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From Colourism To Saviour Complex, Bollywood’s Serious Representation Problem

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saree-clad Akshay Kumar with bangles on his wrist, doing the distinct ‘clap’ linked with the hijra community and imitating other stereotypical balderdash goes ahead to make a movie monetarily backed by the biggest names in Indian cinema about a transwoman.

The problem doesn’t end with the fact that the protagonist wasn’t played by an actual transwoman but with the fact that it harmed the community more than it actually helped it. As the movie critics go berserk, throwing limelight on the fact that the movie is poorly made, the fact about under-representation in Indian cinema remains unheeded.

Akshay Kumar’s portrayal of a transwoman was problematic on so many levels.

Lack Of LGBTQIA+ Representation

The tale of cis-gender actors playing the role of a community they barely research about just to capitalize off their stories and struggles goes way back to the past decade. For example, Sadashiv Amrapukar in the 1991 movie ‘Sadak’ goes ahead to play the role of a trans woman villain which never went beyond the stereotypes and the trope of cross-dressing men to further stigmatize the queer community. 

The lack of representation in one of the key determinants of what we call the ‘Indian culture’, art and its subsets like cinema and television isn’t just limited to mocking the LGBTQIA+ community but also breeds racism by enabling blackface culture, patriarchy by having lesser women in the lead roles, colourism, ableism & casteism by adhering to the stereotypes, hence giving ground to an inaccurate portrayal of these stories. 

Indian cinema, in general, hasn’t till date been able to differentiate between racism and colourism but has been enabling both, simultaneously by showing dark-skinned characters belonging to lower strata of social and economic status, making fair-skinned play the roles of dark-skinned characters with nothing but a layer of foundation that is 12 shades darker than their original skin shade.

Racism And Colorism

Bhumi Padnekar’s blackface in Bala (2019).

The phenomenon which is eerily similar to what they call ‘blackface’ in the west, where white actors portrayed (and continue to do so) black characters by smearing darker shades of makeup on their face. Some may argue that it’s not problematic but in fact helps in storytelling because fair skin actors usually are the ones that have a larger fan base. The former statement contradicts itself and indirectly sheds light on our obsession with lighter skin shades which has inculcated institutionalized racism and colourism in the art industry. 

Bhumi Padnekar in the 2019 film Bala, portrays the role of someone disadvantaged due to her skin tone, but the catch is, Padnekar herself is fair-skinned had her skin cosmetically darkened for the role. There isn’t a lack of people coming from these backgrounds or identities who are willing to work in these films but it’s our obsession with the already famed artists that limits the empowerment of those lesser-known artists. 

The obsession with patriarchy is deeply rooted and influenced by real-life situations of women in Indian society. As the popular notion goes along the lines of cinema or art in general, acts as a mirror that reflects reality. The patriarchal struggle in Bollywood goes hand in hand with a saviour complex which usually gives cis-gender males the role of a ‘hero’, dubbed as a protagonist in movies about women empowerment. The stories might have been made in a way that it defies the prejudiced lenses of society in the name of ‘feminism’, through a privileged lens, makes the involvement of women in a male-dominated space something extraordinaire.

Feminism And The Portrayal Of Patriarchy

This further goes against the efforts of normalizing the idea of equating everyone from the gender spectrum limited to the empowerment of usually cis-gendered and upper-caste women whilst turning a blind eye to the way a woman isn’t considered an equally capable and important part of society, as men, even in modern-day India.

Movies like Pink while focussing on important topics do come off portraying a male saviour complex.

Films like ‘Pink’ which focus on the important topics of consent and rape comes with their own version of a saviour complex where the victims aren’t taken seriously until a male, Amitabh Bacchan in a courtroom setting in this scenario speaks on behalf of them. The further dilution of its own intentions comes from the fact that it focuses more on the women who are victims than it focuses on men who are the perpetrators of these crimes. 

In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if we don’t talk about if there’s hope for improvement or not and in short, there is indeed a small ray of hope to reverse these effects. For instance, the rise of Dalit-Bahujan storytelling through smaller mediums gives some hope of suppressing the savarna version of their stories and gives a more accurate representation of these marginalized communities.

There have been movies in the past that give a relatively better and nuanced perspective of these stories, like Aligarh, Tamanna, No one killed Jessica, Masaan, etc., though having actors who do not belong to the communities they are portraying on screen or having a ‘girl boss version’ of feminism as its plot have far better storytelling than movies made by people with no association whatsoever with people these movies are made about.

This might be because who is behind the camera in these scenarios plays an important role in how effective the conveyance mechanism of the movies is.

Whilst there remain a lot of differences that we need to overcome, actively initiating or indulging in conversations revolving around these topics might as well help in bringing in positive changes. Rest as the quote from the 2009 film ‘Udaan’ goes “Joh lehron se aage Nazar dekh paati, toh tum jaan lete main kya sochta hoon…” loosely translating to “if only you could see beyond the waves, you could understand what I think”, Indian cinema has to look past the barriers of stereotypes and maybe marginalized groups will be thankful for it shortly. 

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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 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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