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Content warning: Mentions of sexual assault

I can still see her kicking her feet up on the foot-rest of her favorite leather sofa, with a cup of coffee in her hand and her laptop resting on a pillow — a hundred tabs open. Work nearly consumed her, as was exhibited by the dark circles under her eyes and her stress-related health issues. Yet, I knew that my mother, even in her weary state late at night with her laptop in hand, was formidable. Growing up, I didn’t see much of her on the weekdays thanks to my early bedtime, and she was a stern disciplinarian on the weekends. Whatever time we did have together, we spent bonding while watching something on the television. 

It was from films and TV serials that I realized women like my mother were quite different from what traditional Indian society wanted them to be. A typical plot goes like this: A girl is married off to a suitor without a say in the matter. Her newlywed husband takes her to his house where she is immediately forced to abandon her studies or her career and is assigned the responsibility of running the household. This leads to friction with her mother-in-law, and their meaningless squabbles are milked for season after season. Somehow, though she is given hours of screen time, the protagonist has no agency over her own life. I never understood those types of films and TV serials, and I was even more baffled by their popularity and sustained success. 

Realistically, the media should hold a mirror to society, critically reflecting on its most pernicious aspects. Yet Indian film media struggles to do so. For every 10 directors in the Indian movie industry, only one is a woman, which may be why even movies considered to be “progressive” are problematic. Take a 2006 film by the name of “Vivah,” meaning marriage. The opening sequence is a monologue by Krishnakant Mishra (played by Alok Nath, an older Indian actor once known for his wholesomeness but currently embroiled in accusations of sexual assault) on how his heart breaks when considering the fact that Indian society considers daughters to be burdens. We are then introduced to his niece in the movie, Poonam Mishra (Amrita Rao), who lost her parents at a very young age. Krishnakant, we are told, adopts her and treats her like his daughter, which causes his wife, Rama (Seema Biswas), to resent Poonam. However, a bigger part of her resentment is due to the fact that Poonam is fair-skinned and her daughter Rajni has a darker skin tone. Though the film sets up this plot point in a mocking manner, it still does not issue an explicit critique, and Amrita Prakash, the actress portraying Rajni, ironically wears darkening makeup. Colorism in India is a British legacy: Lighter-skinned people were considered to be the ruling class. Lighter-skinned Indians were also treated better by the British, which further propagated negative attitudes. Most movies show apparent ignorance when it comes to the exclusion and discrimination based on skin color in Indian society, though it is a deep-rooted problem.

Though Krishnakanth’s heart breaks when he thinks about how Indian society treats its daughters, he himself is obsessed with “marrying off” Poonam, and a favorable match comes from a family higher in the societal ladder. This fails to challenge the general consensus in India that a woman leaves her father’s house in a palanquin and leaves her husband’s house after her funeral bier is taken away from the house. Those images perpetuate the idea that marital turmoil or the idea of rebellion in the face of abuse or violence doesn’t exist. 

The favorable match for Poonam is Prem Bajapaye (Shahid Kapoor), who is implored by his father to get married. And though he himself is hesitant about getting married, he agrees to see Poonam. Prem is instantly attracted to Poonam’s simplicity and innocence. While Prem opens up about his past, his crushes and his schooling, Poonam hardly utters a word. Seriously, in a movie where Poonam is supposed to be the seminal character, she may have had less than three minutes of dialogue. Toward the end of the movie, Krishnakanth’s house catches on fire and Poonam has to rescue Rajni, enduring burn marks along the way. Rather than focusing on Poonam’s heroic actions, the movie makes a point of celebrating the fact that Prem decides to marry her despite her altered appearance (which is then restored through cosmetic surgery). Though the message of the movie may be “progressive,” the movie is still problematic as it is rife with colorism, casteism and questions about consent.

Bollywood is not just problematic, but emblematic of India’s bigger issues. Take a recent controversy that erupted in India when Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, India’s Chief Justice, suggested that a 23-year-old man accused of raping a minor should marry his victim. It’s not surprising in the least that there was a movie made about this some time ago: “Raja Ki Ayegi Baraat.” The synopsis of the plot: “Raja rapes Mala and the court orders him to marry her. Raja’s family continues to torture Mala and attempts to kill her. However, with her good deeds, she manages to win over Raja and his family. It’s baffling to me that someone wrote this movie in the first place, let alone that it would go on to be a box office hit.  
In India, media has a huge influence on sense-making, especially in rural areas where literacy is still low. Whether we like it or not, it plays a domineering effect on identity creation. I’m afraid that in an increasingly conservative and autocratic country with limits starting to be imposed on news media, the time for the creation of media that pushes boundaries may have passed. What will continue then are media narratives that simply replicate the norms of patriarchal gender organization so that these are even more firmly entrenched in the lives of men and women who inhabit this society, socializing them into roles that will keep this gender ideology operative and flourishing.

Columnist Alok Abhilash can be contacted at toniami@umich.edu