A guest-post for @genderlogindia, written on Prem Panicker's request, first published here.
Bollywood is usually the go-to guy for bashing. Anything evil in this country is, by and large, attributed to Bollywood’s zestful propagation of the same. Smoking – check. Dumbing down – check. Eve teasing – double check.
The meme goes that Bollywood has made stalking into an art form and otherwise respectable composers- choreographers-costumers have participated wholeheartedly to make this activity into a grand and enduring success.
The ‘stalking song’ is what stars and directors are most reviled for, but I am inclined to overlook it because it is never an end. If the villain does it, there is swift dispensation of justice by the hero. If the hero does it, he either reforms soon after or does something completely monumental (like strangling his Mafia don father’s pet anaconda to marry the girl) that underlines his true love.
My logic is simple: If a molester claims that he got his idea from Akshay Kumar, he should immediately be made to fight thirteen sword-wielding goons to save a girl. Because that’s what Akshay did – right after he teased the girl.
However, this is not to say Bollywood can hold its head high when gender is being discussed. What Bollywood kills us with are the stereotypes it silently perpetuates through stock characters or situations, either for convenience or through not wanting to take a risk. This is – in my opinion – far more damning than a raucous song. Because it is a subtle and, more critically, ongoing message that certain things are ‘wrong’.
Here is my quick list of six stereotypes Bollywood perpetrates. (Please feel free to add more. ):
Heroines don’t do regular work. Unless they are prostitutes or police officers.
Heroines don’t go to offices. (Yes, I know you will jump up and name five movies where they do but that’s exactly my point – those are exceptions.) They study. They are nice people, but they don’t ‘do’ anything.
In the two biggest hits of this year – Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Chennai Express – we are not sure what the heroine does. In the former, Deepika Padukone is shown preparing to become a doctor in the flashback but in the present day, she is quite happy looking gorgeous, and no mention of her medical practice is ever made. Ditto for Chennai Express.
In the Top 10 grossers in Bollywood history (all of which are from the last few years), only one heroine – Kareena Kapoor of 3 Idiots – uses her profession to make a contribution to the story. The rest just dance spectacularly.
And this has been a standard template in Bollywood. For example, Madhuri Dixit was supposed to be a ‘student of computers’ in Hum Aapke Hain Koun but she never goes even close to one in the film. In Maine Pyar Kiya, heroine Bhagyashree had excellent marks in ‘inter’ but she chose to be deposited in a family friend’s home instead of a working woman’s hostel.
Take the biggest hits (and the not so big ones, as well) and you will see the same trend. The only working girl I can think of in a major hit is Sholay’s Basanti. And she abandoned her promising career to get married.
Working mothers are bad. Actually, mothers are bad whenever they are not doing the act of ‘mothering’.
Basanti’s abandoned career brings us to the subtle messaging about mothers who work. In Taare Zameen Par, the working mother gave up her career to turn her sons into class-toppers. In Akele Hum Akele Tum, the career-focussed mother (who left her son for a promising singing career) almost became the vamp till she decided to return to domesticity.
Whenever a child is shown to be in physical danger (road accident, kidnapping etc), the mother is usually doing something frivolous (like shopping) and is meted out some hard-hitting advice (“Tum kaisi maa ho?”) by a bystander – advice that leads to terrible remorse.
Pre-marital sex is punishable by death or imprisonment (though, by and large, not both).
If rain, crackling fire, skimpy clothing and sensuous songs cause you to slip (‘behek jaana’) and taste the forbidden fruit before marriage, you will die. Because sex is done by bad girls.
Sometimes the man dies (Aradhana), leaving the woman to a lifetime of struggle (including some jail time).
Sometimes, the woman dies (Trishul), thus getting a version of ‘capital punishment’.
Even in a totally realistic film like Masoom, the woman dies leaving her son in the care of her married lover.
In recent times, the moment of passion is dealt a little less severely — but the non-virgin never gets the hero (Deepika Padukone in Cocktail, for example).
Only prostitutes initiate sex.
As per Bollywood logic, all sexually aggressive women are prostitutes (or similar), though all prostitutes are not sexually aggressive (if she is the heroine).
Traditionally, characters artistes like Helen and Aruna Irani have performed – with great aplomb – the cabaret that caused the hero to sway slightly off the straight and narrow path before he progressed on his way towards the virginal heroine. In recent times, the purpose of the ‘item number’ has been to introduce a guest star who can do the Fevicol-Zandu inspired gyrations while the heroine can dutifully avert her face when the hero zeroes in for a kiss.
[NB: The heroes can sow a few wild oats here and there. If you take the last five films of current heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor, he has been polygamous in three of them unlike his heroines who, without exception, were steadfastly monogamous.]
Even in an explicit movie like Murder, it is the man who initiates the adulterous relationship. The heroine initially turns away and is about to leave, when there is an excuse for her to come back (she left her purse behind, you see) and get sucked into the affair. (Maybe an adulterous relationship is not the right example to make a point about women in Bollywood not having a say in sexual activity, though).
Women are allowed to kill villains but only with help from new lover.
There was a time when all of Bollywood was gainfully employed in remaking the Julia Roberts hit. Sleeping With The Enemy. Agnisakshi, Daraar and Yaraana faithfully replicated every detail from the original and differed from their source code on only one major front – the hero rushed in to kill the obsessive husband. While the fragile Julia Roberts pulled the trigger herself in Hollywood, a chubby Rishi Kapoor (whose heroines were much fitter than him) and a hungover Jackie Shroff ambled into the last scene to perform the heroic honors in Bollywood.
At one point of time, when Rekha was acting in a series of films as a female vigilante, it was always the hero who rushed in to assist her in the climax. The most famous example is probably Khoon Bhari Maang where she was doing a mean job of chopping Kabir Bedi up till Shatrughan Sinha was made to intervene.
In a love triangle, only the men get to chose the ‘winner’.
A Bollywood woman is, at the risk of over-simplification, property. She doesn’t really have a say in matters of the heart.
From Sangam to Saajan, from Dostana to Dobara OUATIM, the woman is just a method of sacrificing for the sake of a friend (or proving one’s masculinity for the sake of the world).
The friends decide – depending on who saw the girl first, whose relative debts are higher, whose box office clout is bigger – who gets the girl. This often leads to death or the honorable exit of one participant while the surviving one, usually the docile girl, goes with the guy. Simple, no?
And when you see a rather cavalier tyaag by Ranbir Kapoor in favor of his elder brother in Raajneeti, you realize this is a tradition as old as the Mahabharat itself!
Often one wonders about the wasted charisma of Bollywood’s leading ladies, and if the system will ever change to portray them as true role models. Right now, there are lakhs of young girls copying Priyanka Chopra’s tattoo. What impact she would make if she is shown actually working hard to become – say – a boxer!
A Mary Kom biopic – starring Priyanka Chopra – is currently in production. So yes, there is hope.