Addressing sexism in Bollywood

From Pyaar Ka Punchnama by Luv Ranjan to the legendary Kabir Singh by Sandeep Reddy. Bollywood has never failed to astound us with their sometimes blunt yet sometimes subtle portrayal of sexism, albeit in real life or reel life. As a feminist, it’s difficult to be a seasonal viewer of Indian Cinema without noticing it’s many flaws and it’s deep rooted misogynistic portrayals.

First let me tell you… if you think Bollywood does not play a vital role in shaping and influencing our youth and culture, then you’re wrong.  Movies can affect society in both positive and negative ways. They can help the economy grow, inspire individuals, and expand our basic knowledge of the world around us. Movies can also create violence and bad habits, can make people greedier, and can send a bad message to the public. The effects that films have on society are numerous and as movies are such an impactful art form, big movie studios must be very careful in what they include in their productions, since even the smallest things can affect the viewer. Bollywood plays such an important role in not only shaping our culture as a whole but even in influencing individual personalities of many of it’s fans. People impersonate the actor and/or a particular character that they admire.

So with such a huge responsibility on it’s head, let/s see how Bollywood has successfully failed to tackle the critical issue of sexism and misogyny.

1. Poorly written female characters

Since the beginning of time bollywood has had female characters in movies just for the sake of it. Many of these characters don’t really contribute much to the plot and are simply there as the actor’s love interest. We are told nothing more about them apart from the very obvious details, their relationship with our male lead hero and their chest and waist measurement.

The best example of this is believed to be Rajjo in Salman Khan starrer Dabbang. The whole franchise is so Salman-centric that I reckon pretty soon even Pandey Ji’s arch enemy is going to be Pandey Ji himself.

A still from Dabangg (2010), directed by Abhinav Kashyap.

With little or no screen time, Sonakshi Sinha is hardly seen as an active contributor to the script and appears as and when Salman gets bored and wants to stalk her, gawk at her or make irritating presumptuous comments about her life. She is present in the movie only to complement Salman and make him look like the hero that every damsel in distress needs. Even with everything going on with her father and his death, giving the character so much potential, we only remember her for her ‘oh-so-iconic’ dialogue “Thappad se darr nahi lagta sahab pyaar se lagta hai.”

Better written female characters with more in-depth critical analysis of their personalities and behaviors, with more contribution to the plot instead of being eye- candy and with more talents, attributes and flaws would be highly appreciated.

2. Encouraging stalking/harassment

One of Bollywood’s major narratives has always been about the lover boy proving his love to a girl by constantly stalking her and irritating her to the point where she gives in.

In a sensational case from Australia in 2015, an Indian man, Sandesh Baliga, accused of stalking two women in Tasmania, successfully argued that he believed the patient pursuit of a woman would make her fall in love with him since that’s what he’d seen in Bollywood films. When the antagonist of the movie does something bad, it’s quite clear that the things he does are problematic and should not be copied but at the same time the protagonist does something questionable, it’s often misunderstood as something that is *normal*.

Stills from Badrinath ki Dulhania, Raanjhanaa and Darr. Credit: YouTube

In all such movies like Raanjhana, Tere Naam, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Main Tera Hero, etc the male protagonist is shown to have fallen in love a first sight, with the female and immediately decides to make her life a living hell. They start showing up at her house and following her everywhere she goes. Iconic Bollywood scenes where the ‘hero’ tightly grips the heroine’s wrist while she tries to wriggle away or when the heroine says no, but the ‘hero’ still makes his advances or stalking the heroine have widespread romantic appeal whereas they should be viewed as nothing but physical sexual harassment and gross ignorance of consentt.

But the WORST part of it all is that, he somehow manages to impress her by doing all of that, further implying that it’s the correct way to woo a girl. So the stalking is not the problem, but instilling the belief that stalking and harassing will get you the girl of your dreams is extremely risky especially in a country like ours.

A common debate always withstanding is that movies are simply stories and each story has a certain set of characters, good and bad, and people trying to impersonate them is their choice. That being true, let’s not forget about movies like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha which aimed to educate people about the importance of hygiene and the problem with open defecation. So people are expected to learn from this educational movie and do what Akshay Kumar is doing. But he’s also seen constantly stalking and harassing Bhumi Pednekar throughout the first quarter, so are the people supposed to understand that’s wrong or not?? Who’s going to tell them??

3. The ‘Good girl’ stereotype

The ‘good girl’ stereotype has always existed in society. A girl is considered decent and ‘sanskari‘ only if she is quiet and meek. Apparently with her eyes on the ground and hot red cheeks on the utterance of profanity, she is the only type of girl you can take home to your mother.

Bollywood however has left no table unturned to carry forward this stereotype and exploit it vigorously throughout the years. The lead actress is often a quiet and coy girl, who hasn’t had many life experiences and is extremely innocent. Where there is nothing wrong with being a person like that, a girl being completely opposite of that, who is more outgoing, likes to drink, party and casually hookup is more likely to be portrayed as the ‘bad girl’.

Deepika Padukone for example has played two completely different roles in two movies, namely Veronica in Cocktail and Naina in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. While she is a studious-medical student in the latter, she is a rich socialite in the former. And that is the only thing that sets their roles apart because other than that both of these characters have the same emotional values and attributes. Regardless, Naina has a successful love life and has the hero proposing to her but Veronica doesn’t and she’s left alone, for no particular reason other than the presence of a certain other ‘Meera‘ i.e Diana Penty in the plot who is yet another shy and traditional girl.

Veronica’s character is criticized many a times in the movie, she even has to change her whole personality at one point and clone Diana Penty because how else would she be able to impress Sasu Maa?

4. Objectification in Item Numbers

Shabana Azmi, the activist-actress rightly said “Today’s so-called item numbers are downright crass. Fragmented images of a woman’s heaving bosom, swiveling navel and swinging hips make her an object of male lust.” And I couldn’t agree more. She added “Voyeuristic camera angles and vulgar lyrics further demean her. When women are commodified in films and advertisements, they do not get empowered; they debase themselves and counter the work that the women’s movement has been doing over the decades. It’s time our heroines exercised some discretion in the choices they make.”

Consider the setting of a classic item song in a mainstream Bollywood movie: thousands of drunk men around a slender girl put at the center, men gazing at her with lustful eyes and touching her inappropriately, double meaning vulgar lyrics justifying the objectification of women. While in real life, men on the streets use the exact lines to tease women and when confronted, justify in the name of singing the song.

Song sequences usually portray women dancing for the pleasure of men in general and the hero in particular. Put simply, item songs are a problem because they tell men that it is okay for them to treat women like they want to. It’s okay to stare at her chest or her butt, to call her whatever way you want, to touch her, you are entitled to do this and that, the women have no say in this.

Also the objectification in lyrics like “Mai toh tandoori murgi hu yaar, Gatka le Saiyyan alcohol se” is not only regressive and problematic, but also extremely cringe-worthy. It’s sad to witness women in these songs willingly boiling down their entire existence to a mere sex object for alluring the men around her.

But at the same time I don’t believe in painting all item songs with the same brush. There are many songs that do not have demeaning lyrics, instead they celebrate female sensuality in an appropriate way, which is the need of the hour. The woman is shown in control and the setting is empowering. So instead of being radical and asking of riddance of all item songs from Bollywood, we need better lyrics and better writers and directors need to get more sensitive, and understand women better before portraying them.

4 thoughts on “Addressing sexism in Bollywood

  1. भारतीय फिल्म उद्योग इन सभी दशकों के माध्यम से विकसित हुआ है, दोनों शाब्दिक और रूपक रूप से, एक विचार-उत्तेजक और गंभीर विषय है जिसे विभिन्न लेंसों के माध्यम से बॉलीवुड द्वारा चित्रित किया गया है और यह परिवर्तन सिनेमा में स्पष्ट रूप से दिखाई देता है। फिल्मों को हल्का, संगीतमय, रंगीन, और हास्यपूर्ण बनाने के नाम पर, हम कई आइटम नंबर, डबल एंटरटेनर डायलॉग, और फिल्मों में ऐसे दृश्य पेश करते हैं जो महिलाओं का अपमान करते हैं।
    इन उदाहरणों से सीखते हुए, मुझे लगता है कि वर्तमान युवा-पीढ़ी ने छेड़खानी के गलत विचार का इस्तेमाल किया है। बॉलीवुड को वास्तव में यह सोचने की जरूरत है कि यह अपनी फिल्मों में महिलाओं को कैसे चित्रित करता है। इसके साथ ही, जनता को यह समझना चाहिए कि महिलाओं के प्रति अनादर का कोई भी कृत्य कभी शांत नहीं होता, रील लाइफ में भी नहीं! सराहनीय कार्य लेखक जी|

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  2. Well thought out – I like how you differentiate between the crime (stalking) and how it is different from the belief that it would work. Loving the body of work you’re setting up!

    P.S.: Taking the liberty to point out something – it’s is used instead of ‘it is’, the possessive is ‘its’.

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