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Sex and sensibility: Women in Indian cinema

Apr 01, 2013

As Indian cinema comes under severe criticism for propagating gender stereotypes and objectifying women, several voices from within the film fraternity have come forward with their opinion.

Jaipur: Tune in to the radio, switch on the TV or catch the latest flick in town - there's no escaping the songs and images of female actors dancing provocatively to songs like 'Chikni Chameli' and 'Secondhand Jawani', which have come to define quintessential popular movie fare.

Size zero women gyrating on the big and small screen is the norm today and the contagion unfortunately is not restricted to celluloid only. The trend has spilled into the real world, as 'inspired' youngsters imitate their favourite stars and perform at wedding parties and social dos, even as families and friends laud their 'talent'.

So is what we see on screen a celebration of a woman's sensuality or a "commodification" of her body? Where do we draw the line when it comes to portrayal of women in cinema? Are filmmakers at fault, is it a desperate attempt by actors to grab eyeballs or is Bollywood simply an easy target?

In a recent media interview, director Onir, who has earned accolades for socially sensitive films like 'My Brother Nikhil' and 'I Am', reacted strongly saying "it's easy to say that don't victimize Bollywood, but the fact is that we are indulging in commodification of women on screen. A woman is thrusting her body in your face and there are 50 men surrounding her and leering at her. Is that not insulting to a woman? ... Now this is what is seen by a kid, and this is what he thinks is right... so yes we are also to blame..."

Actor, activist and parliamentarian Shabana Azmi, too, is unhappy with what she sees on screen. "There is a fine line between an image that celebrates female sensuality and one that objectifies her. In an item number, the camera angles focus on the swiveling navel and swinging hips. When filmmakers do that, they make the heroine surrender her autonomy to the male gaze. The problem is that women of our age, who otherwise speak so assertively, are doing roles without making informed choices," says the actor, who participated at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, where a discussion on portrayal of women in cinema drew in a large number of ardent Hindi cinema fans.

Azmi's colleague, yesteryear actress Sharmila Tagore, who was also the chairperson of the Censor Board of Film Certification, doesn't believe that filmmakers are entirely to blame. "Sexist images are present not just in films or item numbers. A woman can be commodified even if she is covered from head to toe. There is a need to read the text correctly; merely blaming the image is not the solution. In advertisements, why do men sell motorcycles and sari-clad women shown operating washing machines? Isn't that sexist? Why can't that be reversed?" she questions.

What worries poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar is the poor language in which songs are being penned nowadays. "The kind of lyrics that are being written, one would have to be extremely kind to even call them lyrics," he remarks. Akhtar's assessment is bang on. Tune into any recent hit and innuendoes and expletives seem to be the standard practice - 'Ishq kameena, Beedi jalayile, Tinku jiya, Zara zara touch me...' the list just seems to be getting longer and longer.

Adman and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, who shot to fame with his thought-provoking lyrics for the film 'Rang De Bansanti', is very critical of the trend that is promoting provocative numbers in the name of folk music. He says, "Item songs are not folk numbers. Folk comes from simple daily rural life chores, like 'dhaan kootna' (rice thrashing) or conversation between close relations like two sisters-in-law confiding in each other. Songs like 'Munni badnam hui' are something else."

It is often said that films are a mirror of the society. In the 1950s, the 'zamindar' (landowner) used to be the bad guy. Then the focus shifted to the industrialist, who was projected as an exploiter of the labour classes. In the 1970s came the angry young man, an individual disillusioned with a hypocrite social order, expertly portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan. Today, the once clear line between the Hero and the Anti-Hero has blurred. Azmi has no qualms is saying that "aaj ke hero ki morality me hi kuch gadbad hai (there is something wrong with the morals that the hero once used to stand for)".

She also feels that female actors need to pick their roles with care. Recalling her experience of working in the 1980s film, 'Thodi Si Bewafaii', a role which Azmi feels was a turning point for her, she says, "It was an eye opener for me; I was pulled up by many women for portraying a wife who, at the end of the movie, returns to her husband [played by Rajesh Khanna] saying: 'Pati ke ghar ka dukh, mayake ke sukh se kahin behtar hai (Suffering at one's marital home is far better than living a happy life at one's parents' home)."

At the time, Azmi was generally criticised for projecting the message that whatever the hurt, humiliation or ill treatment, a woman should not step out of her husband's home. "I had never thought of it in that way. That was the beginning of informed choices in my life," she adds. Later, she did 'Arth' in which she essayed the role of a woman who rejects her husband after he deserts her for another woman. Her character asks a simple question: 'Would he have accepted her if she had left him?'

"My problem is that the commodification of women is happening at a subliminal level, without the women even understanding it. I understand that a 31-year-old heroine acting in a film may not be able to influence her director into writing a new role for her but she can certainly ask for her to be shown as self-reliant, working woman. Since females are seen as a liability and sons as taking care of parents in their old age, if more women are shown to be independent, it will help dispel the myth that she is a burden. At least start that process," Azmi urges.

Prasoon Joshi supports Azmi's point of view. He says, "Crime can't be cool and anti-heroes too can't be cool. Does anyone name their child Ravan?" He also draws attention to the oft-repeated stereotypical dialogues like 'Meri doli aayi hai, ab to yahan se arthi hi niklegi' or 'kya ladkiyon ki tarah ro rahe ho (why are you crying like a girl)' or 'aapne kya chudiyan pahan rakhi hain' - expressions that reflect "a typical patriarchal mindset in our society".

While both Joshi and Azmi lay emphasis on the "intent of the director", they add that society, read the audience or consumer of such films, can't be let off completely. "The fact is that every product is tested in the market and if the consumer rejects it, it cannot sustain. The same is true for vulgar films and lyrics. The society repeatedly consumes objectionable contents. If that was not so, why would rape videos on YouTube have alarmingly high hits," asks Joshi.

As a society that is in transition, is confused, there is an urgent need to look inwards, introspect, reflect and analyse. We need to self-regulate and change the mindset instead of mindlessly accepting sub-standard, sexist fare in the name of entertainment. Making "informed choices" seems to be the mantra – not only for filmmakers, actors and artistes but for audiences as well.

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