For any Indian youth in the 1990s, the era and after is symbolic of liberty, or the removal of barriers. As the barriers isolating the country from the rest of the world were removed, so were the barriers to liberty. However, one choice still held substantial barriers: that of a woman’s decision to say no.
Rape Culture is the very embodiment of this barrier.
It is the society wherein male sexual violence is normalised, and the victim is blamed for her assault. Common indications of rape culture include the prevalence of rape jokes, a trivialization of rape and condoning sexual violence and sexual assault. Moreover, Bollywood, through its ‘item songs’, its ‘masala’ films, and its ability to transform harassment into romance was at the heart of promoting this culture. The post-globalisation era of Bollywood promotes rape culture by invalidating a woman’s consent and placing the needs of the male above the female’s right to choose instead.
Lalita Gopalan, in her essay ‘Avenging Women in Indian Cinema’, goes back to the 1970s and the Emergency to explain how the portrayal of rape and sexual violence came to be normalised by Indian cinema- the failed state was seen as the perpetrator of a wronged woman’s misery. “Courtrooms play a significant role in these films if only to demonstrate the State’s inability to convict the rapist…” She further elaborates on how at times the protagonist that is wronged was even given the name Bharati, a female version of Bharat – an allegory of the State being dishonoured. (Gopalan, 1997). This set precedent. To use the dishonour of a woman as a means of dishonouring all associated with her as a norm, although the showcasing of rape per say is definitely much less prevalent.
However, it was not until the post-globalisation era, that Bollywood indeed started to perpetuate the rape culture. The very first example to support this is that almost all male protagonists (perhaps the closest roles model young Indian males have) are characterised by hyper-masculinity and excessive violence. The omnipotence of Bollywood in Indian culture essentially means that the country does not have genuine role models apart from Bollywood leads. Hence they idolise men who condone violence and dominance and believe that the female leads are rewards to be acquired by any means possible. This, coupled with the fact that Bollywood rarely depicts strong female leads harms not only men but also women, as women idolise the submissive and docile female leads depicted in films, thus internalising the notion that they have no say in the matter. While recently, female-led films like Kahaani (2012) and Queen (2014) have garnered great success, women are often merely glorified props in the mass entertainers, as showcased in the successful Dhoom franchise (2004, 2006, 2013) where the females are merely floozies. The next example is that of the hyper-sexualised and entirely off plot ‘item songs’ – dance routines that portray an actress in apparently provocative clothing and the lyrics objectify the woman as an unattainable tease. Not only are these songs entirely irrelevant to the story, but they are also used as a marketing gimmick. Bollywood also trivialises the issue of rape and sexual assault. This can be seen in Shootout at Wadala (2013), where a character attempting to join a gang nonchalantly says he is willing to do anything to get inducted, including rape. Also, while rape may not be overtly encouraged in Bollywood, eve teasing is sold like hotcakes. The popular movie Raanjhana (2013) depicts the hero as a harmless stalker hopelessly in love, and the heroine while resisting at first ultimately gives into his show of ‘affection’ that is but synonymous with harassment. (Jha, Nashrulla 2014)
Despite this, many in Bollywood disagree with the fact that the movies influence rape culture. Shah Rukh Khan, in an interview in 2014 stated that he is very clear that Bollywood does not in any way contribute to the degradation of women and anybody who thinks so is exceptionally myopic. He furthered this claim by asserting that the actresses who play the leads have no qualms in being ‘item girls’ or submissive women in derogatory scenes, as they chose to do so. When critiqued about how on-screen sexual violence does translate into harassment and violence, he dismissed the claim entirely.
“I have not seen comedy come on streets because of comedy, then why do you start assuming that the treatment of women and the commodification of women is now coming on because of Bollywood. I do not think so at all” (Brook, 2014).
What Khan ignores is hard evidence.
In 2015, Sandesh Baliga, an Indian immigrant in Australia, was acquitted of stalking and harassment charges by two women on the plea that he was influenced by Bollywood culture, which taught him that if he continues to stalk and chase a woman, she would eventually agree. The judge agreed to this plea because, given the nature of Bollywood films, the defendant did not know what he was doing was a criminal act. It is normalised in the movies he watches! (Child, 2015). This is not an isolated incident- harassment, molestation, eve-teasing, stalking and even rape are everyday occurrences that plague women in India, and Bollywood continues to contribute to it without facing any significant repercussions.
Movies like Grand Masti (2013), are grossly violent in their portrayal of women – a woman is born to gratify man’s needs. Such movies achieve significant commercial success, and the item songs are still played at every social gathering. All over the country, and in many parts of the world, children listen to songs like ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’ (Dabang, 2010) and learn that it is a perfectly normal situation. Adolescents learn that if they stalk or are being stalked, then it is an act of affection, not harassment. Angry youth learn that if a woman rejects, then revenge is a perfectly normal response. If this revenge includes violating her rights, it is all the more acceptable. According to National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015 there were 34,651 rapes reported, 92 rapes per day, four rapes every hour and one rape every 15 minutes. There were 5,192 molestation and 1,444 eve-teasing cases reported in 2015, and the total number of crimes against women stood at a whopping 327,394 (National Crime Records Bureau, 2016). And, Bollywood? Bollywood is selling the notion that these numbers going up are but a norm in society; that in the grand scheme of things, girls are at best – prizes, and at worst – objects to be used and thrown away. Women learn that their choice, their needs, their consent does not matter, and is beneath the wants and needs of the males in their lives. Thus, Bollywood perpetrates rape culture in India by vitiating a woman’s consent, and by making it a secondary character in the narrative of its films.
Lalantika Arvind is a Second Year Law Student, who is pursuing the B.A. LL.B. Honours Couse at Jindal Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.
*The featured image is of Devika Rani kissing Himanshu Rai in Karma (1933).
Brook, Tom. 2014. “Does Bollywood Incite Sex Crimes.” BBC [online].
http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140205-does-bollywood-incite-sex-crimes [Accessed 11 Jul. 2018]
Child, Ben. 2015. “Security Guard Avoids Jail by Blaming Bollywood for Stalking Habit”. The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jan/29/security-guard-avoids-jail-by-blaming-bollywood-for-stalking-habit [Accessed 11 Jul. 2018]
Dhoom. 2004, 2006, 2013. DVD. Bollywood.
Gopalan, Lalita 1997. “Avenging Women in Indian Cinema” pp 42-59
Grand Masti. 2013. DVD.Bollywood.
Jha, Rega and Nashrulla, Tasneem. 2014. “7 Ways Bollywood Is Contributing to Rape Culture in India” [Blog] BuzzFeed. Available at:
https://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/ways-bollywood-is-contributing-to-rape-culture-in-india?utm_term=.aryJj25L5#.mveQM10w0 [Accessed 11 Jul. 2018]
Kahaani. 2012. DVD. Bollywood.
Munni Badnaam Hui. 2010. [CD] Mumbai: T-Series.
National Crime Records Bureau. 2016. “Statistics of Crimes Against Women, 2015”. New Delhi: National Crime Records Bureau.
Queen. 2014. DVD. Bollywood.
Raanjhana. 2013. DVD. Bollywood.
Shootout at Wadala. 2013. DVD. Bollywood.