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“Commodification Of Women Is Near Absolute”: Rahul Bose On Sexism In The Film Industry

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By Oxfam India:

Gender sensitivity plays a key role in cinema, through its acknowledgement or the lack of it. It’s well known how differently the industry pans out for male and female actors. To formally question and address this difference, Oxfam India in partnership with Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival has announced the launch of an award to recognise the “Best Film on Gender Equality”. Rahul Bose, Oxfam’s global ambassador, talks about his perception of gender equality in his personal and professional environment, and whether this award will impact change.

What is your view on gender equality?

I grew up in a house seeing reversed gender roles between my parents. Every morning my father packed our lunchboxes in the kitchen, gave us oil massages on Sunday, while my mother encouraged me to play rugby. I never saw my mother walk behind my father. She always walked with him or ahead of him.

This was my early initiation in understanding gender equality. When I visited my friends and saw their mothers cooking in the kitchen I always asked if their father was unwell. That’s when I started realising that the world outside was different from the world inside my home.

As I grew older, even in my very gender equal world, I started noticing my sister had a different curfew time than I did. I could bring girls home but it wasn’t the same for her. But for most part of my upbringing, it made me aware that there was another way possible, that could harness the power of two people in the family.

How is gender equality perceived in the film Industry?

There is no surprise about the way things are in the industry – it’s a reflection of how women are viewed in society. The commodification of women is near absolute, be it on the cover of a magazine, music video or an item song.

To me the idea of gender equality is two-fold: one, for women to have the power to make their own choices, and two, to be treated as anybody else would, regardless of gender. Even if it means doing an item song in front of fifty men in a bar, so long it’s a woman’s choice, I’m fine with it. But she should have complete awareness and knowledge of the consequences of her choices. The moment a film chooses to include an item song that has nothing really to do with the narrative of the film it means they don’t know how to take the story forward and the only way to interest the audience is by titillating them with a woman’s body. There is a large section of women who unwittingly, unknowingly buy into that.

Today, films are one of the biggest influencers in the society. People idolise film characters and actors. Trends take off after the success of a certain film. The fraternity has a responsibility towards what they inject in the society as popular culture. There is a growing consciousness about this now, that cinema is watched equally by both men and women.

rahul bose quote

How have you contributed to impact gender-based social norms in the industry?

My latest film which I am directing, “Poorna”, I’m proud to share, we had set up a sexual harassment code on the set, a first for the industry. We instituted a sexual harassment tribunal – a panel led by Nandita Shah of Akshara. If there was any sexual harassment on the set, a woman had the right to go and complain and it would be independently and impartially judged.

There is no gender-based discrimination for the cast of my film either. A 13-year-old girl plays the lead in the film, while women characters play traditional male roles like those of revenue secretary and PA. the film passes the Bechdel test with flying colours! Women talk to each other all the time without referring to men.

When I came to the industry I realised, to uphold my values I had to choose films which questioned gender-based stereotypes and the norms which are deeply embedded in our society. I chose films which were written with gender sensitivity, even if my roles weren’t like that. “Dil Dhadkne Do” is a recent example of this where even if my character did not stand for those values, the film did.

How can Indian cinema become more gender sensitive and impact social change?

Fact of the matter is that if you are going to walk up to directors and ask them to make gender sensitive films, that’s not going to work. Commercial success is the first thing on a director’s mind and there are multiple pressures on her or him to ensure that.

In the future we can borrow an idea from Hollywood: they have associations where one can come with a cause they want to popularise. The association on behalf of these issues approach people in the industry at the writing stage and before you know it the plots reflect narratives of these issues, which range from date rape, drugs to even the refugee crisis.

Another effective way to get to the industry would be to conduct workshops with directors. There should be conversations with directors after they have watched a film that they have watched before, but this time through the lens of gender sensitivity.

Oxfam India, through this award, should challenge filmmakers to maybe not change the film they make but at least make sure gender sensitivity is a part of it as much as good acting or music or any other element is.

What impact will this gender award have on Indian films?

Slow and hopefully, steady. But one should keep in mind just because there is an award for being gender sensitive; it doesn’t mean people will be running to make gender balanced films. I think more realistically, an award like this will shed light on what makes for a gender sensitive film and what does not. It will alert people that there is something called gender sensitivity in a movie. I don’t think most filmmakers have that consciousness as yet.

This will get people to question why the same rules don’t apply to men and women. It should get the film fraternity questioning why equal time is not given to male and female roles in the movie.

The instant response to all these questions will be that the box office does not accept such radical change. But if you look at the success of films like “Queen” and “Neerja” in the recent past, and hopefully “Poorna” in the next few months, it proves otherwise. That it’s not a man who drives the film anymore, but a great story.

So while this award is not going to change gender-based social norms in Indian cinema overnight, its victory will be just to make people aware that you can see a film from the lens of gender sensitivity and not just plot and good acting.

This article was originally published here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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