December 16, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Have you noticed the spate of films that degrade women while glorifying violent masculinity, the latest being ‘Animal’ but several others such as ‘Kabir Singh’ before that? And these are highly successful films, which seems to indicate that the audiences like to see such portrayals. Sexism, of course, is not confined to films; we see it in all industries and all around us. The difference is that when it’s glorified in films, it conveys that it’s fine to indulge in it in real life too. After all, in India, more than in most countries, popular cinema defines what is cool.
The Indian film industry has a rich heritage, having produced some extraordinary content over the decades. However, its portrayal of women has often been shocking. They’ve been objectified and sexualised – this being the norm, not the exception. Misogyny and patriarchy have persisted despite the economic and social progress the country has made.
So normalised is this objectification that there would be very few films that won’t have at least an ‘item number’. This is then justified in the name of commercial viability. The female character usually wears revealing clothes in dances choreographed in a suggestive manner, often ogled at by men. The lyrics are even more denigrating than the visuals.
Usually, the film would also reduce the female characters to pretty things or sexual objects. So, it would seem, that the philosophy is that a woman’s value lies only in her looks and that her prime purpose is to titillate men or validate the patriarchy so prevalent in our society. So, women are often portrayed as weak and in need of men to save them or take care of them. This reinforces gender stereotypes and sets back the effort to achieve gender equality.
This, in fact, was observed even in a UN-sponsored study in 2014 that ranked Indian films high in sexualisation and stereotyping of women. Conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the study examined “the visibility and nature of female depictions” in popular films across Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the UK and the US.
India fares poorly when it comes to films with women in the lead roles and ranks high when it comes to showing women in revealing clothing and nudity.
Sexism, it would seem, comes naturally to Indian popular cinema.
In its more than 100-year history, Indian popular cinema has rarely taken a stance against patriarchy, choosing instead to glorify male chauvinism.
The problem with all this is that the portrayal of women in films has implications in real life. When women are objectified by cinematic idols, it makes it OK for the same to happen in society. Young, impressionable minds feel that it’s fine to treat women as objects. This sparks harassment and even violence.
In fact, in many cases, harassment and stalking are portrayed as fun ways of attracting women, who are often shown to enjoy such approaches. Thus, films can normalise such harassment and devalue consent.
The gender stereotypes glorified in cinema play a role in restricting women’s choices and choking their aspirations. Women are frequently portrayed as the sacrificing love interest or the obedient wife, and these depictions are often lionised.
Several cinema stalwarts have said in private that sexism and misogyny sell.
Indian popular cinema doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. It is part of a society that adheres to such repressive and primitive norms. These are the norms that confine women to the kitchen and discourage them from having a say in their own lives. Is it any wonder then that the audience claps when a man slaps a woman on screen? Is it any wonder that the audience dances along when a vulgar number plays? So, you could argue that popular cinema is merely reflecting those norms but in doing so it also strengthens them.
Popular cinema is thus often the space where sexism and misogyny are produced and consumed in volume.
No wonder activists fighting for gender equality have spoken sharply against it. This comes in the backdrop of violent crimes against women rising. Recent National Crime Records Bureau data shows that, in 2022, at least 4,45,256 cases of crimes against women were registered – a 4% increase from 2021. This translates to a staggering 51 police complaints every hour. The major crimes against women included cruelty by husband or his relatives, kidnapping and abduction, assault with intent to outrage modesty and rape.
A survey by ActionAid UK showed that nearly four out of five women in India have faced public harassment of some form, from staring, insults and wolf-whistling to being stalked, groped or raped. Some time ago, gender activists urged Tamil filmmakers to stop portraying stalking as cool, and instead view it as the crime it is, one that has resulted in violent deaths in Tamil Nadu.
If cinema is a reflection of reality, we must work to change that reality and filmmakers must play their role in that effort.
While the laws against gender-related crimes are tough, popular culture must step up and be more responsible about its portrayal of women. Indian popular cinema must feel accountable for the message it is projecting.
Objectification and sexualisation of women in cinema is a problem. By challenging its own traditional portrayal of women, filmmakers can do their bit to effect the gender transformation this society badly needs.
But I want to leave the last word for the audiences. Cinema reflects its tastes. So long as regressive films receive patronage, so long as they become money-spinners because of the way they portray women, there is very little incentive for them to change. If demand changes, so will supply.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.