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The #Bollywood Film Heroine Is No Role Model for My #Daughter!

June 1, 2013

                                                                                                        by Soraya Nulliah

non whites sign

Indians in South Africa under apartheid rule

I grew up in South Africa with Indian movies being a huge part of my life.  Under apartheid, as Indians we could not go to neighborhoods that were for Whites or for Blacks. So most movies we saw were Indian movies, since the theaters in our neighborhood obviously catered to an Indian population and mostly showed Bollywood movies.   Also my family was an avid supporter of Indian movies! My grandmother, my mother and my elder sister are all Indian movie fanatics. When I was a kid I actually thought these movie stars were our relatives because everyone talked about them as if they knew them personally. My maternal grandmother also kept detailed scrapbooks about their lives.

Getting all dressed up and going to watch an Indian movie on a Sunday was pretty standard for us. Of course, as a child I loved watching the pretty girls all dressed up singing and dancing their way across the screen. There were tons of pretty, sparkly clothing, lots of action and the good guy always won.  I mean, when I was 4 years old, Indian movies were great stuff!! And even though I couldn’t understand what was being said (English is my first language) Indian movies are fairly easy to decipher.

Fast forward to my mid teen years when I pretty much rejected everything Indian. We moved to Canada when I was about 13 and I really struggled through most of my teen years (and even well into my 20’s) with a cultural identity crises.   Initially I outright rejected Hinduism, the Indian culture, and everything that seemed connected with it—such as Bollywood movies,  because of the blatant racism and misogyny threaded into its very fabric. It wasn’t until I started University, though, and minored in Women Studies that I could assess Indian movies in a more intellectual light. As I started reading literature by feminists such as Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem etc I began to find an identify and a value system that was independent of my family and Indian roots.  Where earlier my rejection of Bollywood films was based on a gut reaction, now I could better understand why they made me feel the way they did!  This is what I realized I hated:

  1. Indian movies portray women in a very one dimensional way. The heroine is always physically beautiful but never seems to have any other aspiration other than marrying the guy. She is never outspoken on anything, is always passive and seems to have no career or educational goals. If you watch any Indian movie, it seems as if all the heroine does is gets up in the morning, sings, spends hours getting dressed up and then dreams about the guy. Bollywood movies reinforce the stereotype of the ideal Indian woman; she exists only to please (her husband, her family, society). Basically she is portrayed as an adult child; physically beautiful, sexually enticing, beautiful, but a child trapped in an adult woman’s body! I just can’t relate to that.

    dulhan wahi jo piya man bhaaye

    1977 hit film “The Bride Knows How to Keep Her Groom Happy”

  2. Bollywood movies rarely, if ever, address social problems that exist in our culture. Issues such as gendercide, dowry related violence, poverty, the caste system etc . are either oversimplified or left out entirely. Actually, I recall quite a few movies that show violence against women as being the norm; totally justified and accepted.

  3. Indian movies are absolutely unrealistic. Bollywood has created a purely make believe world where most everyone is perpetually young, beautiful, rich and in good health. Every Indian movie is a variation of exactly the same thing: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.  Meanwhile the girl is pretty and passive.

I also find that Indians I grew up with, who live in western cultures, are by and large, avid Bollywood supporters because it’s their connection to an imaginary India. What I mean by that is it’s very easy for someone living in the west and enjoying all the benefits of a country to still cling to an idealized vision of India in their hearts and minds by watching Indian movies. They can fantasize about an India that does not exist! And so, Indian culture becomes distilled into movie music, strict codes of behavior for girls and women and glorification of the family.

Let me tell you something — my older sister in Canada would watch Indian movies 24/7. They even paid more money to get some sort of satellite in their home so they could watch all this junk! She has 3 daughters and they would watch this nonsense too. Every single time I would go over there, they were watching some garbage. So one day I decided to bring it up to her, like hey! Maybe you shouldn’t be letting your daughters watch all these movies. Her answer?  “I want them to watch Indian movies because at least there are good role models in them for my daughters.” Say what????  I just don’t get it!!!

Mere-Brother-Ki-Dulhan-2011

A 2011 hit film “My Brother’s Bride” Yes India has moved! The woman’s dress is meant to indicate she’s modern. But her identity, goals and role as a woman haven’t changed much in a 100 years!

Now that I have a daughter, I am even more critical of Indian movies. I want her to have role models that are multi-dimensional.  I want to teach her that beauty is intellect, daring, creativity, authenticity, and vulnerability. I want my daughter know about strong women like Toni Morrison, Hillary Clinton and Rita Banerji. I want my daughter to dare to forge her own path in life, to think outside the box and to kick some ass when she needs to! I hope for her to be the hero of her own life and not to wait passively for life to happen to her! I don’t want those Bollywood heroines to be a role model for my daughter!  Maybe if enough Indian women would say the same for their daughters only then will the Bollywood film makers bring stronger, and powerful women characters to their screens, women with their own identity and healthier ambitions than simply pleasing the family and honoring traditions!

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To mark 100 years  of Indian films, we are inviting people to submit reviews for our “Gender in Indian Films @ 100″ film review series.   To make a submission click here. To read previously published reviews click here. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Feminist Artist Soraya Nulliah Interviews Rita BanerjiSoraya Nulliah is an Indo-Canadian, feminist artist who uses her art as a medium to raise awareness about pervasive violence on women and girls within Indian communities in the west. In 2006, her solo-exhibition Shakti was held at the Nina Haggerty Centre in Edmonton, Canada.  You can read our earlier interview with her here. Her website is www.sorayanulliah.com and she tweets @sorayanulliah

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2013 10:46 pm

    Soraya, you raise a very interesting point but why single out only Bollywood movies only? Let’s talk Hollywood too. How many hollywood movies are there where the female is playing the lead role or are tackling some real issue?? Most of the ones I have seen are male centered, fictional and for pure entertainment. Movies are meant for entertainment and are mostly fictional and people like to go to movies because it’s an imaginary and unreal world they can get lost in. You are right to some extent – growing up i too watched horrendous movies which were all about the hero and the heroine just danced, loved and looked pretty but I also watched some great movies like “Kahani”, “Heroine”, “Fashion”, “Seeta aur Geeta”, “Mother India”, “Khoon Bhari Mang”. All excellent movies with women in the lead role, playing a strong powerful character. I guess you fail to acknowledge those. I am in no way advocating objectification of women and as a young, strong educated women support women’s empowerment in every way but I do believe Bollywood has some excellent actresses and they do a phenomenal job at portraying different characters.. So if my daughters choose to become a Vidya Balan, a Madhuri dixit or a Priyanka chopra I would be no less proud!!

    • June 1, 2013 11:43 pm

      Shruti, still if you look at each of the women in these films, it is centered around their role as a wife/wife want to be, or mother. Seeta and Geeta was interesting in that it showed the passive versus independent personality of twins according to how they were raised. With modern films I find there is actually an increased tendency towards female characters who lack a core personality, and more stereotypical — defined by their makeup and clothes, as compared to earlier films actually in the 60s, 70s. And I find the actresses had stronger and more independently defined personalities which they brought to the screen. I’ll take a Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, over the actresses you name here any day!

    • June 2, 2013 2:42 am

      Dear Ms. Kapoor: I agree with you in the sense that Hollywood also leans heavily toward stereotyping of women (the “Pretty Woman” phenomenon) as well as the obvious observation that movies are entertainment. My intention was not to compare Hollywood vs Bollywood (I rarely watch movies and prefer to read instead)…but to simply give my view on Bollywood movies.
      To disregard the manner in which movies socialize our children (as well as adults in our society) is to be naive. I haven’t watched an Indian movie in over 12 + years because I simply can’t relate to them in any way. I am not insulting the Indian actresses personally (their talents or abilities) but rather the thematic content of Indian movies. I never see heroines that are scientists, mathematicians, artists…creative, outspoken etc; they are one dimensional. I want my daughter to be multi -dimensional, to be an active participant in her life and to know that her physical beauty is only one aspect of herSELF and not the defining factor.
      Sincerely, Soraya

  2. June 1, 2013 11:06 pm

    To follow up on my comment, here is an interesting article on the same: http://www.masala.com/29715-bollywoods-women-power

  3. Rees Gallacher permalink
    June 4, 2013 8:57 am

    If you bring your daughter up to think, and to be herself, she will make up her own mind anyway – just be prepared if she decides she would rather be a Bollywood actress than a highly qualified professional of some sort to value her as much as you always have!

  4. June 8, 2013 12:12 am

    That was practicaly awesome, thats why I like movies like 3 idiots, taare zameen par, mnik, etc. though they havent shown feminist part, but still have been to the topic & practical. wish I become producer than I can make better movies 😀
    Don’t worry we are future generation 😉

  5. Heidi permalink
    June 15, 2013 4:02 pm

    what about these “hollywood” movies: Boys dont cry, Monster, Conspiracy of silence (Canadian tv mini series, ok not a movie) “The true story of Helen Betty Osborne, a 19 year old Indian girl who was brutually murdered and slain on November 12, 1971 in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada and nearly taking 20 years for the police to find the four men who murdered her”, The China syndrome, Dagenham girls, The Boys of St Vincent, The Magdalene sisters (some European movies so not technically “hollywood”)

  6. sahitha permalink
    August 5, 2013 9:36 pm

    I agree with the author here. I do not like watching stupid Hindi movies nor many of the other regional movies in India. If I do, I am very choosy about which ones I watch but they aren’t my first choice for movies.

    Although Hollywood as well is dominated by men, if you actually watch the romantic comedies which have come up in the last 3-4 years, they actually reflect what’s going on in dating, relationships etc with women recognizing where and why they are being taken for a ride in their relationships. Of course they are about boy meets girl and in the end they live happily ever after(to create feel good factor) but in between there is lot of food for thought if the viewer so chooses to engage with.

    Both the main characters are seen debating with themselves why they like/dislike relationships, the kind of partners they like and their general dating patterns of course, thrown in with a lot of sense of humour.

    Though I agree the major genres of Hollywood movies are male-centered, atleast the romantic comedies do not portray women as 1-dimensional beings. They are seen to think logically, assess their feelings, discuss them with friends etc and they could be anybody from a single mum to a 20 something hotshot in the corporate world.

    This is the main difference with Indian movies. Although I agree there a few movies which portray women reasonably the majority portray them as brainless idiots only interested in looking pretty and following their husband. Even in the romantic comedies section, the hero is always seen making fun of ( I read this as putting down) the heroine and this is interpreted as love and they break into a song.

    I agree Hollywood films show men doing that but then the lead female whips out a witty comment to put the guy back in his place.

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