Do Indian #Films Condone #Violence Against #Women?
by Shai Venkatraman
The objectification of women has come under the public scanner after the horrific Delhi bus rape in December 2012. There have been numerous discussions linking films to the incidents of rape and sexual violence across India. Do Indian films incite or condone violence against women?
A rape scene was an invariable part of any commercial Indian film from the 1970s onwards. The symbols are familiar, repeated in film after film — broken anklets, a ripped blouse, the clap of thunder and shards of lightening! Reema Kagti, who is among the new generation of filmmakers and has directed Talaash, which features an offbeat plot with a strong female character says, “The rape scenes were there for titillation. That’s why every film had one.”
While today there may be fewer rape scenes, the industry continues to objectify women. Film editor Deepa Bhatia, points out top actresses like Katrina Kaif dancing to ‘Chikni Chameli’ [these so called “item numbers” or sleazy song and dance numbers by top actresses that are a must in every film today!] Bhatia says the woman in these “item numbers” “… is saying look at me. It is commodification and that is the way it is,” says Bhatia. “You needed to show flesh under some pretext. Now heroines are item girls so everything is up for grabs.” As Kagti says, “In today’s films, the “item number” is the equivalent of [the] rape [scene].”
The problem though, many believe, goes beyond that. It lies is in the subliminal message packaged in suggestive songs and saucy dialogue. It persists in the idea of “romance” as put across: the man relentlessly pursuing the woman, who after rejecting his advances, finally gives in. “Films unintentionally give respectability to [sexual harassment],” admits Javed Akhtar. “It makes the [criminal] act seem innocent when it is not. They show the hero singing and following the woman to woo her even when she says no and that gives credibility and sanction to [sexual harassment]; [showing] that this is a part of love.”
“[Indian] Cinema has only been around for a 100 years; men have been treating women badly for much longer than that,” argues filmmaker and choreographer Farah Khan. “So how can one blame cinema for what is going wrong in our country today?” Kagti is equally dismissive and uses an example to question people who say viewing informs behaviour: “How come people don’t [emerge from the cinema] a little [more] honest [after] watching Munnabhai M.B.B.S. (2003)? [where the protagonist adopts Gandhian principles].”
Other voices in the industry call for greater introspection. “Cinema is such a huge influence, so how can you say attitudes are not shaped?” counters Deepa Bhatia. “It has such an impact when it comes to clothes [fashion sense] or syntax. So it does affect the way you view women.”
Javed Akhtar for one believes that Indian audiences are ready for films which show a more nuanced portrayal of women and relationships. He cites the success of films like Kahaani (2011), Zindagi na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Band Baaja Baarat (2010).
It appears, however, that a few films do not a successful trend make. “It is difficult to find financial backing for films that tell women’s stories,” says Kagti. “There may be one Kahaani, but there are thousands of male-oriented films. Audiences, and not just in India, are not interested in watching women-oriented films.”
Cinema is, after all, a business, a big business in India. And as long as box office success remains the goal, change is unlikely.
Shai Venkatraman is a TV journalist who has reported extensively on a number of issues in politics, religion, and natural disasters. She blogs at Beyond the Headlines “to create a space for larger and deeper issues that don’t make the headlines.” Her twitter handle is @shaivenkat