Bollywood soap movies between the 1960s and early 2000s were particularly vicious to women, trans individuals, the poor and the marginalised.
These larger than life movies poured immense emphasis on family as a unit with exaggerated moral and cultural values also known as ‘sanskaar’ and harvested a culture of glorifying toxic masculinity.
In an era where comedy was equated with misogyny, rape jokes, utter disregard for consent, many movies resonated with the mentality which said, “If she is my wife, she is my property. So how can it be rape? Look if I buy a car and drive it, it is not called robbery no?” This continuous objectification leads to a disregard for the woman’s body and person- and Bollywood’s servile and domesticated representation of a ‘good wife’ really does not help.
This toxic masculinity model would often translate into a righteous, holier than thou, authoritative man who controls the bodily autonomy of everyone under the same roof, because he believes himself to be “the head of of the household.” Thus, male characters would often claim the moral high ground, and attempt to reform antagonistic female characters including popular tropes such as the vampy modern bahu, village woman climbing the social ladder etc. And they would do so through mental, physical and financial abuse.
Hum Aapke Hai Kaun is a blockbuster movie with a cult following amongst the Indian middle class. It portrays Ajit, a demure, “respectful” man who slaps his wife and female antagonist Bindu, for instigating misunderstandings amongst their family members. Often used as the film’s comic relief, it’s understandable when she surpasses all thresholds of meanness in one scene. However, that is when her husband “puts her in her place” by taking matters into his own hands, quite literally.
The ensuing narrative depicting a reflective, repenting and reformed Bindu implies that this single slap led to an automatic transformation in her whole nature and rectify her behaviour. It leaves the audience behind with one message- “It’s okay to abuse your wife if she means. In fact, it is your responsibility to correct her behaviour… with a slap.”What is even scarier is Bollywood’s persistent effort to normalise this terrifying approach towards conflict resolution.
In another movie starring Madhuri Dixit and Aamir Khan as lovers say “what is love without a little pain?”At the end of this movie Dixit’s character, Madhu is asked to leave her husband Raja, for his own well-being. So when she tries to excuse herself out of the marriage, a lovelorn and disillusioned 90s lover, Aamir Khan does what toxic know to do best- abuse the wife by slapping her.
This movie not only shed light on how little women govern their body and decisions- and how much men use the same to weaponise against them. Considered a glorious lover and one of the biggest blockbuster romance of the time, Dil reminded us how good men and passionate lovers sometimes slap their wives.
Beta stars Anil Kapoor as Raju, a devoted son, who is blind to the faults of his mother. Madhuri Dixit plays Saraswati, his wife, who is mentally abused by her manipulative mother in law. While Saraswati ideally shouldn’t have had to put up with the slightest bit of emotional abuse- she does so to fulfil her duties as an ‘obedient daughter in law’ and a ‘good wife’.
When Saraswati reaches the upper limit of her pain threshold, she confronts her defensive, ‘ good natured’ husband Raju about his mother’s harassment. As expected, the character shames her, rebukes her and physically assaults her to prove his point. And he gains the empathy of thousands of Indian households while doing so.
Deepali Desai from Breakthrough, an NGO that works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls, gives an example of how portrayal and glorification are very different. “Take the 2006 film Provoked and then Kabir Singh. In Provoked, the husband is dominant, aggressive and abusive — but his actions have not been glorified. In fact, they’ve been depicted as horrifying, enabling its identifying and calling-out. The film let its audience realise just how horrifying intimate partner violence is. [But] Kabir Singh is dominant, aggressive and abusive. He will go down in history as a ‘hero’ and his violent actions have been glorified as part of the ‘hero’s entitlement.”
The reflection here is a poor collective conscience and dicey stances we have as a society concerning grave issues such as domestic violence. How can there be a grey area in matters like these? How can a man abuse their partner and still manage to have an unstained character report? By romanticising and labelling domestic violence as a ‘lover’s quarrel, this string of movies(among many others) dismisses the seriousness of the same. The lack of legislation and poor implementation of existing laws in India with respect to marital rape and domestic violence, as well as the courts turning their face away, does not help an angry, bereaved woman’s case.
While Bollywood has begun to make movies appealing against domestic violence such as ‘Thappad’ and ‘Provoked’, they continue to be little strides as long as they are set back by films that depict violence as a most regular, common and natural phenomenon in Indian households. Here this and hear it loud. Don’t just make movies about domestic violence to capitalise on women’s trauma. Instead, stop normalising little acts of abuse and start calling them out.
Film and society tend to mirror each other unless we as a society have a united stance on domestic abuse- little can be done about the glorification of toxic men and their unsolicited touch!