roles).”


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