Indian Films Are Showing the Realities of Life for the Country’s Housewives

The Bollywood stories expose society’s disregard of women’s aspirations and mental health, and how men contribute little in the domestic sphere

Indian Films Are Showing the Realities of Life for the Country’s Housewives
Sridevi in the 2012 film “English Vinglish.” (Hope Productions)

In 2012, when the Indian actor Sridevi, a glamorous star of the 1980s and ’90s, decided to play the role of a housewife in her comeback film “English Vinglish,” it surprised audiences and the industry alike. It wasn’t that they had not seen a housewife in a film before, but the characters were either obedient, devoted wives or ailing but tender mothers — mere supporting characters on the peripheries. That’s why in “English Vinglish” filmmaker Gauri Shinde put the protagonist, Shashi, a belittled housewife, front and center. This film, in which Shashi is mocked by her family for not being fluent in English, resonated with Indian audiences, who, while dealing with the colonial hangover, also truly saw for the first time how belittled housewives feel in Indian society.

In several reviews shared on online portals, people explained how they saw their lives or those of their parents truthfully reflected on the screen. “My wife was born to make ‘laddus,’” Shashi’s husband says to make fun of her small venture of selling homemade sweets. He laughs when she tells him that she could be called an entrepreneur. Her part-time business is not considered a profession, only a hobby, and she is seen as “just” a housewife. Yet by the end of the film, when Shashi delivers a toast in English at her niece’s wedding in New York, she not only shocks her family but shows them that a housewife can be more than they imagined her to be. During her monthlong trip to New York, Shashi has secretly enrolled in an English-speaking course, made new friends and learned to navigate the big city on her own — a big feat, considering how confined her life had been in Pune.

As well as receiving a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, with screenings at festivals across the world, the film was also received positively in India. The Times of India called it “one of the best films of 2012.” Filmfare magazine said it portrayed “the most ordinary aspects of life in an extraordinary manner.” Veteran film critic Anupama Chopra wrote in Hindustan Times, “English Vinglish is that rare thing — a Hindi film that creates a heroine out of a homemaker.”

The film did not easily earn a green light, however. No one wanted to support the venture or believed in the idea, said Shinde in a 2022 interview with The Indian Express marking a decade since its release. “The protagonist was not a young woman, she was a middle-aged woman, wearing a saree, a traditional housewife. Not the kind of things that would spark off investors or box office believers,” she said. So she decided to produce the film herself. Once it was declared a hit, producers started knocking on her door wanting to make similar films. But Shinde had done her bit; her next film, “Dear Zindagi” (“Dear Life”), was a coming-of-age drama about a budding cinematographer.

“English Vinglish” had created a new space in Indian pop culture for middle-class Indian housewives to portray their daily life apart from the stereotypes perpetuated by daily soaps on television, which revolved around family conflicts, kitchen politics and heightened melodrama. The films provided effective tools for viewers to begin conversations about gender roles and unpaid labor in Indian society, a discourse that had previously been limited to academic circles or brief media reports on new data regarding women in the workforce or domestic abuse.

There is also limited scholarship in India on the social and domestic life of middle-class women, and only a few studies have looked into the quality of life of Indian housewives. They suggest that housewives’ quality of life is poorer than that of working married women, who report higher self-esteem and less hopelessness. Apart from those studies, there have only been a handful of books, including “Lies Our Mothers Told Us” (2022) by Indian journalist Nilanjana Bhowmick, and economist Shrayana Bhattacharya’s “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh,” that look into the life and aspirations of middle-class women in post-liberalization India.

The reach of the written word as a popular medium is limited in India, however. Cinema has filled the gap and compelled viewers to understand the patriarchal system that governs Indian households, burdens women with domestic work, and undermines and ignores women’s needs.

Since “English Vinglish,” there have been several critically acclaimed films in Hindi cinema that have brought the lived experiences of housewives from the peripheries into the mainstream. In 2013, “The Lunchbox” told the story of a young middle-class Mumbai housewife who tries to win back her husband’s affections through food. The 2016 film “Ki and Ka” tried to upend gender roles with the story of a career-oriented woman and her house husband. In 2017, popular actor Vidya Balan played a housewife who becomes a DJ for a late-night radio show, in “Tumhari Sulu” (“Your Sulu”). The year 2020 saw “Thappad” (“Slap”), which shocked Indian audiences with the story of a young housewife who decides to get a divorce from her husband after he publicly slaps her. Last year, “Sukhee” and “Mrs. Undercover” were released, and in June “Mrs.,” the Hindi remake of the Malayalam film “The Great Indian Kitchen,” premiered at the New York Indian Film Festival.

In Indian society, domestic labor is neatly divided on gendered lines. Girls are raised to be homemakers and are taught from a young age that once they get married, they must selflessly serve their husband’s family. Women are responsible for household chores such as cleaning, washing, cooking and taking care of their husbands, children and in-laws, regardless of their professional aspirations and careers; while men are considered the sole breadwinners of the family. Hence, work done by men is valued more, and males are put on a pedestal.

Even if women have professional careers, they are expected to manage them alongside their household chores. But the same expectations don’t apply to men. Women often take pride in themselves for managing work on both fronts, not reflecting on how unequal the distribution of domestic labor has been.

Consequently, Indian housewives find themselves deeply undervalued in Indian society, their work unappreciated and their problems misunderstood. Their labor is presented as the “mother’s love” or the “wife’s duty.” They live up to the expectations of their society and their families, which are to serve selflessly while their issues and aspirations are dismissed. In the patriarchal structure of the Indian family, women lack financial independence and have little or no voice in decisions. Family members expect housewives always to be available when they call, but they are called “selfish” if ever they ask for some time out. Moreover, husbands or children are often ashamed to admit that their wives or mothers are housewives, which further dehumanizes them.

This traditional culture is deeply ingrained. In a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, 80% of Indian adults agreed that “when there are few jobs, men should have more rights to a job than women.” Both marriage and child penalties also determine women’s access to jobs — they often have to leave the workforce after marrying or having a child. In India, women’s employment is also determined by household incomes. A woman often enters the workforce when incomes are low and leaves it when her husband’s income rises.

While U.S.-based Indian sociologist Sonalde Desai recently said that the rising female education levels in India were largely being driven by higher returns in the marriage market as families looked for “educated housewives” to raise highly educated children, at the same time, younger women with higher levels of education are increasingly entering the workforce and taking up salaried jobs, gaining greater autonomy in return.

The female labor force participation rate hit its peak in India in 2023 at 33% — an increase of 5% from 2022, according to the World Bank. Studies have also concluded that disparities in gender-based earnings have been reducing over the last two decades. Greater autonomy is also fostering conversations about gender inequality, discrimination and the perils of patriarchy among young women. Feminism, which was still a nascent idea among the Indian masses 15 years ago, is no longer a stranger to them now, even though there is resistance and backlash from the traditional and male-dominated sections of society.

For instance, people are aware of how the proliferation of daily soaps in the early 2000s contributed to the stigmatization of housewives because their storylines, revolving around family politics, marriages and relationships, reproduced stereotypes and enclosed women in the domestic sphere. The shows also put women in a bind by portraying good women as timid and obedient, and assertive women as bad, adding to intrinsic societal sexism.

TV soaps also reinforced the imagery of an ideal “bahu” (daughter-in-law) who obeyed her in-laws, cooked well, was pleasing and likable and stood behind her husband. Women were encouraged to keep their homes pretty and keep their men happy by feeding their stomachs, in portrayals rounded on by media and feminist scholars as insulting to housewives.

However, in the last two decades, popular cinema has emerged as an important mechanism for social discussion. For instance, the 2007 film “Taare Zameen Par” (“Stars on Earth”) critiqued Indian parents’ obsession with their children’s academic performance and spotlighted the learning disorder of dyslexia. In 2010, “Three Idiots” opened Indian families’ eyes to their obsession with careers in engineering and medicine for their children. The 2014 film “Two States” aimed at normalizing marriages between people from different cultural backgrounds in India. In the last decade, a trend toward films headlined by women actors and centering women’s stories has been enlarging Indian cinema beyond the limits of films solely focused on male heroes.

The films about Indian housewives are part of this growing subgenre of socially conscious films. They have effectively brought private affairs into public discourse and opened people’s eyes to aspects of women’s lives that are often ignored: the lack of respect from families and society, their unacknowledged labor in running households, their confinement to domestic spaces and the utter disregard for their mental health. The films expose the daily grind of their lives, and thus women feel less alone in their struggles with the patriarchal system.

Most films begin with the intense morning routines of these women: making breakfast for the family (sometimes different dishes for each one of them); packing lunch boxes; handing out briefcases, wallets and keys to their husbands as they leave for work; and taking care of the elderly. They spend the day tending to household chores such as laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking. Naturally, housewives are the first ones to wake up and last to go to bed, often functioning on only three to four hours of sleep.

The films expose the “toxic” kitchen culture in India, in which men and families expect to be served freshly cooked meals three times a day, and women’s lives are reduced solely to producing the meals. For example, Amrita in “Thappad” isn’t a good cook. Despite this, her husband, Vikram, who is a “foodie,” agreed to marry her, a fact that is prominently highlighted in the film, showing how essential cooking is to expectations of married women. Women who can’t cook good food are made to feel guilty, and even when they do cook well, their meals have lesser value than the food cooked by professional chefs, who are predominantly male. In “English Vinglish,” when a French chef whom Shashi befriends in New York calls cooking an “art,” Shashi remarks, “Why is it that when men cook, it’s art, but when women cook, it is a duty, a task they are just expected to perform?”

The rut of the Indian kitchen forms the crux of “The Great Indian Kitchen,” the Malayalam film called an “eye-opener” by The Times of India. It “ripped through patriarchy, the bedrock of the institutions of family and religion,” noted film critic Somya Rajendran in The News Minute. The story — with unnamed characters to signal its universality — centers around a young woman who gets married into an influential but conservative family. She soon finds her life reduced mostly to making three fresh meals a day for the family. She eats her meals alone after the men have been fed and have left their mess on the table for her to clean. Moreover, her father-in-law, the patriarch of the family, insists that she wash the clothes by hand and grind the herbs and spices by hand, not realizing how much more labor is involved than using washing machines and grinders. The film’s Hindi remake, “Mrs.,” which recently premiered in New York, is set in northern India but follows the same story, because the patriarchal culture is similar throughout all of India.

Most Indian men do not know how to do basic household chores and are also oblivious to the lives of their own children and parents, since raising children and caring for the elderly are considered to be women’s responsibilities. A 2018 report by the International Labor Organization revealed that women in India averaged 297 minutes a day doing domestic work, but men only averaged 31 minutes. This male inability briefly became part of public discourse during the pandemic, when domestic workers were not allowed to enter gated communities, families had to wash their own dishes, and multiple news reports highlighted how women were taking on most of the load while also adjusting to the work-from-home life.

In “Sukhee” a 38-year-old housewife is sick of her routine existence in a small town and leaves to attend her high school reunion in Delhi. Chaos ensues at home. Guru, her husband, who had berated Sukhee for asking for a short break, realizes the amount of work she takes on but blames her for his helplessness. Neither he nor their teenage daughter knows how to cook, so they resort to eating take-out burgers until women in the neighborhood who are also housewives come to their “rescue” and send home-cooked food. Similarly, in “Thappad” Vikram struggles to find ingredients to make a simple cup of tea for himself after Amrita leaves, and throws a huge tantrum until his mother offers to make him one.

These scenes show the everyday reality of Indian households, where male entitlement reigns supreme. Only recently have journalists and feminist writers tried to make sense of it. They call it the “raja beta syndrome.” “Raja beta,” which can be loosely translated “precious child,” is an endearment used by parents; however, cultural writers use it to explain the culture in Indian households where “boys are cosseted, fussed over and spoilt by moms, grand-moms, elder sisters, sisters-in-law,” writes Indian journalist Namita Bhandare in Hindustan Times. Such women “believe without any irony that said Raja Beta has been born to save the world and so must be spared the humdrum business of putting his plate in the sink after eating the meal so lovingly cooked for him,” adds Bhandare, to highlight how women are also partly to blame for maintaining the status quo and pampering their sons.

In Indian homes, boys are preferred over girls and put on a pedestal, pampered to the max and made to believe that any work they do is a great achievement. They have seen their mothers manage the house as a one-woman army, and they expect the same from their wives, regardless of their careers and aspirations. This expectation has now become a bone of contention between quite a number of educated urban husbands and wives due to women’s rising awareness of these unequal social norms. In her newsletter “Womaning in India,” Indian writer and life coach Mahima Vashisht writes about her interactions with several young Indian women, who have explained that their husbands will not share the household chores, but even if they did, it would be in secret and not in front of their parents, who would upbraid the wives for making their husbands work at home.

This male entitlement may also manifest itself in domestic abuse, a topic that is minutely explored in “Thappad,” a critically acclaimed 2020 film. In it, Vikram publicly slaps the protagonist Amrita, his wife, as she tries to break up an argument between him and his boss during a house party. Instead of apologizing, Vikram justifies himself by explaining that he was confronting his boss about being denied a “rightful” promotion. Both their families expect Amrita to forgive him and move on, so when Amrita asks for a divorce, there is a backlash against her; Vikram thinks of himself as a victim, constantly blames Amrita for the chaos in his life, calls her “selfish” and doesn’t apologize.

The film exposes these sorts of husbands and their families, but it also calls out progressive urban members of society who often judge women for choosing to be housewives and blame them for being “weak” and “succumbing to patriarchalism.” Amrita asserts that it was her choice to be a housewife and that choice did not make her submissive.

In 2016, “Ki and Ka” was marketed as an “urban and progressive” film because it flipped gender roles via the story of Kia, an ambitious, career-driven woman, and Kabir, the son of a rich industrialist who wants a life like his housewife mother. But instead of exposing gender hierarchies, the film — directed by R. Balki, the husband of Shinde, who directed “English Vinglish” — downplays the role of gender in this equation and minimizes the work done by housewives.

Early in the film, Kabir celebrates housewives and calls his mother “an artist” who sacrificed her own dreams, aspirations and happiness for others. But he goes on to say that he wants to be a homemaker because there is no “rat race,” there are no “job insecurities,” and there is only happiness in the role, implying that a housewife’s life is easy and comfortable. There are similar contradictions and ironies throughout the film, and in the end, when Kia is miffed because Kabir is celebrated by the media for choosing to be a homemaker despite being a man, her mother reduces the conflict to a contrast between nurturing and providing, thereby diluting the role of gender.

Celebrating housewives is a good idea, but not if the portrayal neglects their needs and mental health issues. Most family members dismiss housewives as stay-at-home women who lead a comfortable life. Most housewives also tend to ignore their own needs and suffer in silence due to the sacrificial nature of their roles. For many, especially middle-aged and older women, divorce and separation are also out of reach due to societal pressure and a lack of financial and familial support.

During the early days of the lockdown in 2020, the National Commission for Women, which receives complaints of domestic violence from across India, recorded a more than twofold rise in gender-based violence. In 2021, the country’s crime records bureau revealed that over 45,000 women had died by suicide, including 23,000 housewives. The data made headlines in news publications, but there were few attempts to understand the lonely struggle of housewives against depression and anxiety, which expose them to a greater risk of suicide.

However, if we look closely, the 2013 film “The Lunchbox” gives us insight into the loneliness experienced by housewives. Filmmaker Ritesh Batra wanted to make a film about “dabbawalas,” a lunch-box delivery service in Mumbai known the world over for its accuracy and timeliness. Instead, he ended up writing the story of Ila, a housewife who packs elaborate lunch boxes for her husband, but due to a rare, “once-in-a-million” mistake by the delivery service, her food starts being delivered to a testy old widower, Fernandes, played by the prolific Indian actor Irrfan. They forge an unlikely friendship through notes left in the lunch box.

Before this happy accident, Ila’s social life is confined to her elderly neighbor Mrs. Deshpande. They talk through the kitchen window, mostly about cooking tips and recipes. Or Ila goes to see her mother, who is dealing with a bedridden husband’s deteriorating health and laments her lack of a son, making Ila feel even more unwanted. Ila’s negligent husband hardly speaks to her, and she finds out about his extramarital affair while sorting his clothes for laundry. She chooses not to confront him.

Ila’s loneliness is also gendered, argue Indian researchers Arundhathi and Sarah Zia in a 2019 essay on the representation of Indian housewives. “Fernandes in ‘The Lunchbox’ is often shown looking at his neighbor’s family enjoying a meal together whereas he has no choice but to eat alone, implying that there is nobody to perform care-work for him (which is seen as the primary function of the family and its women),” they wrote. “For men, loneliness stems from not having a companion to care for them, whereas for women, it seems to stem from the lack of acknowledgement for their labor.”

But what happens when a housewife ventures out of the house? There is, of course, resistance from families, who want equilibrium to be maintained and their domestic space to remain unaffected. Deviating from traditional home duties also triggers guilt in women. This is poignantly shown in “English Vinglish” when Shashi lies to her family and attends an English class; but upon her return, when she finds out that her son has been injured, much to her husband’s displeasure, she reflects on how she has departed from her familial duties and quits the class.

However, when the housewives do venture out in these movies, we see how different life could be for them. Albeit briefly, Shashi makes a world exclusively for herself, outside her family, with a diverse set of friends, and she experiences the freedom that a city like New York provides. Happy-go-lucky Sulochana finds herself an accidental career as a radio DJ. The young housewife in “The Great Indian Kitchen” finds the courage to leave a toxic household and leads an independent life as a dance teacher. It is what she always planned on pursuing but wasn’t allowed by her in-laws. In “Thappad,” Amrita obtains a divorce from her husband and embraces life as a single mother, with the support of her parents.

It is hard to ascertain the extent of the real-life impact of these films, but these characters, apart from the brief escape that cinema provides, have made people engage with the lives of Indian housewives, understand the patriarchal structure and recognize inequalities. Cinema has often made these sorts of difficult conversations palatable for Indian audiences. These films have shown different ways of life to millions of Indian women who had previously been taught only one: the life of a housewife.

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