Throughout the history of Indian cinema, the story of every hero is incomplete without saving the “damsel in distress”—the heroine. Though the role of women in Indian cinema has been an integral one, the question is, was it an important one or merely a tool to create stereotypes for building a patriarchal empire?
With the movie “Kabir Singh” breaking records at the box office and people applauding the protagonist for all the wrong reasons, it is time for a moment of retrospection. Well, I’m definitely not blaming the movie for portraying a misogynist character. Kabir Singh’s story deserves to be narrated but alongside the portrayal of such a controversial character in Indian cinema comes a heap of responsibilities. Justifying the flawed behavior does not help, especially not how the film’s director, Sandeep Reddy Vanga did:
“If you can’t slap, if you can’t touch your woman wherever you want, if you can’t kiss, I don’t see the emotion there.”
Amidst all the hooting and howling during the introductory scene where the character is forcing a woman to strip her clothes by pointing a knife at her, a thought lingered in my mind—is this really how heroines and actresses today want to be treated? More importantly, is this how we want our mothers and sisters and daughters to be treated??
The reason we need to examine this issue and talk about it rather than just brushing it aside is the widespread impact these movies have on our society. The film industry has grown in India to the extent that it almost represents our societies not only in India but worldwide. The Indian film industry is the largest in the world, with almost 1000 movies made per year. Indian movies have an approximate of 4 billion viewers across the world, which is why its impact on society is undeniable.
From the way we dress to places we want to visit around the world, to even how romance blossoms in our lives, everything can be traced back to the cinemas. The ever-growing film industry tells stories of all kinds of people. Today, the regional film industries also flourish, and now people watch movies in their regional language as well. Being affordable and easily accessible, cinema has become the most popular medium of communication.
As the movies became popular, the actors became more than just actors, they became ‘heroes’, and people started becoming largely interested in their lives, thus ‘celebrities’ were born and their impact on our everyday lives, and (according to me) the lives of women in particular. With this level of stardom and acceptance in society, there is definitely a lot of responsibility as well.
The women in Indian cinema have evolved over time. Women have mainly played decorative objects in Hindi cinema for a long time. Or, even in films where they had important roles, they are more likely to be portrayed as victims and martyrs or they, too, torture other women! Rarely have films like “Kunku” presented women as strong females who can raise their voice against injustice, who can rebel in their own way and make their own political statement. The issue we face in our films more often than not is that it has become a means of engaging the audience (read male audience) since the major portion of movie-goers in theatres are men rather than women.
In earlier mythological classics, women were portrayed as goddesses and daasis, nowadays the times have changed, and women are starring in bold blockbusters, narrating untold stories of women. For instance, the story of the female procurer “Begum Jaan” (2017) starring Vidya Balan in the lead). Recently women-centric movies have swept the theatres. The development of the woman’s role in the industry can be understood by looking into movies like “Raazi“, the story of a female Indian spy in Pakistan. No movie maker would have dared to make such a movie ten years ago.
Not only on screen, but the prominence of women can also be seen in the technical side of movie-making as well. Women confidently take up the roles of movie directors, technicians, camera persons, etc. Various feminist movements, women rights activists, educated, empowered women, and also women who raise voices for their rights can be given credit for these changes that we see today. Men, too, on various instances, have stood up for women’s rights and supported the opportunities that have opened up for them today.
Movies have always been a very effective means of communication. Earlier, films were made drawing inspiration from Indian mythology for its popular appeal. It mainly shares the interests and values of male prejudice, dramatizing male fantasies of the female. Hence a woman is depicted either as an angel or as a monster.
During the freedom struggle, cinema was used to illustrate the agitation and oppression of various sections of society. It was also used to voice the ideas and views of the nationalist leaders and parties demanding independence. After independence, cinema became a very effective means to address social issues. During the golden age of Bollywood (the 1950s–70s), the rich tradition and culture of India were acknowledged. Films showcased customs, norms and ethics of Indian society. It was also the time when women were playing important roles in films, often carrying the entire film on their shoulders in the market. Women were given roles that were as crucial to the film as those of the male actor’s. A few examples include Mother India, made in 1957, by Mehboob. The film was made ten years after India gained independence from British rule. In this film, the director, Mehboob, attempts to combine socialistic ideals with traditional values.
The audience was able to relate well with the characters portrayed on screen at this time, and the popularity of cinemas grew immensely. Movies often portrayed a very desirable society where in the end, everyone “lived happily ever after”.
Many movies have addressed social issues like substance abuse like “Udta Punjab“, which alerts the society to the grave danger that substance abuse is pushing us into. At the same time, on the other end of the continuum is the clichéd “saas-bahu” portrayal of the “ideal” woman. In most of the hundreds of romcoms that get released, many undesirable situations are represented that do not enhance woman’s status in society. For instance, eve-teasing, dependence of women on men, portrayal of women as obedient housewives, abduction, rape, etc. as a tool to dominate over women, using nude photos as a tool to blackmail, exploitation of women by government officials, abusing women after consumption of alcohol, sexual favours coerced out of a woman, upper caste men oppressing lower caste women, portrayal of the woman as the vamp etc.
All of this has been shown as regular, everyday events without addressing the grave red flags they give off to the youth of our society.
This brings us to the question we confronted in the first place. Reel vs. real! When it comes to the screens, female actors often sign up for roles that are very derogatory to women, without really giving much thought to the possible consequences. But today, we are gradually realising the potential effects of such reel portrayal on society. Over the years, all that we have seen in movies has had both a positive as well as a negative impact upon us. Well, what is over is over and cannot be undone. Since we have realised that movies have such a massive impact on our society, we might as well ensure that women are given the respect they deserve, in the reel, so that the same might, in turn, get translated into real life.