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Active Men – Passive Women: #India’s Annoying #Gender Interface

July 14, 2013

 by Asha Kachru

I am glad that you are doing this gender in Indian films series.  But sorry to say I can barely remember any Bollywood movie that has not made me feel angry about its portrayal of gender in some way.  Over the years I have developed a very negative impression of Bollywood films particularly from a gender perspective.

I can give you my impressions of the many films I have seen over the years:

1.   Rarely does a woman have a lead role in Indian movies. Most films center on the hero, not the heroine. Why is it so? Do women not have anything important to say except just entertain the public through sleazy dances and the likes? Or do they not have any original thoughts? Is it only men who have the power of reflection about societies and people’s lives or about visions of the future or about love and sexuality and so many things important for human beings?

2.   The women are always shown as passive sufferers. They are victims of violence thrust upon them by others. They never question the very power structures in society.  They are either crying incessantly or needing to be protected. They don’t retaliate; they don’t get angry — only sad and depressed.  They never act on their condition or injustice decisively.  Does it not reflect the dominant patriarchal mindset that women submit where to be womanly is to be docile, patient, adjusting, nurturing towards men, even violent men?  

3.   I have always felt annoyed by the long and very humiliating rape scenes shown in Bollywood films.  I also find this very disgusting how the viewing public, mostly men glee over a young girl or woman being literally sexually molested and or raped.  In the films too it is all too often the talk of the “honour” of a community/village etc. which is at stake if their girl/woman has been raped by one of the other community/village etc.  Then it becomes an issue for the whole community and village and a war like situation erupts. We know this happens in reality in wars around the world. The Bollywood does not challenge this absurd notion of “honour.” Whose honour is lost — that of the culprit or of the victim? Why do we Indians always put the blame on the victim? Why do our much appreciated Bollywood films not show different role models?

4.   There are hardly any nuanced films showing women with their strengths and weaknesses and yet human and intelligent.  Men have other roles in life besides being fathers, husbands etc. according to Indian films.  They can be intellectuals, philosophers, scientists, engineers etc. But a woman never gets a whole person, personality, or even life! She just fits a stereotypical mold of a mother, wife etc. without a life or vision that’s independent of these roles.

 aashiqui-2-movie-012Take the recently released film Aashiqui 2 that I saw a few days ago. The hero during a road accident discovers the woman of his liking and becomes the active “engineer” of her life. He is takes control over her life and she just lets him and is  prepared to do anything for him. I question — why it is that Indian men think they can decide who they like and want, and assume that the women will have to follow?  Could it not be once so, that women decide on their own terms who they want and like, and initiate the romance with a man they see as their future partner or friend?

 My other issue with ASHIQUI 2 was how they showed that the hero had no other option than to commit suicide in the end.  Why? Because he could not adjust his life or mind to accept the fame of his wife, who incidentally he pushed into becoming a famous singer!  Why was this so hard for him?  So many women give up their career for the sake of their family.  Many give up their good jobs and move to the place where the husband has a job even if it is not necessarily the place they like to be in.  And nobody finds this disturbing.  If however a wife decides to move to a another town for her career, she is considered to be a bad woman, wife or mother.

The film tries to show that the hero is a strong-minded man, and sure of himself.  If so then why did he feel threatened towards the end in the film, as his wife started becoming famous?  


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. 

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Asha KachruAsha Kachru was born in Kashmir in India.  After her marriage to a German mathematician in Delhi, she moved to Germany where she lived from 1968-87.  In that duration she has held a wide range of posts of Scientific Officer and a  Green Feminist City Councilor with the GREENs at Bonn City Council.  In 1987 she returned to India, and since 1992 has been living in a village in Andhra Pradesh, where she set up an ngo STRAINATA and is working with rural communities to promote organic agriculture and women’s empowerment, through educational workshops and income generation schemes.  To know more about her click here. She blogs at It’s Not Yellow

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Samir Chatterjee permalink
    July 15, 2013 6:22 pm

    Hear hear! Asha’s observations on Bollywood movies are spot on! Any cruel way to make money at the expense of India’s women!

  2. July 16, 2013 12:10 pm

    Respected Asha je, I came to knowing about your marvellous work thru Ms. Rita Bannerjee, for the sake of femicites all over the world and specially in India where a few like you are working at this junction where nobody cares about the ethical value needed to be given to a girl and woman. I am so thankful to you and appreciate your work and pray to almighty to give you every success in the field.
    Girendra Singh, A social worker, New Delhi

  3. July 18, 2013 10:59 am

    Well said Asha! And that last line I think holds the clue to systemic violence on women in India. “why did he feel threatened?” I think at some deep psychological level this is about a collective male identity that’s insecure in itself and attempts to assert its importance through violent subjugation of women.

  4. Debnandini permalink
    July 23, 2013 10:54 am

    I think a number of bollywood movies nowadays are centered around female protagonists. we do have movies like The Dirty Picture, Aisha, Kahani and so on. I mean theres good cinema and bad flop ones. Everyone knows aashiqui 2 is bad.

    • August 12, 2013 11:25 am

      Debnandini — I don’t know about Aisha, but I’ve seen the other two pictures you mention. Yes, Vidya Balan performed well, and they were unusual story lines. But Kahani was about an Indian married woman out to avenge her ‘suhaag’ while The Dirty Picture was about a woman who really wanted to be an actor, but realized the only way she could get a foot in was by pandering to what the male audience wants – sexual titillation, and in the end she self-destroys. So the examples you provide actually support the point that Asha is making here — that women act, or are defined, accepted, rejected or destroyed, all in context of the patriarchal structure. Do you see that? But what we want to see are films where a woman defines her identity, goals, actions etc. independently of this. For e.g. I’d love to have seen a Kahani version of an Indian woman who took steps to defend and assert herself in the face of various kinds of violence women face in India for dowry, ‘honor’ killings etc. Or for e.g. The Dirty Picture — I’d like the character at the height of her career to start calling the shots, making movies to be the serious actor she had wanted to be at the start but couldn’t because she got accepted only in these ‘sex toy’ roles. To take control and turn the tables instead of submitting and self-destroying. But there are films like that in India that I can think of and I will bring them to this blog this year. In the meantime, if you can then please do a review and submit them here

  5. mas'ud permalink
    July 31, 2013 9:35 pm

    Good observation, I was also going through the serials and the films made in Bollywood….. your have picked the right voice in right moment, The role of women are shown as the programmed characters and most of the time the negative roles are played by them, actually which doesn’t reflect the real picture of the society. As if they are always in the “Subaltern” class. We should call Anthonio Gramchi to give a proper solution in this issue…..

  6. August 3, 2013 7:47 pm

    Your questions, while well-meaning, are a bit naive, I feel.
    Pls understand – Bollywood is NOT cinema, it’s business. It doesn’t have to be elevating, it has to sell. It doesn’t need to give people what they need, it needs to give people what they want. Isn’t it only predictable that Bollywood would uphold values that are POPULAR instead of values that we SHOULD inculcate?

    • August 3, 2013 8:39 pm

      Hmm…so you are saying there is no creative momentum in Bollywood that uses art to push social boundaries? I’m thinking of films that did like — Dev Anand’s ‘Guide,’ and there are other examples I can think of. But oddly I find more examples of films like these from before 1990. Something about the Indian market opening up and all the talentless babas and baby[s] of yesteryear actors and daft models swamping the film industry, that’s killed a certain intelligent, creative edge.

  7. sahitha permalink
    August 5, 2013 10:00 pm

    I cannot watch most of the Bollywood movies nor the regional films in South India without getting outraged at the way women are portrayed and treated as imbeciles. There might be exceptions but on the whole they make me cringe.

    Of course one might argue that a large section of Indian society treats women in the same way and this reflects in the films being made. Come on! no one bowed to me today because I am Goddess Shakthi.

  8. August 6, 2013 2:01 pm

    These days, starting about 10-11 years back say, there’s a slight uplift in the artistic content of Bollywood I would say. Dil Chahta Hai, Swades, Life in Metro, Milkha, … Fortunately, the distinction between mainline cinema and parallel cinema is blurring. These days, it’s possible to go to a multiplex and watch a movie which only Doordarshan would have had the guts to air. But there’s a lot more trash being churned out too, I agree. The same holds regarding the portrayal of women in Bollywood. Some really show women in their full humanly stature. But the rest don’t bother to go beyond their bodies.

    Probably, socially, we need to grow to respect our women. Cinema (and other art forms) will hopefully follow suit. Economically, there has to be a critical mass of appreciating audience who can watch movies which take the risk of pushing the boundaries. That’ll then spur more artistic enterprise.

    Wait. It’ll hopefully happen soon. But gradually.

  9. karthu1993 permalink
    August 15, 2013 11:56 am

    No wonder!! I don’t watch movies that shows weak female characters. Good thing I didn’t Aashiqui 2. I always hated over dramatic love stories.

  10. August 18, 2013 5:36 pm

    Chennai Express was another example where a woman was just along for the ride and all the men made her decisions for her. She started off as a woman who ran away from home because of an arranged marriage for political reasons and that her father was a Don. Ridiculous concept but at least, she has her beliefs and was acting upon it. She bumps into SRK who through a course of insane hijinks and silly behaviour, falls in love with her and takes her back to the village she is desperately trying to get away from. All of which happened without her knowledge, Deepika is never asked her opinion of going back to ask her father for her freedom to marry whomever she wishes (irony!) or even if she loves SRK back. It is just assumed that SRK now knows her well enough and there is no need to communicate with her at all. Just as her father did in the beginning of the movie. Then, just in case the audience is unclear as to what has happened, the father tells SRK that he has won Deepika fair-and-square by beating up her suitor to pulp as if Deepika is some property to be exchanged. Wonderful.

    Biwi No1 may be old but it’s one of worst ones there. Because a woman has be everything: a dutiful wife, attentive mother, gorgeous seductress to be able to keep her man from straying. Because men are animals and incapable of rational thought.

    Just from wikipedia:
    Salman Khan – Prem is a man who is married to Karishma Kapoor – Puja with two kids. He gets involved in a roaring affair with an aspiring model, Sushmita Sen – Rupali. He prefers her to his wife because Rupali is modern and wears fashionable clothes. On Karva Chauth, Pooja discovers him at Rupali’s house and asks him to choose between his mistress and her. He moves in with Rupali.

    Pooja, meanwhile, with the help of Prem’s friend Lakhan (Anil Kapoor) has a make-over. She becomes a modern woman who does many modelling assignments. Pooja sends her mother-in-law and children to live with her husband and Rupali. They trouble Rupali and convince Prem that Rupali keeps them hungry and wants to poison and kill them. In the end, Prem realises that Rupali only came to him since he gave her material things while his wife stuck with him through thick and thin.

    • August 19, 2013 12:17 pm

      Shrusti — In 1982 the film Arth by Mahesh Bhatt showed a similar story line like Biwi No.1 with a completely different ending. The wife decides she’s had enough, walks out on her husband, and though there is a man waiting in the wings to ‘rescue’ and ‘respect’ her she decides she can manage on her own. She’s not willing to sell herself short, and makes that CHOICE. Do you feel Indian films are regressing with time?

  11. Debnandini permalink
    October 20, 2013 11:53 am

    well what I meant to point out in those examples of movies …is that lthe women in them were “active” not “passive”. The movie was about them, not about the men in their lives. The focus was on them. If a woman chooses to avenge her husbands death in a movie (as in kahani), the movie is about her and her love. If in dirty picture the protagonist chose destruction, it was her choice. she could ofcourse use her popularity to make good movies nad rise, but she chose to misuse her popularity to get back at people. like other normal people, she messed up. But still, the movie is about her. She dominates the screen. Women don’t always have to do the right thing. They are people too. The important thing is, these movies somewhere show that women make choices (whether good or bad) and ones that are important enough to get the prime place in a movie plot (unlike the exaple of ashiqui 2 where a man was driving the story forward and making all choices).

  12. Kumar permalink
    November 20, 2013 5:08 pm

    Sorry to join late. But I guess when we get more women movie makers, the situation will change. It will be slow, but it will happen.. Till then, you have to ignore these movies, just like most people ignore the TV serials..

  13. Madhav permalink
    December 8, 2013 5:59 am

    Women will be respected only when they have some standards different from men. If they too want to roam semi-naked on streets and think men as their competitors, then it is absurd to talk about special status of Women.

    There are more and more prostitutes in Developed countries than women because they are full of lust and illegitimate relations when they get economic power, because their hidden animal instincts come out when they get freedom and then they blame men.

    • December 9, 2013 7:12 pm

      It is not for you Madhav to tell where women can go, what they can do, and how they can dress. Any violation of bodily rights of any person — woman, man or child is rape. For your information plenty of men are raped in India too. And children as well. You think that it has to do with how they dress? Prostitution has as a long a history in India as in the west, and in India if you go through the Kamasutras, it was a respectable profession for women! However, the millions of women in brothels in India, living under conditions of imprisonment and abuse is slavery and not prostitution. And by the way force used even on a prostitute is rape.

    • sahitha permalink
      December 10, 2013 1:59 pm

      I think we can all agree that it’s not up to Madhav to tell women where to go, what to where and when.

    • sahitha permalink
      December 10, 2013 1:56 pm

      Madhav, have you ever been to the developed countries or have some reports on the number of prostitutes there? It just seems a very blind judgment of women living in the West when you say there are more number of prostitutes than women in those countries. You said “women will be respected only when they have standards different to men”. I fail to understand what you mean exactly by standards. My standards are honesty, love, compassion, benevolence, non-judgment, service. I think these are human standards and don’t see why men and women should have different ones. If you have different ones in mind, do share!

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