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.
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.]
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.
2. Compounded with its presentation of masculinity is the fact that Bollywood does not typically showcase strong female characters.
3. With few exceptions, every Bollywood movie is punctuated by one hypersexualized off-plot song and dance routine called an "item number."
The songs, which generally serve no plot-furthering purpose, are included purely for entertainment.
The women performing "item numbers" are colloquially referred to as "item girls."
The most obvious issue with the tradition is that it glorifies the objectification of women.
More often than not, a Bollywood film's commercial success relies on item numbers, which make for tantalizing trailer snippets and eye-catching billboards.
4. Despite mainstream news and media outlets seriously discussing issues of gender-related violence and sexual assault, Bollywood hasn't seriously engaged those issues.
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.
While rape is never encouraged in movies, eve-teasing seems to have Bollywood's blessing.
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.
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.
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.