In India, we live and breathe cinema aka Bollywood. The immense influence of films can be seen in how they dictate our sartorial choices, culinary choices and even our culture and perspective. In our country, culture and films are co-related and they evolve and alter with respect to each other. Probably this is why, the content of our Bollywood films and the criticism surrounding our films is imperative as “it allows us to view them differently, to look for unconscious social reality, the underlying power structures, the frames which melt into each other, the repetitive narrative patterns…” (Jain & Rai, 2009). Be it the Nehruvian socialism which was reflected in the Bollywood films of the 50s or the emerging idea of nation and tradition in the 90s, films have always reflected and impacted the era they are produced in. The question of the portrayal of women in Bollywood is crucial as the films play a huge role in the way women in our society are perceived and treated.
Lack of Women Identity and Agency in Bollywood
The female protagonists in Bollywood films often lack a voice and agency. The story narrated is always that of the male hero and the female protagonist is a mere appendage. According to psychoanalytic theory, this could be termed as phallocentrism. Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ states that “the paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world”.
The only role of the female characters is to further the plot of the story and to aid the hero in the process of identity-formation. Women, be it the sister, the mother or the love interest of the hero, are always secondary characters. Bollywood films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Pardes and the recent ones like Dabangg, Zero are a great example of this. It is always the hero who is shown in Bollywood movies to go through a journey and the women either are a cause of that journey or help him on his way. Rarely do we see independent women characters with well carved out identities.
Kareena Kapoor’s character in Chameli is one of such few examples of a well written, round female character. In the film, she emerges as a strong female character who does not need a male figure to rush to her rescue, every time she is in a problem. In fact, the film subverts the expectations of the audience in a scene where it is actually the street smart prostitute who rescues the hero.
In a more recent film, Thappad, the issue of domestic violence, which has been plaguing our society since centuries, is addressed. Taapsee Punnu’s character stands against physical abuse. She refuses to bow down to the patriarchal ideas and in her journey, challenges the ‘sacred’ institutions of marriage and family. The film charts her growth from a dependent, almost subservient house-wife to an independent woman and a single mother. The film also breaks the stereotype that domestic violence is an issue only for the lower sections of society. In Thappad, we see how physical and mental abuse is as prevalent in urban, educated and rich families as among the poor, rural society.
In most of our films, the gaze of the camera is also predominantly male and to a large extent, determines how we perceive the female characters. The male gaze of the camera is probably the result of the fact that the majority of the films are written, directed and shot by men. The male gaze of the camera, combined with the male gaze of the hero, commodifies and fetishises female characters. John Berger in Ways of Seeing points out that in the films, “Men act, women appear. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.” The sexist and selective male gaze of the camera is focused on selective parts of the female body. Bindu Nair in her essay- “Female Bodies and the Male Gaze” explains how women are turned into a ‘spectacle’-
“The gaze is invited to certain parts of the body selectively considered sexual – the eyes, the lips, the breasts, the navel, the buttocks and the legs…All these add up in objectifying and sexualising the body of the woman for the benefit of the (male) viewer.”Nair, 2009
The famous “item songs” in our films are a great example of the male gaze at play. The songs like ‘Tip Tip Barsa’ or ‘Fevicol Se’ show how the camera angles, the costumes, the makeup and even the actions of the female characters in these songs fetishise female body and cater to male pleasure, i.e. the pleasure of the hero and the male audience.
This problematic depiction of women in Bollywood films translates to real life as well. The impressionable minds of youth accept this sexist and misogynistic portrayal as the norm. This could be an important reason why women in our society face a lot of backlashes if they stray from the stereotypical idea of femininity and try to assert their voice and freedom. Films borrow from reality but they also influence our reality. Therefore, in a society where films largely shape our way of thinking, we need more films with strong and independent female characters. The need of the hour is good films which tackle the rampant misogyny in our society, and not increase it by projecting stereotypical and regressive ideas of femininity. We are definitely on the path of change and progress, but we are not there yet. The Hindi Film industry is waking up to the importance of this issue, but there is still a long way to go.