While Abhay Deol’s criticism of Bollywood celebrities endorsing fairness products was received with mixed reactions from the film community, one thing is quite true: It is not just about the light skin color that these celebrities endorse. Bollywood mainstream films are also full of sexist overtones, both manifested and subliminal.
Since the very beginning, Bollywood has not only justified sexism but promoted sexual harassment, molestation, objectification of women, slut-shaming and voyeurism. The main culprit is the mainstream cinema that refuses to recognize that continued insistence means harassment, that women’s consent is as essential as the desire of men, and that promiscuous women need not necessarily be bad. Hiding behind the euphemism of romance, mainstream Bollywood has been promoting serious crimes against women like stalking, abduction and even rape.
Romance at knife-point
The idea of romance in Bollywood spins around the continued insistence on attention by men, as women’s consent is deemed immaterial. In fact, exhortation to an extent of harassment is considered to be a part of romance and display of affection on the part of men. The worst thing is that this definition of romance has not changed or matured over the years. Consider this movie scene: A man follows a woman into an elevator, stops it mid-way and starts singing songs for the woman professing his love for her while touching her inappropriately. The woman resists his overtures, but the man doesn’t stop. At last, the woman gives up and coyly smiles and reciprocates his love.
Unfortunately, continued insistence is considered a way of professing love. A defiant “hero” harassing the heroine by following her and singing courtship songs like “Lal Chadhi Maidan Khadi” (Woman Who Wears Red) in Janwar (Animal), “O Lal Dupatte Wali Tera Nam To Bata” (Tell Your Name, Oh Woman With Red Scarf) in Ankhein (Eyes), “Aj Na Chorenge Tujhe” (We Will Not Leave You Today) in Dil (Heart), “Khud Ko Kya Samjhti Hai” (What She Thinks of Herself) in Khiladi (Player), while she is visibly disturbed by his acts is a common sight in popular Hindi cinema. From Pyar Hi Pyar (Only Love), released in 1969, to Ranjhana, released in 2013, the undertone of “romance” remains the same.
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The worst part about these scenes is that the woman is shown to enjoy the ritual and reciprocate her feelings once the man has finished his machismo display. The male protagonist in the movie Dil not only kidnaps the female protagonist and manhandles her, but also threatens to punish her by sexual assault. He leaves her after reminding her that he can ruin her life by raping her, but will not do so because of the goodness of his character. The heroine falls in love with him soon after and professes her love by kissing him in public.
Haseena Man Jayegi (Beautiful Girl Will Acquiesce), a vulgar comedy about two brothers who leave no stone unturned to stalk, harass and intimidate two girls to accept them as their lovers, can very well qualify for the criminal genre instead of a comedy. In Sholay, the male protagonist touches the girl inappropriately on the pretext of teaching her shooting. In Jodi No. 1 (Pair No.1), the male actor kisses a girl at knifepoint in order to escape from the conductor, stalks her and harasses her, and, going by Bollywood logic, the girl later falls in love with him soon after.
Bollywood wants women to conform to the societal norms and cultural behavior. Slight derogation from the standards set by the society and the girl will either be playing a scheming villain, slut-shamed or rejected by the boy, until, of course, she changes herself according to his desires and conforms to the standards set by our society.
The male protagonist in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens) completely disregards the feelings of the tomboyish girl, makes fun of her looks and insults her for what she was until she adopts the traditional avatar by growing out her hair, wearing makeup and jewellery and, of course, switching her jeans for a traditional sari. The individual liberty of a woman to wear whatever she is comfortable in and to be accepted by men for whatever she is a concept alien to Bollywood. In films like Karan Arjun and Main Hoon Na (I Am There), female leads face rejection because they don’t wear make-up or feminine clothes. Their fortune changes the second they conform to the set norm.
In Ye Jawani hai Deewani (This Youth is Insane), the male protagonist is seen consistently flirting with a girl and when the female protagonist confronts him, he justifies it as “being good for health” and slut-shames the girl by saying, “I can’t flirt with girls like you, so I flirt with these kinds of girls.”
Hindi cinema cannot accept a woman emerging as a winner all by herself. It has been enforcing male chauvinism and sexism for decades. Shakti (Power) is one film that could have qualified as breaking gender stereotypes had it not introduced the annoying Shah Rukh Khan as the savior of a bereaved woman trying to save the life of her son. The film reinforced the idea that however a woman struggles, she ultimately needs a savior in the form of a macho man, appropriately called the hero, to save her from the viciousness of society.
In the recently released film Naam Shabana (The Name Shabana), the female protagonist, though strong and independent, would not have saved herself had Akshay Kumar not intervened on time. The hit movie Bahubali (The Beginning) — although not a Bollywood movie, but widely acclaimed all across India — showed a young woman introduced as a brave and ambitious fighter, comfortably delegating her duty to save a captive queen to the hero because, apparently, he is more qualified to do so. The sequel of the film portrays a brave queen seasoned in the art of archery and sword-fighting surrendering as a captive just to wait for her son to rescue her in 25 years’ time.
Insensitivity towards rape
The regressive portrayal of rape has still not changed in Hindi cinema for years. Kaabil (Competent) is the best example to show how insensitively Bollywood handles rape in 2017. The female protagonist, a rape victim, is shown to say to her husband that she is no longer suitable for him and if he wants she can leave so that he can lead a normal life. She is so disturbed by her husband’s mental condition following her assault that she prefers to commit suicide just to liberate him from his suffering.
Unfortunately, Bollywood still recognizes men relatives of a rape survivor as the victim and not the woman who has been raped. Moreover, rape is so consistently attached to the concept of honor that the woman who has been raped is often depicted saying, meri izzat lut gai (my honor is violated). The injury to her body is sidelined as something completely irrelevant.
In some Bollywood movies, both attempted rape and rape is passed off as something normal or comic. In Shootout at Wadala, a male character named Munir says, Main kuch bhi karne ke liya tayar hoon. Rape bhi, agar item achhi hai toh (I’m willing to do anything — even rape — if the girl is good enough). In the movie R. Rajkumar, a scene intended to be funny shows a corrupt policeman raping a woman in custody. In 3 Idiots, the male lead, in order to make fun of another student, changes the word chamatkar (miracle) to the word balatkar (rape). During the speech, all students are seen laughing when the student said balatkar instead of chamatkar because of its dubious meaning.
There is no dearth of meaningful women-centric movies in Bollywood. The classical period of the Indian cinema saw films revolving around female characters like Bandini and Sujata. These films depict the struggles faced by women in the male-dominated society. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India is a feather in the cap of Indian cinema and will always be remembered for its heart-touching portrayal of a woman playing different roles in life — a wife, a mother and a daughter-in-law.
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The film paints the portrait of a rural Indian woman abandoned by her husband and forced to make crucial sacrifices in her life in order to save her family. Actresses like Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi shall always be remembered for the courage they gave other women through their powerful roles. In the recent times, movies like NH10, Pink and Queen serve as examples of sensible cinema portraying women in strong characters and depicting the harsh reality of the society.
Unfortunately, the number of such films showing women in powerful roles is very low. In fact, a majority of Bollywood films are not only men-centric but also show these men as highly muscular and macho. Women’s voices are almost stifled in such films. The demand here is not for only women-centric cinema from Bollywood because I respect the freedom of speech and expression of filmmakers. However, the least Bollywood can do is to stop justifying and promoting sexism in the guise of romance, sending out subliminal messages containing sexist overtones and misogynist slurs that stalking, harassment and molestation are part of India’s culture and are actually enjoyed by women, to stop objectifying women and to stop passing off rape as something comic or casual.