In the opening shots of the trailer for the Bollywood movie Stree, a group of men are huddled together in darkness, whispering about a notorious female ghost who captures the souls of her male victims, leaving only their clothes behind. Written on the walls of the house in red paint is the slogan, “O Woman, come tomorrow.” Throughout the film, men living in the haunted village of Chanderi — a local economy largely built on the manufacturing of women’s garments — quietly express their fear of going outside. “Come home soon, I feel scared when I’m alone!” becomes a catchphrase among the men who live in Chanderi’s cramped houses, which they seldom leave.
Stree is a comedy-horror movie whose story satirizes India’s patriarchal society — a nation where 106 rapes are said to occur every day and the government advises women not to leave their homes after 10 p.m. — as well as the rampant misogyny that’s a staple of modern Bollywood.
The debut feature of 35-year-old Amar Kaushik, Stree is loosely based on an urban legend originating in mid-1990s Bengaluru of a mysterious woman who was said to knock on the doors of residents and kill them immediately, only stopping when they marked their doors with red ink. Since its release at the end of August, the film has become one of the most popular in India and inspired its own fandom of young Indian girls imitating the Stree’s hairstyle.
Shraddha Kapoor, who plays the Stree, told the Indian news channel, News 18, that the film aimed to challenge the pervasive cultural thinking that defines modern India. “It gives out a very important message in a non-preachy way and completely takes a spin on the very popular notion of ‘Girls should not go out of the house.’ We in the movie are saying [to men], ‘Be careful not to leave your house, or the woman will take you away.’ It’s very encouraging to see audiences accept the film like that.”
In this way, it has a lot of recent company. “Feminism is very in in Bollywood right now. In fact, there have been a bunch of films about empowering women,” says U.K.-based writer Kavya Kaushik. “The general trend is weighted toward feminism and women’s empowerment.” That said, she adds, “It always tends to be a man explaining how women are liberated.” As an example, she cites Pink, a movie in which three young women stand trial after being framed for a crime — yet, it’s their male lawyer who is ultimately the movie’s protagonist.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (translation — Toilet: A Love Story) follows the same pattern. In it, male characters tell other male characters why they shouldn’t stalk women. Ditto for Pad Man, a movie based on a man who makes low-cost sanitary napkins after he discovers his wife can’t afford to buy them.
Writing in Brown Girl, Priyanka Gulati suggests that this trend of “woke” Bollywood movies reap the social benefit of promoting progressive values despite “doing the bare minimum. It’s a shame, then, to see Pad Man fall prey to the same repeated statistics and unnecessary moral one-liners like, ‘The real sign of being a man is standing by a woman,’ or ‘How can a man call themselves a man if they don’t defend women?’ Despite all it aims to do, the film and its characters still ascribe to the traditionalist mentality that underlines every Bollywood production.”
At the very least, Stree avoids this trap. It doesn’t feature overbearing male characters, or men repeating tired monologues to illustrate their personal transformations from sexist to slightly less sexist. If anything, Indians on Twitter have expressed how Stree’s subtlety makes its challenge of patriarchal norms more impactful:
“Stree isn’t the most feminist film, but it does show that how India talks about feminism is maturing,” says New Delhi-based Pujaa Sharma, 25, an activist at WeSpeakOut, a grassroots NGO advocating for greater women’s rights and protection in India. And so, while Sharma thinks that Bollywood still has a long way to go, the appetite for films like Stree demonstrates that Indians are ready to have conversations about the treatment and status of women. “Even people who don’t read the news or watch it on TV see movies [like Stree], and it makes them think about their own lives,” she says. “We’ve had members join us because of movies they’ve watched. They say that they didn’t think they needed to study feminism until they saw these movies.”
“I also hope, though, this means that studios will give opportunities to female film directors and writers,” Sharma continues. “I hope, too, it means they’ll be brave enough to take on big issues like poverty, [sexual assault] and trafficking — all these things significantly impact Indian women, but have been ignored. Maybe movies then are the things that can [bring] about change.”