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

Posted on July 24, 2016 in Culture-Vulture, Interviews

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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