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The Indian Film Industry: Starring Objectified Women And Stereotypical Men

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Every crime has a motivating factor, or an enabling environment that “allowed for it to happen”. Enabling environments are a combination of passive and active factors that include a range of beliefs, attitudes, actions, legislations and policies, responses and security sector structures.

While it is not wholly true that enabling environments are alone enough to cause a crime or a particular form of crimes, it is important to understand that they still do impact, encourage and provide the “justification” for the crime.

Misogyny, patriarchy and violence against women thrive in many social scenarios. The social mindset often tends to be one that blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes sexual violence.

What feeds and keeps this culture alive is a mosaic of different factors that include culture, interpretations of religion, patriarchal attitudes and historically held and endorsed values of antagonism towards women, among other things.

When you look at the influence mass media and films have on a community, it is not rocket science to see that many of the themes, ideas and behaviours that they carry forth make an impact on its consumers.

The Indian Film Industry, including music and music videos from films, are undoubtedly a very significant crystallizing set of elements that inform and feed the misogyny and rape culture in India. By not making sensitized cinema, and with entertainment that may seem mindless to the intelligentsia, the Indian film industry is creating content that feeds the rape culture.

Insensitive content is normalized by educated masses, and is internalized as acceptable and permissible by those with little to no sensitized education.

The Indian Film Industry is a blend of many sub-film industries, namely, the Hindi film industry or Bollywood, the Tamil film industry, the Malayalam film industry, the Telugu film industry, the Kannada film industry, the Marathi film industry, the Bengali film industry and the Bhojpuri film industry. Of these, Bollywood is easily the largest in terms of revenue, production and reach, a fact that is evident from the inadvertent confusion that Bollywood is synonymous with “The Indian Film Industry”.

In general, it has been calculated that Indian movies can boast an audience of 1.38 billion people worldwide. The audience for Indian language films in India totals 1.2 billion people within the country – including rural and urban populations.

It is a given that the film industry is a large mainstay of the pop culture that influences and informs social attitudes among different groups in India.

While it is important to account for the myriad factors that offer a nuanced explanation of why sexual violence and rape are so rampant, certain aspects of popular culture are instrumental in keeping rape culture alive.

But rape has neither been glorified outright in the Indian film industry nor has it been birthed by the Indian film industry. What the film industry does, though, is to continue to keep alive the projection and promotion of certain behaviours that tend to normalize rape culture, and project notions of toxic masculinity as acceptable conduct for men.

According to the 2013 Annual Report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 24,923 rape cases were reported across India in 2012. Out of these, 24,470 were committed by someone known to the victim. The NCRB report in 2014, there were 33,707 reported rape cases in India in 2013.

How Films Feed Rape Culture

I know and acknowledge that the Indian film industry neither conceived nor remains the sole cause for the creation of rape culture in India. However, it is still a linchpin in keeping the social ethos of antagonism against women.

The Indian film industry is a vehicle that portrays these behaviours – most often in an exaggerated fashion – and glorifies them in order to encourage mass consumption. These behaviours augment a social climate that is already poised against women, and feed into the rape culture – and needless to say, an exaggerated portrayal magnifies the impact.

Figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau suggest that a rape takes place every 22 minutes. The portrayal of women in Bollywood, as much as in most other Indian cinema, tends to reiterate the same old stereotypes.

A woman is made an object, and is often seen gyrating among lewd and lecherous men, set to songs that are filled with lewd and obscene lyrics. Men are also portrayed with stereotypes – the hero is a macho man, with a well chiselled body and a sense of obvious masculinity, enough to assert a sense of dominance. He subscribes to the notion of violence to get his dialogues in order, especially with those that disagree with him. Villains are almost always portrayed as completely terrible human beings with no sense of humanity – steeped in debauchery, mindless violence and a tendency towards sexual violence.

These stereotypes tend to dehumanize men as well, while slotting masculinity as being either black or white steeped in machismo.

Making Mindful Cinema 

The Bechdel test suggests an investigative process that asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named, is also sometimes added.

While definitely credit worthy, the Bechdel Test could be satisfied and the film itself may continue to discriminate, be violent, reassert stereotypes and keep substantial representation out of the picture altogether.

A later test, called the Mako Mori test, asks whether a female character has a narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story. While this is again a pretty sound way to evaluate the portrayal of a woman in a film or a work of fiction, it doesn’t account for the subtleties in the portrayal of that narrative arc. It also ignores the possibility of stereotypical portrayals.

What the masses need – not necessarily want, but definitely desperately need – is mindful cinema that is responsible and clear on the message it offers.

As consumers of films, if we need to call a film out for keeping the culture of patriarchy, misogyny and violence alive, it is vital that we account for the intersectionality quotient in the gender equality space and rhetoric.

We need to have filmmakers constantly think of these themes:

Are women portrayed independently with a narrative backstory unique to them, as opposed to being portrayed through a male lens? Are women portrayed with a narrative arc that is beyond the stereotypes ascribed to them by the culture that the story they are in, is set in? Are the women treated with value for their personal agency in the portrayal in the film? Are the women portraying hackneyed stereotypes with respect to their individual identities and choices?

If violence is shown, is it a portrayal of a realistic situation or an integral part of the story (for instance, telling the story of a survivor of violence)? If violence is shown, is it an unnecessary element to reassert male dominance and masculinity? And finally, what role does her sexual orientation, race, caste, class, religion, language and other cultural attributes, play – are they meaningless caricatures, are they substantial, are they used to mock, or are they portrayed with authenticity?

The Indian film industry carries portrayals that relate to the Indian social and cultural ethos – and it is a sine qua non that these factors be kept in mind while evaluating the way the industry works.

That it reflects an undercurrent of institutionalized sexism that prevails in India is now a given. These elements emerge from a social setting in India where homosexuality is criminalized, sex is not spoken about and sex education is discouraged and even banned in some of the largest cities and states.

The dichotomy in the two approaches – where covertness sheaths all the important conversations that must be had, and misogyny and patriarchy are reasserted time and again – is one of the biggest factors that contributes to a constant cycle of violence. This needs to change.

This article first appeared here.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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