From my limited access to my parents’ motherland, Bollywood has largely colored my perceptions of life in India. I am aware that the exaggerated actions and dialogues that take place during these films are far from realistic in a majority of cases. Still, it is natural to believe that these films portray some level of reality, however small, and also have an impact on their vast audience, whether it is conscious or not.

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Studies, like those published in Michelle Larkin’s book Music Sells Sex to Teenagers, have proved this multiple times, whether the targeted area be movies, music, or other art forms. In the case of these films, something is absorbed from viewing, be it negative or positive. Throughout my many viewings of Hindi movies, I spotted a recurring theme of anti-feminist stereotypes.  This can possibly carry over into reality, and have unfavorable repercussions.

Item Numbers

Bollywood, India’s booming Hindi film industry, has been known to exploit women.  Female lead characters that embody the strong, intelligent, versatile and every-day woman of today are few given the volume of films that Bollywood churns out. In many of the movies produced, there is the dumbed-down heroine being rescued by her masculine hero, and worse, stars in an (in)famous “item” song. In these musical numbers, women are portrayed as no more than sexual objects, throwing their scantily-clad frames around a stage for the man’s pleasure.

From interviews with my peers, I collated some examples that were offered up. One was the song “Munni Badnaam Hui” from the movie Dabbang(2010). In this, Malaika Arora Khan cavorts with village men and the local thanedaar(prison guard) in the super-hit song of the summer. Later that year, Katrina Kaif stars as Sheila in “Sheila Ki Jawani” from Tees Maar Khan, which turns out to be her major breakthrough into the industry. Kaif later becomes the poster girl for item songs. Her repertoire includes “Chikni Chameli” in Agneepath, “Mashallah” in Ek Tha Tiger, and “Kamli” in Dhoom 3, among others. Popular Bollywood actresses have appeared in at least one item number, including, Aishwarya Rai in “Ishq Kameena” from Shakti, Priyanka Chopra in “Ram Chahe Leela” from Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, and Kareena Kapoor in “Chammak Challo” from Ra.One.

Bollywood has turned to sexualizing women in order to gain viewership. No doubt the songs themselves, the sets and locales are lavish and appealing. However, the attire, and specifically the dance moves featured in some songs can tarnish an otherwise catchy tune. Personally, I find some of the actions in these songs cringe-worthy.

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Item numbers showcase a paradoxical double standard in India. On one hand, woman deities and mother figures are openly honored. And, still, these “cheap thrill” songs have a large audience who clearly see no hypocrisy.

The Gender Gap

I consider Bollywood partially to blame for the sexism prevalent in India. No one can doubt its massive, all-pervasive influence. The movie industry has yet to embrace feminism, so the audiences of India have followed suit. For instance, women make up roughly 50% (48.5% to be exact) of the Indian population (State-wise Population by Residence and Sex in India (as per 2011 Census)). Yet, women make up a measly 3% of all legislative, management, and senior official positions (The India Gender Gap Review 2011). In 2010, a study conducted by Aparna Banerji, Shalini Mahtani, Ruth Sealy, and Susan Vinnicombe for Standard Chartered Bank: Women on Corporate Boards in India, found that women held 2.5% of total executive directorship positions, at a jarring 8 out of 323 (Standard Chartered Bank: Women on Corporate Boards in India).  Women are greatly outnumbered in Indian government as well.

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They held just 11.4% and 11.9% of the seats in lower and upper parliament, respectively (Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in National Parliaments,” (April 2014). Even wage differences for the genders are dramatic: women earn 62% of their male counterparts for the same work (The Global Gender Gap Report 2013). India has the means to take action to close these jarring gaps. With a growing respect for the female race, all playing fields will begin to equalize.

Harmful Stereotypes

In India, even as debates on morals and respect are on the rise, the Bollywood industry continues to churn out money-generating titillating numbers. It is a fact that some of the young actresses are naïve, desperate for a break in the competitive film industry and open to exploitation, but it is also true that some of the leading actresses have attended college, and hail from urban backgrounds. Priyanka Chopra, for one, grew up and went to school in the United States. Preity Zinta is one of the few Indian actresses to graduate with a Masters degree.

I realize that its not about education inasmuch as the courage and strength to stand up for our rights and refuse to allow exploitation. Nonetheless, I feel frustrated at the idea that the knowledge that these Bollywood actresses are role-models to a generation of girls does not seem to have much impact on them. Young girls in India lack positive women in leadership roles. The statistics are very much against them. Bollywood actresses are better known than female engineers, politicians, and lawyers. Only time will tell when changes in the industry will likewise trigger changes in society’s outlook and behavior.

When you read about women exploitation and the indifference shown by male society, including the insensitive comments by male politicians, one cannot help but wonder if harmful Bollywood stereotypes are partially responsible.

Bollywood is a private enterprise which requires substantial capital. It is natural for movie makers to minimize their risk on investment knowing that adding “item numbers” increase their chance of returns on investment. This is not an easy problem to address. It would be interesting to see if the portrayal of women in the “item number” category has added to the increase in number of crimes against women. If this can be proved then Bollywood should have the courage to self correct this path.

The point is not to villainize Bollywood. Women all over the world are sexualized, and cast as eye-candy in films. However, item numbers are different in several unsettling ways. Films brand “item girls,” feature teasing that could qualify as sexual harassment, and directors refuse to take any responsibility.

Change

There is reason to hope for change and revolution. Recently, Bollywood seems to be on a pro-women kick, with box office hits like Queen, and a few years earlier, Nobody Killed Jessica. Both boast themes of women empowerment. In Queen, Kangana Ranaut plays a small-town girl who breaks it off with her fiancé after exploring parts of Europe on her own and realizing her self-worth through her own Eat, Pray, Love–esque adventure. Likewise, inNobody Killed Jessica, several women band together to bring a young girl’s killer to justice. Both were met with positive critical acclaim. It showed the need for India to portray real woman leads. Audiences have responded to the girl-next-door positively.

Male actors too have taken it upon themselves to make a difference in the industry. Bollywood royalty like Aamir Khan have begun to make changes; he started a talk show Satyamev Jayate in 2012 that focuses on social inequalities and reform. He has targeted violent crimes against women and their lack of worth several times, and audiences have responded encouragingly.
Other socially-conscious filmmakers are also starting to gain attention for their work, a clear sign of progress in the stubborn industry.

Let’s hope these aren’t passing fads, but rather evidence of a changing nation, slowly but surely catching up to their first world counterparts.

Radhika Munshani is a sophomore at Irvington High School in Fremont. She interned at India Currents over the summer.

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