Since details of a horrific New Delhi gang rape galvanized India in December 2012, women’s safety has been a central topic of national conversation.
As a result, a lot of people have taken to examining cultural factors that contribute to the region-wide misogyny and to the ubiquity of gender-related violence.
As India’s largest driver of mainstream popular culture, Bollywood has received a lot of this scrutiny.
Bollywood, churning out films at a rate of a thousand per year, is far and away the largest film industry in the world. More pertinently, at a viewership around 50 million, the industry reaches more Indians than any other cultural phenomenon.
This 14-minute video called “No Country for Women” explores common Bollywood tropes, and ties them to incidents of rape and gang rape in India. [WARNING: The video is at times graphic and disturbing.]
A Forbes article published earlier this month points to those same tropes and their harmful effect on Indian culture, asking if Bollywood is failing Indian women.
Claiming that Bollywood causes rapes is a tempting conclusion to draw. However, it is also inaccurate.
With a few damning exceptions, mentions and depictions of rape in Bollywood movies are anti-rape, featuring a man protecting a woman, or characters condemning the act. Bollywood does not condone nor glorify rape.
That said, Bollywood does condone a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment that contextualizes and allows rape.
Deepanjana Pal, a senior editor at FirstPost, spoke on this distinction in an email to BuzzFeed:
Rape is not about sex. It’s about power and notions of masculinity. It’s a performance that establishes in the rapist’s mind his supremacy. I don’t think the depiction of women in Bollywood has that much to do with it. In case of rape, we’ve got to look at the way society has understood and depicted masculinity as well as male-female relationships across generations. We’re socialised into accepting violence upon women mutely. Bollywood didn’t start this. If anything, it reflects that value system and often exaggerates. What attracts the audiences to Bollywood is its resonance with socialization that’s been drummed into mainstream society.
It’s tempting to say yes, but the fact is that Bollywood heroes often do good as well, but we don’t see a mass movement against corruption or an increase in philanthropy even though characters in films establish their goodness through actions like that. Many Bollywood heroes have loved their raped sisters, but that doesn’t seem to have done anything to lessen the stigma associated with being raped. Our films have consistently shown the rapists as the scum of the earth, but that hasn’t meant that society has been any less forgiving of such men. Most of the time, the woman who is raped is not ‘asking for it’. She’s a good, innocent little thing who gets trapped by the villain. Yet, we continue to place the stigma of rape upon women.
Below are seven ways in which Bollywood contributes to that wider culture of misogyny and gender violence in India.
1. Bollywood’s male protagonists (arguably the closest thing Indian boys and men have to role models) are all characterized by machismo and violence.
The ubiquity of Bollywood in every aspect of Indian culture has left the country devoid of conventional role models, apart from film celebrities and cricket superstars. Therefore, it is common for Indian men to idolize the male leads of Bollywood movies, many of whom condone a mindset of violence and glorify dominance.
As with many commercial film industries, Bollywood too establishes what is cool. Deepanjana Pal told BuzzFeed that Bollywood has chosen to market strong men who can dominate women as an ideal just as women who submit to men and find fulfillment in life when they are claimed by a man are the feminine role models.
Pal said, “The ideas propagated by films and their characters aren’t counterbalanced by a celebrity with a contrarian view. For example, I suspect if you went out and asked people from different social sections to name an Indian feminist, they’d be hard-pressed to come up with an example. Mention actor, on the other hand, and an array of names and their roles pop up without any difficulty.”
2. Compounded with its presentation of masculinity is the fact that Bollywood does not typically showcase strong female characters.
On the contrary, nearly every Bollywood movie ever made would miserably fail the Bechdel test. Women in Bollywood are primarily mothers, wives, girlfriends, and sex objects whose actions and conversations are primarily driven by their male counterparts. Even when young women are portrayed as ambitious and independent, they serve as challenging romantic prospects for the men to woo and win over.
While the last few years have seen a promising trend of successful woman-centric films such as Queen, English Vinglish, and Kahaani, women are primarily glorified props in big-budget “mass entertainers,” proving testosterone still drives the box office.
For instance, one of Bollywood’s most successful franchises, Dhoom, “is inherently misogynistic and has failed to produce a female character that isn’t at least part floozy,” according to film critic Suprateek Chatterjee.
3. With few exceptions, every Bollywood movie is punctuated by one hypersexualized off-plot song and dance routine called an “item number.”
The dance is performed by a beautiful actress in revealing clothing, and the lyrics often paint the woman as an unattainable tease.
The songs, which generally serve no plot-furthering purpose, are included purely for entertainment.
Since Bollywood movies tend to be long – always longer than two hours, and often inching over four – five minutes of loud, catchy, and colorful song and dance are a welcome break to audiences.
The most obvious issue with the tradition is that it glorifies the objectification of women.
Above: Bollywood director Kunal Kohli.
More often than not, a Bollywood film’s commercial success relies on item numbers, which make for tantalizing trailer snippets and eye-catching billboards.
Item numbers are a surefire way of appealing to audiences that are both educated and uneducated, rural and urban. These songs’ videos give filmmakers an opportunity to slip sexiness – a universally compelling aesthetic – into their trailers. The goal is for the songs to be catchy and upbeat enough that, far before its release, the movie in question becomes associated with a guaranteed radio hit.
4. Despite mainstream news and media outlets seriously discussing issues of gender-related violence and sexual assault, Bollywood hasn’t seriously engaged those issues.
One scene in Shootout at Wadala, a 2013 blockbuster, depicts Munir, a male character, attempting to join a gang. In a list of his credentials, he includes this: “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.
Having the actors from such a movie then talk about rape issues as part of the movie’s publicity campaign is counterproductive.
To compound its problematic treatment of rape, Shootout at Wadala also had two titilating item numbers.
Compared to movies of the ’80s and ’90s, today’s Bollywood fare depicts considerably less rape. But on occasion, there is a callous obliviousness to the sensitivity of the issue.
In his review of 2013’s R…Rajkumar (above), critic Suprateek Chatterjee describes this scene:
In a throwaway scene intended to be funny, a corrupt and inept policeman, whose character is established as some form of comic relief, is shown raping a woman in a jail cell before he gets an important call from a drug lord. As he hurries out, he’s shown zipping up his trousers hastily. The nonchalance with which rape, and custodial rape no less, is casually shown and dismissed is appalling, to say the least.
5. Eve-teasing is a contentious euphemism, used in India and in parts of South Asia, for public sexual harassment of women by men.
The above GIF is from a 2013 Bollywood blockbuster named Grand Masti. Branded as an “adult comedy,” the movie raked in upward of $16 million within three weeks of its release, a rare feat in Bollywood. The movie had enough “vulgar dialogue and obscene content” to warrant being banned from cinemas in certain other countries, but reached a peak number of moviegoers in India.
Bollywood films have repeatedly depicted this kind of sexual harassment as normal implying that this perverse pursuit by men will wear a woman down.
While public outcry and media attention is largely focused on rapes, Indians have been conditioned to treat eve-teasing, an act normalized by Bollywood and suffered by Indian women on a daily basis, as a harmless, minor offense.
While rape is never encouraged in movies, eve-teasing seems to have Bollywood’s blessing.
The above GIF is from a popular 2013 movie called Ranjhaana in which the hero, depicted as a harmless stalker with masochistic tendencies, persistently stalks his love interest who encourages his disturbing behavior for years, save a slap or two.
Pal said that portrayals of eve-teasing impact women as much as they impact men. “That insistence that you must be demure, that a man stalking you is a good thing, that love will reveal itself with that first, forced kiss — women aren’t immune to all this. If men fashion themselves upon heroes, then women fashion themselves upon heroines.”
6. Although it is fair to say women are objectified in popular culture all over the world, Bollywood’s methods of doing it are much more in your face.
“I think the one thing we can say for sure is that we’ve practically internalized the degradation of women, which is why when it appears in comedies like Grand Masti, people laugh and enjoy it without actually processing that this has an effect and/or reflection in real life,” said Pal. The effect of this kind of storytelling, she added, is that it “normalized the perverse.”
7. All these are exacerbated by the fact that under the pretext of entertaining the masses, some filmmakers evade accountability for how their films might be misinterpreted.
The above was said in response to the criticism that the movie Grand Masti condones behaviors that are detrimental to Indian society, by cast member and Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi.
It should be noted, however, that education and wealth are not predictors of rates of misogyny and gender-related violence. “Statistics suggest the incidence of rape and domestic violence isn’t much lower in high-income areas in comparison to low-income areas,” said Pal. “So arguably, the impact of boobs, nipples, and rape scenes would be similar on both these sets of audiences.”
Another factor to consider is the influence of B-grade cinema that produces hundreds of low-budget, semi-pornographic, non-Bollywood movies consumed by a large section of the Indian population. “It’s entirely possible that these films are far more persuasive than Bollywood with glossy urbanity,” said Pal.
These theories of Bollywood’s influences – positive or negative – on its audiences are far-fetched to some. Film critic Mayank Shekhar said he believes that Bollywood doesn’t influence its audiences, it mimics them.
In an email to BuzzFeed, Shekhar said that big Bollywood movies are far more gender sensitive than ever before:
Sometime around the early 2000s, with the emergence of metropolitan/city-based multiplexes in India, Bollywood’s audiences split into two, what as the cliché goes, came to be called the “masses” and the “classes”. There is a whole ’90s/2000s genre of movies starring Sunny Deol, Ajay Devgn et al, which appealed to people from the lower socio-economic strata or smaller towns. The idea of love in most of these films was centered on obsession. The other old Bollywood cliché being “the girl and the boy can never be friends.” These films largely reflected the society they were aimed at. It’s clearly a chicken-egg debate, whether these movies with strong undertones of sexual harassment that get passed off as wooing or courtship inspire the audiences or merely mirror their personal beliefs. I suspect the latter. Either way, you see much less of it now in Bollywood and far more in commercial regional cinema. Big budget Bollywood movies generally are far more gender sensitive than ever before and this again reflects the target audience, which belongs to higher income groups (those who can afford multiplex tickets), live in bigger cities where there is much gender segregation.