The Trouble with Bollywood

The song opens to a jostling crowd of men, all holding beers, asking—no, demanding—that a woman named Jumma come out to give them a kiss. When she comes out, she is doused in water, and sensuously dances to the beat while everyone feverishly watches. Though she repeatedly says “no” when the men ask her for a kiss, she eventually gives in. It sounds nightmarish, yet this scene from the 1991 song “Jumma Chumma De De” in the movie Hum is one of the most revered in Indian cinema, having been emulated in countless Bollywood movies thereafter.

“Jumma Chumma De De” is a film staple, and can be heard throughout airports and restaurants in India. Yet the song’s ubiquity is, to say the least, concerning. It glorifies the belief that “no means yes”. It is indicative of an industry that has, for many years, included hit songs and dance numbers that feature hypersexualized images—a contradiction in a country that frowns upon public displays of affection. Bollywood has, through countless films, reinforced a belief among many Indian men that the objectification of women is not an issue, an alarming tenet in a country where women are continually ill-treated. But through a critique of its current trends, Bollywood has the power to reverse a concerning phenomenon.

A Disturbing Trend

Recent news stories in India have increasingly focused on pervasive sexist attitudes in Indian society. On March 4, the Indian government blocked screenings of India’s Daughter, a documentary that discusses and highlights a 2012 Delhi gang rape, under the pretense that excerpts from the film “appear to encourage and incite violence against women.”

The film, a harrowing account of the horrific tragedy, features interviews from the rapists who assaulted the woman, nicknamed “Nirbhaya,” or “Fearless,” by the Indian media. The comments one of the rapists made is jarring—he says, “a girl is far more responsible for a rape than a boy…a decent girl won’t roam around at night,” and later adds, “housework and housekeeping is for girls—not roaming around in discos, wearing wrong clothes.”  The defense lawyers in the case are of the same mindset, with one stating in an earlier interview, “If my daughter or sister engaged in any pre-marital activity and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farm house and, in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”

The Indian government, by banning the film, refused to acknowledge the fact that rape and assault in India is real and that these horrific comments are not unique. As Indian Member of Parliament Anu Aga said, “The reality is, what the man [the rapist] spoke reflects the views of many men in India…we have to confront the issue—that men in India do not respect women.”

Sexual assault in India is rampant—every 20 minutes a woman is raped, and the phenomenon of “eve-teasing,” where people cat-call and grope women on the streets, is extremely prevalent. The 2012 Delhi gang rape is only one of many brutal rapes that repeatedly occur in India’s capital. And yet, these actions are shrugged off. The very term “eve-teasing” makes light of the severity of the issue, and in many cases, women are blamed for men’s actions. Provocative clothing is also usually deemed to be the reason for a rape. As an Andhra Pradesh state police chief stated, “Rapes and all cannot be controlled by police. And people are turning out to be more fashionable…all these things provoke these type of things [sic], which cannot be attributed to the police”.

In some instances, Indian women are treated as objects, and are expected to remain docile—and many families entrenched in rooted patriarchal norms reinforce that fact. Households frequently train their male children to be more domineering and hypermasculine. Women, by contrast, are expected to care for the needs of the male and tend for the household.

Paternalistic tendencies have manifested themselves in various forms, whether through the continued practice of dowry payments in rural parts of India or abortions when the fetus is found to be a female. Yet nowhere are these leanings manifested more heavily than in pop culture—and in the Indian film industry in particular.

A Continuing Phenomenon

Morally questionable tropes in Indian cinema have stretched back since its very beginning. In the oft-hailed 1957 film Mother India, the central character, Radha, conforms to the principles of village honor (izzat) that are meant to enforce patriarchal systems. She is pious and devoted—the ideal woman—in contrast to her son, who kills for vengeance and embodies masculine traits.

Modern Indian cinema presents many women as objects of desire, and nothing more—it is rare to find a woman in a leading role who does not exist as a part of a love triangle or a one dimensional character meant to serve as a beautiful idol. A 2014 study commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender Media found that India ranked very high in world cinema when it came to the sexualization of women: about 35 percent of women are featured with little clothing. The study also found that the number of male writers outnumbered the number of female writers, with female writers comprising 12.1 percent of the workforce in comparison to a nearly 20 percent global average.

A large part of a Bollywood storyline revolves around “how to get the girl,” and sometimes this process involves harassment. And yet while these narratives are common in world cinema, Bollywood takes these tropes to new levels. In the popular 1975 film Sholay, a scene occurs where the main character attempts to win over a girl by grabbing her from behind, claiming that “when a beautiful girl is angry at you, she becomes more beautiful.” This harassment is successful, and the two ride off holding hands. Stalking in this regard has almost become common in Indian films and spreads the belief that a woman is too shy to say she wants a man, and the man must actively take her coy attitude to mean “yes”.

Item numbers in contemporary films are at the heart of the issue. The term “item number” in Indian popular culture refers to songs, or “filmi,” that feature woman who are “items”, or a beautiful superstars. They are usually only in a movie for the purpose of attracting moviegoers—there is a flashy song where the hero pursues the “item,” and as soon as the song is over, the “item” leaves with the hero. The term, and the songs in question, objectify women, likening them to merchandise. Take, for example, the song “Chikni Chameli” from the 2010 film Tees Maar Khan, where the main “item” boasts about her slender waist in front of a ogling crowd of men and two men who seem to appraise her. In many of these songs, alcohol is actively used. The song “Fevicol Se” in the 2012 movie Dabangg 2 features a wild Salman Khan throwing around alcohol while encouraging a woman to “swing in intoxication.” The “item” sings, “I am a piece of meat, so swallow me with alcohol,” all while dancing suggestively. In another recent item number, “Munni Badnaam Hui,” from the 2010 movie Dabangg, the main character boasts about how he has “defamed” a girl, all while drinking alcohol. These item numbers are frequently situated in brothels, with scores of men ogling at prostitutes. This is particularly disturbing, considering that in modern India these prostitutes are often a part of a sex trafficking trade that affects 27 million women and children per year.

Last year, the Indian film industry produced 1,605 films with ticket sales in the billions, a phenomenon not seen anywhere else in the world. Bollywood is the one uniting factor for a country with an incredibly diverse range of peoples and cultures, and its visual messages are especially important in a country where 25 percent of the population is illiterate. The film industry provides a much-needed escape for millions of people, taking them to exotic locales with outrageous storylines.

It would certainly be presumptuous to assume that Bollywood is the reason for the vast amount of sexual violence in India. But film is indicative of cultural norms and trends, and Bollywood is no exception to that rule. The sexist themes in Bollywood films and “filmi” songs reinforce the misogyny that exists in Indian culture and uphold the gender roles that manifest themselves in Indian sexual assault cases.

India is a nation of diverse aspirations and colorful heritages, and Bollywood reflects that. But Indian cinema should not be a medium to aggravate the negative aspects of a society attempting to modernize in a perpetually progressing world. Indian women are more than objects to be cast around—and it is time for Bollywood to recognize that undeniable fact.

Image Credit: Ramesh Lalwani/Flickr

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