Domestic workers

How the portrayal of domestic workers in Bollywood films is slowly changing

For a long time, Bollywood has portrayed domestic helpers in films as peripheral characters who are not integral to the narrative and will not fail if they disappear from the scene. Another common goal of domestic helpers in films is to provide comic relief, even if this comes at the cost of degrading their own character. Domestic help characters are often stripped of the strength and agency to drive a story – their story – with their situation fetishized and their efforts overlooked as they are seen as helpless and in need of rescue. This helps project a larger than life image of our heroes who are always helping people in distress.

Representation of domestic workers in Bollywood films

Working-class characters in Hindi films are self-aware of their status and only emerge from the shadows when the plot dictates that they have offspring who are daring enough to punch above their weight. When their sons and daughters fall in love with their boss’s daughters and sons, it’s time to release another Hindi movie classic: “Tumhari haisiyat kya hai?“This highlighted the massive class divide between employers and employees.

While the portrayal of modern Indian women in Bollywood has evolved from unhappy “housewives” to wealthy women sipping tequila with personal freedom, women on the fringes were treated superficially and clichéd until recently. However, films like Prashant Nair’s delhi in a day (2011) attempt to raise awareness of the plight of domestic workers in India, this was a rare exception over the past decade.


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The care provider

Hindi films often feature domestic women as maids, nannies, governesses and family servants – who are treated as a “family member” but still not part of the family. A “female” maid in Hindi films does not simply exist; she has a purpose, no matter how long she is onscreen. The sequence in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in which Dai Jaan identifies Rohan, the young heir to the Raichand family, a decade after he was last seen, comes to mind here. Despite the fact that Dai Jaan is at the center of the plot, the film provides very little information about her personal life and her portrayal is limited to her duty as a caregiver.

Not much has changed in movies like nour (2017), which ended a decade after Hindi cinema became fascinated with preaching family values ​​(servants have long been seen as an integral part of joint families in Hindi films). nour still has a snobbish attitude towards the character of a housekeeper, who runs the house on her own. In one scenario, nour (Sonakshi Sinha), a millennial journalist, wakes up drunk and goes on a rant against her Malti team. She complains about her days off, barely waiting for Malti’s response before tagging her with another mundane household chore.

comic relief

In the family-oriented social dramas of the 80s, domestic help characters were tasked with providing comic relief. Representation only became more problematic with the 2003 film Kal Ho Naa Hoin which the character of Kantaben is revealed to be deeply homophobic, all for a few laughs.

In some ways, Hindi cinema’s portrayal of domestic workers has always been a one-way street, never quite emphasizing the need for upper-class households to employ domestic help in the first place. The filmmakers didn’t feel it was their duty to ask “Who is a domestic worker outside of the kitchen?” resulting in an incomplete portrait.

Changing narrative

However, there has been a change recently. At Suresh Triveni jalsashort film by Zoya Akhtar in the OTT anthology Lust stories (2018) and of course Rohena Gerait is Is love enough? Sir (2018) all take a unique approach to the role of the domestic worker. They are resolutely human, take center stage, and challenge the “norms” that have held them back in the past.

Lust Stories’ Zoya Akhtar’s beautiful segment was a powerful condemnation of the upper class and its treatment of the working class. Employees who know their bosses better than their bosses know themselves. Even a minor character (Rasika Dugal, who emerges in the final minutes) is richly detailed. In reality, Lust stories accomplished something hitherto unthinkable in Hindi cinema: portraying a domestic worker as a sexual entity.

Filmmakers writing them as romantic protagonists, rather than subplots, can help convey Hindi cinema’s shifting attitude towards housekeeping staff. At Rohena Gera Is love enough? Sir seeks to fill this void by presenting itself as a love story that transcends class boundaries while confronting the inextricable grip of class prejudice. While Akhtar is correct that domestic workers can have sexual intimacy, Gera’s empathetic lens encourages audiences to perceive Ratna as a human being who is not defined by his vocation, but rather by the same romantic aspirations and sexual than everyone else.

It is hoped that Bollywood’s portrayal of domestic helpers will only improve from here and never slide into banality or comedic homophobia again.

The opinions expressed are those of the author.