Cinema in India has always been greatly influential over society. Movies sway the Indian society in different ways, and impact individuals’ personal lives. Be it the clothes they wear, the way in which they speak, their social behavior, is all affected by commercial Bollywood films directly or indirectly. As India is a country abundant with diverse cultures, it has its share of regional film industries like the Big Bollywood (north Indian cinema, mainly), Tollywood (Telugu Cinema), Kollywood (Tamil cinema), etc. All the movies that these film industries produce are revered to the point of idol worship in some cases (the venerable Rajnikanth). There is no ambiguity as to the entertainment such films provide, but it is often at the cost of women’s intelligence and dignity.
A factor common to all regional industries and Bollywood is the unrealistic and stereotyped portrayal of women. It can be argued that women are portrayed in much the same way in all Indian media. That this portrayal is entirely sexist is abundantly clear.
Female characters in Bollywood are more often than not stereotyped as dumb, mindless creatures with only sexual gratification to offer. Objectification of women, as sexual objects is very common in commercial Indian movies. There are countless examples of such stereotypes. The most common stereotype is the Love interest. The main actress or ‘heroine’ is almost always portrayed as the Hero’s love interest and has little else to do in the movie except please the hero with her beauty and romance. This stereotype is so common that it is not questioned. The heroine is never portrayed as an individual with intellect, her ideas and thoughts pertaining to anything other than romance or family are not portrayed.
Another characteristic of this stereotype is virginity. The heroine’s virginity is placed on a pedestal and her chastity is considered to be a requisite to respecting a woman. The unchaste and brazen women, who are shown to be sexually active, are generally characterized as negative characters, a degradation to women’s sexuality.
This degradation of women is escalated by the infamous ‘Item Songs’ of Bollywood, which is another very common women’s stereotype. Characterization of women as Sexual objects of desire is the objective in these songs: Munni badnaam hui, Sheila ki jawani, chikni chameli. Skimpily clad actresses dancing to the tune of vulgar and anti-feminist lyrics seems to be the norm in any popular Bollywood movie. Some believe in the argument that item songs celebrate the sexuality of a woman. But this is certainly not the case. Celebrating a woman’s sexuality would be portraying her sexual freedom: the main lead heroine would be portrayed to be a non-virgin or a sexually active individual, who society accepts. Another terrible disrespect women suffer is that they are labeled as ‘item girls’, as the term ‘item’ is a disrespectful slang referring to a vulgar woman. Perhaps the most worrying aspect to this objectification of women by the Indian film industry is that women are playing a major role in degrading their own feminine spirit, by agreeing to be classified as ‘item girls’ and consciously playing such roles in movies which require them to act as mere objects of sexual desire and not as intellectual individuals.
It is true that Indian cinema has produced various mainstream women centric films that have featured women’s social issues and their social and sexual abuse. Fashion, Heroine, PAGE 3, Corporate or Dirty Picture have been very successful commercially and feature women as the main protagonists in the movie. However, a common theme runs throughout these movies which show successful women: women are almost always portrayed to be prone to failure and fall prey to social evils like alcohol, drugs, when they earn success in life. It can be inferred that such movies portray women as weak characters who get ruined by the freedom that is accompanied by success.
Even in critically acclaimed movies that portray women as victims of social or sexual abuse, like Water, or Damini, women are always portrayed as victims of abuse, who, need assistance from men to escape such conditions. Therefore, even such so-called ‘women-centric’ films are not free from gender stereotypes.
In a deep contrast, movies like Nayak , Deewar , Sholay , Krissh , Lakshya, Singham that have strong male characters as protagonists, celebrate men in the roles of alpha males who triumph over social and political evils, and achieve their goals independently. This stark contrast delivers a message to the society which essentially declares that women can never be equal to men, either socially, or politically.
In films, it is generally seen that some dialogues gain a somewhat landmark status. The dialogues of a movie reflect the popular culture of a society at that period of time. We have all heard the famous ‘Mere pass maa hai’, however, other dialogues such as ‘jaa choodiyan pehen ke beth jaa’ (go wear bangles and sit down, implying that a woman is incapable and useless) are frequently used in films and resonate the message that women are intellectually and socially inferior to men.
Indians subconsciously or consciously believe that movies are a reflection of the Indian society. Therefore, it can be surmised that stereotyped portrayals of women in movies is contributing to rampant sexism prevailing in India.