NEW DELHI // In the wake of massive protests over the gang rape and murder of a young student in New Delhi, some critics have blamed Bollywood for India’s culture of objectifying women.
India’s film industry, the largest in the world, produces nearly a thousand movies every year. In many, critics claim, women are treated purely as sexual objects, a misogyny that helps to perpetuate sexual violence and rape across the country.
“Bollywood loathes women. Bollywood is a monster that has gone horribly wrong,” the award-winning playwright Mahesh Dattani wrote in a fiery website column. Women flocking to Bollywood with dreams of becoming actresses, Mr Dattani wrote, soon made their peace with the fact that they would only ever be “arm candy, item girls, objects to be loved, raped, avenged”.
The uniquely Bollywood invention, the “item number”, has come in for particular condemnation. The term was coined in 1999 for the movie Shool, and describes a song that adds little to the movie’s plot but exists only to present women dancing in skimpy attire. The lyrics of such songs invite further sexual attention. The song Munni Badnaam Hui, from the 2010 film Dabangg, hints at how a woman – Munni, with “red cheeks”, “intoxicating eyes” and “a figure like Shilpa Shetty’s” – earned a bad name by sleeping with her lover.
Many standard Bollywood film plots also depend upon the trope of the hero relentlessly pursuing the heroine, wearing down her resistance only after she turns him down several times.
“But when a woman says ‘No’, it should be a ‘No’. The film can’t make it seem OK that the hero pestered her for so long just because she comes around at the end,” said Amrita Bhinder, a corporate lawyer in Gurgaon.
Ms Bhinder said Bollywood films had become more and more patriarchal, “so that women are presented as a man thinks a woman should look”. “I haven’t seen too many films these days in which a woman has a firm role and speaks up about what is and isn’t acceptable to her,” she said. “We’re made to believe that women are more liberated simply because they can expose themselves more on screen.”
Jai Arjun Singh, a film critic in New Delhi, said he did not believe Bollywood was “necessarily more oppressive towards women than it was before … I tend to be wary of the idea that our cinema was once hugely cultured and respectful, and that it has deteriorated over time”.
But Mr Singh agreed that, in today’s more permissive climate, filmmakers “trade in offensive lyrics and dialogue just to cater to the lowest common denominator”.
As a result, Mr Singh said, a boy in a small town “will see a film with miniskirted or tight-jeaned heroines – possibly his first representation of the idea that a woman can look like that.
“If the film in question shows the hero treating the heroine as a sex object, it will send the message to this viewer that women who dress like that can be treated in a certain way.”
Some Bollywood stars have agreed, with caveats, with some of the criticism that has come their way since the murder of the student in New Delhi on December 16.
In the magazine India Today, the director Farhan Akhtar wrote: “As a filmmaker, I must also look inward to see if the industry that I belong to could be partially responsible in propagating this kind of mindset. And I must say, sadly so, the answer is yes.”
On Twitter, the actor Rahul Bose acknowledged that item numbers are “indicative of systemic disrespect for women”, although he cautioned that no direct link could be drawn between these songs and the incidence of rape. The director Anurag Kashyap, on Twitter, said that while Bollywood needs “to stop objectifying our women in what we call our second religion … our films”, he said outright bans or regulation were not the solution.
Mr Kashyap said such a system of moralising censorship would create “another kind of Taliban”.