Indian cinema, in particular Bollywood movies, maybe going places, but the portrayal of women in the majority of films- especially in mainstream movies- has been stereotypical for way too long which has spawned a culture of prejudice and misogyny.
In an age that’s continually battling sexist stereotypes, ceaseless violence against women, and patriarchy, the moviemakers are 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 producer worldwide. And when those movies are influencing millions of minds, young and old, across urban and rural contexts it creates a horrifying result.
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 normalized, and toxic masculinity is rationalized.
A study Analyzing 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. Rather women were clearly the “second sex”.
Women are seen as eye candy and overly sexualized in most movie posters. Adding fuel to the fire is the item song which is now commonly added to gain more popularity.
The lyrics also seem to go from bad to worse. It is 2021, but films continue to make cheap marital rape or rape jokes in a bid to get laughs and make profits.
Cinema, especially popular cinema, always reflects and reinforces a society’s beliefs. Sometimes, some of the slightly better movies try to instill “good morals” and suggest progress, but always within the bounds of patriarchy. To a great extent, typical Bollywood/Indian/South Asian movies hardly ever challenge common beliefs and power structures. In fact, the movies have repeatedly shown stalking and harassment as a form of courtship.
Look at Arjun Reddy (Telugu) or its Hindi version, Kabir Singh, for example. These films don’t just normalize anger, abuse, physical and emotional violence; they try to sell terribly toxic and almost criminally negligent male behavior as cool. They try to sell abuse-and-love as a package. And yet, many people, including women, have loved these films.
The reason why Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh is important is that they are cleverly written, well-made films that have great performances by Vijay Sai Deverakonda and Shahid Kapoor. They are also huge hits.
In that film, the hero is shown as an ill-tempered, violent but brilliant medical student, and later doctor, whose heart is supposedly in the right place. He has a drinking problem, and is later addicted to sex — he even tries to have sex with a woman by putting a knife to her neck. The film jokes about his sexual appetite and desire, trying to portray it as virility, as machismo that must be respected.
In that film, the boy goes around college announcing that a particular girl belongs to him, though she is not even aware of that, forget having a say in the matter. In fact, for about 30-40 minutes of the film, the girl doesn’t utter a single word.
Imagine a lead female character doing exactly what the male character does in Kabir Singh: She repeatedly hits and ill-treats the man she supposedly loves — a man who barely utters a word; she tells him what to wear in public; abuses the man’s father; operates on a critical patient while drunk; has meaningless sex with random men while their wives/fiancées are hovering around. Does this sound like true love?
Or look at Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. All of Bhansali’s lead female characters are a certain type – they are gorgeous, they burn bright on his screen for a bit, strike irresistible poses in lavish lehenga-cholis, but they amount to nothing without their men. They are just items of male desire.
Though such films consider the act of rape as morally repugnant and violent, in most films rape scenes are shot like porn, with the women hardly ever shown as a whole, instead of splitting the female body into breasts, neck, waist, hips… Thus, turning a human being into separate items of male desire stacked together. The hypocrisy and dishonesty in-built in these films are just staggering.
Also, in most films, rape takes place when the girl crosses some sort of Lakshman Rekha. It’s a sort of punishment for acting out of the norm. These films reiterate the message that is drummed into girls in our country while they are growing up: Don’t go out alone, don’t go out late at night, don’t talk back, don’t pick a fight, don’t wear this or that, don’t drink, don’t sit like that, cover this, don’t laugh so much…
In essence, “invisibilize” yourself. Don’t be seen or heard, and you will be fine.
It is difficult to come to a uniform conclusion on the portrayal of women. Considering the fact that women in India are not a homogenous group – they belong to different religions, castes, class, and socio-economic status and have different kinds of ambitions and desires as a result of which they lead different lives, it is improper to conclude that women on Indian silver screen have been portrayed in an identical manner. The portrayal of course has to be sensitive to the category to which they belong. Female characters should possess agency to dismantle the existing power structures as well as be able to negotiate their own position within this structure.
About the writer:
MST Prottasha is currently pursuing her post-graduation from the Department of Women and Gender Studies, University of Dhaka. She completed her graduation from the same department. She has completed a one-year fellowship program from HerStory Foundation and has also volunteered for some organizations. She has nurtured a passion for writing for a long time.