Over the past few weeks, India has been talked about in the news for one of the worst possible reasons. On Dec. 16, a 23-year-old woman was raped by six men on a public bus and abused so severely that she died in the hospital 13 days later. These events have put a harsh spotlight on the way Indian culture treats women and the deep-seated misogyny for which an entire nation must answer.
This is supposed to be my fun Bollywood column where I talk about singing and dancing and ask why there’s always so much wind blowing in the lead actress’ face. But anyone who has ever taken a humanities class — or to be slightly less pretentious, anyone who has ever engaged with pop culture — knows that the media has an undeniable influence in shaping a society’s attitudes and actions.
Since we’re on the subject of women, the easiest example of screen trends shaping cultural values is in female body image. Women in the media are notoriously taller and thinner than their audience counterparts, but since the faces and bodies of models and actresses are the images bombarding our eyes on a daily basis, they become ingrained in the collective consciousness of society. We’ve started to accept them as normal.
India is no exception to the tricks of the media trade. Despite its reputation as a third-world country rooted in ancient customs, it’s a nation bolting into the modern era so quickly that the citizens aren’t quite sure how to balance modernity and tradition.
In my first column, I wrote about the film “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” and mentioned a specific scene in which the heroine Simran (Kajol) drinks alcohol for the first time and wakes up terrified that she might have slept with Raj (Shahrukh Khan). He explains indignantly that he would never do such a thing because he is an Indian boy who knows how to respect an Indian girl.
Even with that kind of idealism in popular films, India has always been a country of extremes; a country where women’s cultural clothing usually covers most of the body, but also one where nothing is said when the same women are stared at indecently wherever they go; a country where the celebrated Hindu goddess Durga single-handedly defeated a demon, but where millions of women are still forbidden from entering the workforce.
This is the country where I was groped on a train the last time I visited — and when I immediately told my mother about it, she said “So?” That’s when it hit home.
My mother, raised in a liberal home and always encouraged to follow her dreams and never pressured into marriage, thought being grabbed on a train was the most normal thing in the world. It was something to be shrugged off and accepted, and I was the one overreacting because some asshat treated my butt like his suitcase handle.
The attitudes practiced and preached in that touching scene of DDLJ have long since vanished from commercial Bollywood. The “actresses” — I use quotation marks because acting is rarely ever prioritized — have gotten thinner, lighter and taller. A troubling fabric shortage in the industry has left them with little to wear besides bikini tops and booty shorts.
In popular commercial films, this is the sad restrictive role to which women are confined. They allow the plot to progress by positioning themselves as romantic or sexual interests, and the rest of the time they play dumb and look sexy for all the voyeurs tired of saris and respect. Sexuality has always been an underlying theme in Bollywood movies, as evidenced by the extravagant item numbers and leading ladies made famous for their subtle and unattainable allure.
The recent trend has been to reclaim the Indian woman’s sexuality, but there is a fine line between embracing it and exploiting it. Songs like “Sheila Ki Jawani” and “Chikni Chameli” push these boundaries. I love both, and I admire the attempt (even if it is accidental) to accept that Indian women are in control of their sexuality. Unfortunately, the presentation does more to objectify than liberate.
However, as I said, India is a land of extremes. So while the fair and lovely opportunists of the industry gather up their cleavage for another day of work, somewhere out in Film City, there are serious and talented artists doing incredible work for Indian women.
In my last column, I starting singing my unending praises for director Vishal Bhardwaj, a man whose films consistently feature strong, driven women portrayed by intelligent and talented actresses. In “Ishqiya,” a 2010 original he co-wrote, the main woman Krishna (Vidya Balan) is unapologetic about her lying, violence and sexuality.
More recently, Balan played a woman in search of her missing husband in “Kahaani,” a film that has earned her endless praise from critics and audiences — a rare combination of artistic appreciation and audience acceptance. In the end, her character ends up being an homage to the goddess Durga, a widowed mother seeking revenge for her husband’s death in a terrorist attack.
The fact of the matter is that the media doesn’t tell people what to think; it tells us what to think about. With so many eyes from all over the world trained on the culture that allowed such violent acts of rape and murder to ever be committed, the conversation has finally started.
This column was never intended to be political, but Bollywood has the power and resources to overhaul India’s treatment of women. With movies that feature strong females, healthy gender dynamics and admirable cultural values, that change may be possible. And that would be true movie magic.