By Rhea Mathur
From the first silent Marathi Film in 1913 to the business of Bollywood now worth crores, Indian cinema has evolved tremendously since its inception. Yet, since the beginning of times, it has held a mirror reflecting the societal mindset. A change in the representation of women has been seen in the last decade. Movies such as Queen and Kahani include strong female characters that question society and the role of women in it. This shows a development in the mindset as Bollywood moves from representing women as eye-candy to the representing complex characters.
The strong, well-rounded female portrayal
In 2017, the movies that succeeded at the box office were Judwaa 2, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Tubelight and Raees. None of these movies had a strong female lead carrying the film. However, movies like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha were made to empower women by highlighting a highly neglected issue across the country.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha spreads awareness about the lack of bathrooms in households across India. This is done through the depiction of a conflict between a father and his son. The conflict encompasses the lack of education on sanitation and an ancient belief that a toilet does not belong in the household. The father is rigid in this belief due to his dedication to Dharma and the son, on the other hand, depicts respect for the woman he loves. This film starring Akshay Kumar, one of the biggest Bollywood stars, helps inform the uneducated about the struggles faced by women on a daily basis. The gender bias is also highlighted through this film. Open defecation or urination by men is not shunned and hence, men remain unaffected by the presence of toilets. Women, conversely, are forced to walk for miles to do the same, in urban slums or rural areas. There have also been several cases of harassment faced by women while travelling to isolated locations.
Such films are classified as mindful content as they aid in bridging the gap between genders. They also question practices in India that dictate the role of women without acknowledging its result on their well-being.
The flip side of movie adaptations
One of the widely misunderstood ways of sexual harassment was glorified again in Indian cinema in 2017. From Toilet: Ek Prem Katha to Badrinath Ki Dulhania, most directors prefer to use ‘stalking’ as a method to pave the way for a love story in the film. In Badrinath Ki Dulhania, there is a long scene where the protagonist, Varun Dhawan, follows Alia Bhatt, the female lead while she performs her daily routine. This scene also comes after her character has clearly rejected the idea of a love story between them. Varun Dhawan is still shown sitting atop a car wearing his sunglasses, with a friend, waiting for Alia Bhatt to appear. The female lead is almost forced to fall in love, sending the message that an initial rejection by a woman is not definite and can be overcome by methods such as stalking. Thus, Indian cinema refuses to comprehend the malicious nature of this act of pressurising a woman by romanticising the idea instead. This scene is recurring in even a film made to empower women (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha) which portrays a lack of knowledge in the context of sexual harassment. These ideas also then develop in the minds of their large audience across the country.
This, yet, is not the only scene that proved to be problematic in the two-hour movie. In Badrinath Ki Dulhania, another scene that raised questions in the minds of the audience is the scene where Varun Dhawan is molested by a group of men. The fact that the group was initially assumed to have been interested in Alia Bhatt but instead, showed interest in the male character was expected to add an element of humour. Going as far as showing the group tearing the protagonist’s clothes and then his friends treating it like a humorous situation trivialised the ill-intent behind sexual harassment. Instead of adding humour, the scene made the audience question the directors understanding of the dire consequences of molestation and the idea that sexual harassment should be taken seriously regardless of gender was completely lost in this film.
A case of unintentional consequences?
It is evident that Badrinath Ki Dulhania initially attempted being progressive in nature. The main plot revolves around the idea that women should be able to follow their own dreams and aspirations without any hindrance or questioning. This motive is not completely lost through the film, however, is unable to make as strong an impact due to the presence of varies questionable elements promoting a gender bias.
Along with these films, the fourth-highest-grossing Bollywood film of 2017, Judwaa 2, is surprisingly sexist in its approach. This film, with Varun Dhawan as the protagonist again, also has elements seen as inappropriate and added only to facilitate humour. These elements include Dhawan grabbing random women as well as going as far are kissing them without consent. The matter of consent is completely lost in the film. In fact, the addition of a scene where the protagonist fights off goons to rescue the female lead is used to validate his own behaviour. It is also seen as the reason behind the beginning of the love story. In almost every film in 2017, the women begin with rejecting the possibility of a romantic sequence with the male protagonist only to fall for them later in the film.
Throughout the film, Judwaa 2 indulges in the objectification of women. It is also, in fact, the source of most of the comedy in the film. Since the film has fared incredibly well this year, one would wonder if the trivialisation of important issues and depiction of inappropriate behaviour are the only means of comedy in Bollywood.
Was this year still better than before?
In 2017, Bollywood completely missed having a film with a female protagonist, something which has made previous years slightly more successful in the aspect of women empowerment. An interesting comparison could have been made between movies like Judwaa 2 and English Vinglish, comparing the popularity of the two movies, thus, evaluating the preference and mindset of the general audience.
There might have been no female protagonist this year but the practice of item songs in movies still continued. In Raees, Sunny Leone, an actress usually seen in a lead role, is cast in the item song (Laila O Laila) that bears no importance to the main plot of the movie. Item songs, by their name itself, promote the objectification of women. The concept of item songs sets us back to an age where a woman was more valued for her body than her brain, making us wonder whether 2017 was a good year for women in Bollywood.
Since movies like Badrinath ki Dulhania did touch upon the troubles of women in today’s times, it can be concluded that Bollywood is not far from an age where unpleasant humour such as the kind in Judwaa 2 could be completely eradicated. In fact, movies like Golmaal Again managed to induce humour without crossing the boundaries between comedy and indecency. The only factor that is bewildering is the fact that even after all this, the highest grossing movie out of all of the above is Judwaa 2. It is worth asking whether this does reflect on the mindset of the audience and their interpretation of humour.
How can Bollywood do even better?
There are several ways in which Bollywood can improve. The most evident solution is facilitating an increase in the number of films led by a female actor and decreasing the number of item songs. This would help establish gender equality in Bollywood.
An important component is also the end of movies that objectify women as well as the promote stalking and other forms of sexual harassment. Directors need to be well aware of the content they are producing as well as its repercussions on the general audience.
All in all, the role of women in films may not have improved in 2017. However, each questionable scene was brought to light by the media. Directors will soon be forced to make only mindful content and leave behind the derogatory concepts such as that of item numbers in 2017.
Featured Image Credits: Flickr