Indian cinema may be going places, but its portrayal of women – especially in mainstream movies – has been stereotypical for way too long. Along the way, it has spawned a culture of prejudice and misogyny.
We don’t need to look back too far. Kabir Singh, a 2019 release starring Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani, set the box-office registers ringing. But the story of an entitled man-child, one who wanted to control his girlfriend’s life, and who thought little of threatening to rape a woman at gunpoint showcased all that’s wrong with Bollywood.
Film critic Shubhra Gupta called out the character, writing: “Here's a fellow who thinks that going through life yelling and shouting, snorting-and-drinking on the job, assuaging his raging libido with crass directness, basically being a sexist so-and-so, is an acceptable thing.”
She was right.
As was film critic Anna Vetticad, who wrote in her review: “This is exhausting, but for the zillionth time: it is not the depiction of reality that is objectionable here, it is precisely because violent, destructive misogynists do exist and women for centuries have suffered at their hands that it is deeply troubling when a film portrays such a person as cool, funny, and, as Kapoor puts it, a man with a good heart' who 'loves purely' and 'wears his emotions on his sleeve'.”
In a country that's continually battling sexist stereotypes, ceaseless violence against women, and patriarchy, should movie makers be glorifying and making heroes out of what are essentially bullies? Especially when the varied film industries in India churn out close to 1,000 movies every year, setting a record as the largest movie producer worldwide. And when those movies are influencing millions of minds, young and old, across urban and rural India.
At Actors Adda, a recent round table discussion with eight actors featured on Film Companion’s list of ‘100 Greatest Performers of the Decade’, actor Parvathy spoke out against Arjun Reddy, the film that “inspired” Kabir Singh.
“It is a very fine line reflecting what's there in the society, showing what misogyny is, and glorifying it. It's entirely up to the writer and director how they glorify it. When a man is being misogynistic and is being...you know...abusive, and you show that in a way that incites applause in the audience, then that's glorification. And at the same time, you make the audience think whether he's done the right thing or not, then there you are collaborating with the audience. There, there is cinema, it's a dialogue.”
But for most movie makers, misogyny seems commonplace. It crops up routinely in scripts and shows up in full force on screen - stalkers are glorified, molestation is justified, harassment is normalised, and toxic masculinity is rationalised.
Does Bollywood think all this doesn’t have an effect on India’s social fabric? And what about the far-reaching consequences?
Actor Deepika Padukone has taken a strong stand on the issue. “You can't shy away from the fact that cinema does have an impact on youth, society, on the way we dress, the way we think. What everyone makes of that opportunity is for everyone to decide individually,” she said recently.
Small Things Add Up
Every Bollywood film has women; in fact, most of them are sold on women but the female sex has nothing to rejoice about. For they focus on objectifying women.
This begins with the posters, and goes on to item songs that are used to titillate viewers into watching the film. The women here are mere props who look good even as the men, strong-jawed and full of purpose, go about their self-made roles, be it as a police officer, gangster, lawyer, or an executive.
A study, Analysing Gender Stereotyping in Bollywood Movies, conducted by IBM, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, and Delhi Technological University, revealed that women rarely assume those “strong” characters.
Researchers used an IBM dataset of Wikipedia pages of 4,000 Hindi movies released between 1970 and 2017, extracting titles, cast information, plots, soundtracks, and posters. They also analysed 880 official trailers of movies released between 2008 and 2017.
What were the findings? Women were clearly the "second sex".
Over the nearly 50-year period that was analysed, males were mentioned on average 30 times per plot on Wikipedia as compared to female cast members, who were mentioned only 15 times. Clearly a female actor’s role was not deemed as important as the male actor’s.
Women characters were mostly described with surface-level qualities—attractive, beautiful—whereas men were represented as “strong” and “successful”. “…verbs like ‘kills’ and ‘shoots’ occur with males while verbs like ‘marries’ and ‘loves’ are associated with females,” the researchers said.
A women’s identity was rarely tied to her profession or aspirations; it was seen as a spin-off of the men in her life.
Posters, Item Songs, and More
Women are seen as eye candy and overly sexualised in most posters. It began with India’s first colour film, Kisan Kanya (1937), and the trend continues with movies such as Heroine (2012) and Grand Masti (2013).
Adding fuel to the fire is the item song, which is now commonly added to gain traction before a film’s release. As a rule, the song, usually completely off the plot, features a lead female in revealing clothes dancing to suggestive lyrics amid a pack of men.
Such is there popularity that even little girls can be seen dancing to item numbers such as Chikni Chameli from Agneepath (2012), Fevicol Se from Dabangg 2 (2012), and Sheila Ki Jawaani from Tees Maar Khan (2010).
The lyrics also seem to go from bad to worse. Hua Chokra Jawan from Ishqzaade (2012) goes, “Danke ki chot pe, re seena thok ke, aaja re aaja ja, hua chhokra jawaan re (Loudly and proudly, come, come…the boy is a young man now).”
Housefull 4, a recent release, has a song titled Chumma toh banta hai, which states that “I deserve a kiss” in reference to the “hero” saving the woman.
Even the movie 3 Idiots (2009), which received a rousing response from movie lovers and critics, did its bit though not many realised it. In a scene, Chatur Ramalingam, the geek everyone loves to laugh at, gives a six-minute speech peppered with the word balatkar (which means rape) to continuous laughter from an all-boy audience.
If you think about it, you'll realise that most Bollywood songs that you rocked to so happily as a child were disgustingly sexist. https://t.co/549EWSVx40— Bitter (@War_Scented) December 10, 2019
It is 2019, but films continue to make cheap marital rape jokes in a bid to get laughs and make profits.
In Pati Patni Aur Main, Chintu Tyagi (played by Kartik Aryaan) says, “Biwi se sex maangle toh hum bhikhaari. Biwi ko sex na dein toh hum atyachaari. Aur kisi tarah jugaad lagake usse sex haasil kar lein na, toh balaatkaari bhi hum hi hain (If we ask for sex from our wives, we are beggars. If we do not have sex with them, we torture them. And if we manage to have sex with them at any cost, we are labelled rapists).”
It’s scary that we, as a society, have normalised misogynistic and sexist behaviour.
Dialogues Say More Than Tweets
Bollywood actors may be making all the right noises when they need to, but are they really walking the talk?
After a mass molestation in Bengaluru during New Year’s Eve in 2017, actor Akshay Kumar sent out a video saying he was ashamed at the behaviour of all the men out there. But haven’t his characters often condoned anti-women jokes and misogyny, knowingly or unknowingly?
Following the horrific Hyderabad rape case, Bollywood celebrities tweeted their angst. But isn’t it about time that the people of India had better role models on screen, big or small? It’s a fact that nine out of 10 Indians watch televisions in their homes. Tweets, on the other hand, reach only a select upper- and middle-class population.
What of the many people who see the movies Bollywood churns out routinely, with songs that objectify women and dialogues that do them a great disservice?
One cannot keep dismissing misogyny in the name of entertainment. As film critic Anna MM Vetticad wrote, “It is never just a film.”
We Need Better Heroes
Film stars in India have always enjoyed a massive following. They are the modern royalty, and it’s important that they understand the responsibility they carry on their shoulders. Shrugging things off isn’t going to help anyone.
Case in point being Vijay ‘Arjun Reddy’ Deverakonda response to Parvathy's take on his film. The actor said the world is “f*cked”, and that just a film didn't decide one's behaviour.
“It's your family, parenting, schooling; it's multiple things that lead a person to behave in a certain way,” he said. He went on to say it was “completely possible” for a couple to be in love but give each other “little hits and they completely understand and they're still in love”.
Voices like his are strident across film industries in India, but other divergent voices are slowly piping up.
Director Karan Johar, who runs one of the biggest production houses in the country and is the man behind Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, has said he was now “cautious” about item numbers in his films and the message he was sending out.
“The moment you put a woman in the centre and a thousand men looking at her lustfully, it’s setting the wrong example. As a filmmaker I have made those mistakes and I will never do it again,” he said.
As female roles grow in strength, many actresses are speaking up against the dichotomy in the industry. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Deepika Padukone, Parvathy, Vidya Balan, Bhumi Pednekar, Taapsee Pannu, and Radhika Apte are categorical that their films present the female perspective and that they will not accept roles that depict female characters in an inferior light.
Mainstream stars like Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor, Kartik Aaryan need to wake up to Bollywood’s inherent misogyny and stop justifying the flawed and sexist characters they portray on screen.
Films are much more than entertainment, and it’s time our leading men lead from the front and #ZipIt Up.