Bollywood: Failing Women Since Its Advent

Indian film culture normalizes the sexual objectification and sexual harassment of women

Like many of you, perhaps, my parents immigrated to Canada in the pursuit of Gatsby’s green light, hoping to build a better future for their kids.

Another big factor in their move was my mom’s refusal to raise her daughters in India. She still can’t put into words, even all these years later, the numerous restrictions society places on Indian women – what to eat, how to dress, what to look like. The best words to sum up her experience, as a woman who was born and raised there, is that women are treated like caged birds.

Despite the rise of socially progressive movements, like campaigns for gender equality and pushes for LGBTQ rights, India is still viewed as socially conservative compared to the Western world.

In this traditionally conservative society, there’s a hush around issues of sexual assault, sex and consent. The gaps of information left by reliable adults are easily filled with the toxic, and frankly dangerous, ideas put forth by Indian film culture.

From spewing ideas of toxic masculinity, to sexually degrading women, to normalizing sexual harassment and stalking, looking back at some of our favorite Bollywood classics will leave you questioning the morality of the industry.

Failing its women

What’s ironic about Bollywood films is that despite them being consumed by largely traditional societies, they openly depict romance, lust and sexuality – and no one seems to care. The case is in fact the opposite; the film industry is valued at over $2.28 billion dollars.

To understand how Bollywood normalizes predatory behaviour and sexual harassment, it’s important to first come to terms with how women are portrayed.

Bollywood films are typically high-production musicals – think La La Land on drugs. Songs convey emotion and passion, while providing relief from a continuous dialogue. Why hear characters confess their love for each other, when you can watch them dance their hearts out in the rain to the backdrop of catchy tunes instead? But dance numbers aren’t as innocent as they seem.

Attractive women are often the subject of degrading dances called “item numbers”, where they dance provocatively in skimpy outfits alongside a group of lustful men, often to beat of the next trending tune. What’s more is that these dances do little to advance the plot – they’re used more as a gimmick by producers to attract male audiences.

Not only are women degraded in the way they act on screen, but also in the type of characters they typically portray – weak, helpless, women akin to Disney princesses in need of heroic rescue.

Actress Katrina Kaif performs an item number in the movie "Agneepath". (Photo courtesy of MTV India.)

Actress Katrina Kaif performs an item number in the movie "Agneepath". (Photo courtesy of MTV India.)

Forget cultivating their own careers, goals, or motivations in life – Bollywood’s misogynistic culture paints women as secondary characters and assets to be won over by brave and ambitious men, all in a convenient 2.5-hour timespan. 

Take for example Parvati from the famous love story Devdas. For the ten years that her childhood lover spends studying abroad, she does little else other than re-read the letters he writes her and keeps the candle she lit in his memory burning.  Or Megha from Mohabbatein, who pulls a Juliet and commits suicide after finding out that her father won’t accept her lover – on a side note, can we stop romanticizing suicide?

Storylines like these strip Indian women of the resilience and strength they possess to make them more submissive and palatable to audiences. And although more recent movies like English Vinglish and Piku feature strong female leads, I can’t help overlooking the fact that most of the iconic Bollywood films I’ve grown up watching colour an entire generation of women like me as essentially useless.

Bollywood through the #MeToo lens

In the 1980s movie, Josh, Aishwarya Rai sings a song lyric that goes: “Ye uska style hoinga, hoton pe na aur dil pe haan hoinga” which is loosely translated to “She’s just playing hard to get. Even if she’s saying no with her lips, she’s really saying yes with her heart.”

Lyrics like these accurately sum up many of the romantic relationships portrayed in Bollywood – man pursues a woman, the woman makes it clear she is uninterested, man continues to relentlessly pursue the woman, and eventually, man wins woman’s heart.

Much like in Hollywood romcoms, behaviours that would qualify as sexual harassment in the real world are romanticized and normalized in Bollywood movies. This includes repeated stalking and eve-teasing, because as the lyrics suggest, women don’t really mean no when they say it once.

It’s equally subtle and largely visible scenarios that illustrate the normalization of sexual harassment. In a popular film released in 2013 titled Ranjhanna, the male protagonist creepily stalks the female character he’s had a crush on since childhood, despite her clearly refusing his advances. He watches her praying, spies on her while she’s at school, and follows her around the city when she’s out with friends, all to the tune of a catchy hit song.

Only after he threatens to commit suicide does she agree to go out with him, and naturally, they fall in love by the end of the movie. 

Or take one of my other favourite Bollywood classics about a girl named Simran and her lover, Raj, who rushes to save her from an arranged marriage. When they first meet on a train to Europe, Raj makes numerous advances towards her after she tells him to leave her alone. But obviously if men listened to the resistances of women, Bollywood movies wouldn’t exist. Again, by the end of the trip, they fall in love.

Movie scenes like these send the message that creepily pursuing women after they refuse your advances will result in love, and not a restraining order. If it works in Bollywood, why wouldn’t it work in real life?

It’s hard to combat the way Bollywood portrays its women, because ultimately, audiences don’t consider it a problem. Until movie-goers take a stance against the problematic worlds depicted by Indian film culture, the industry will continue profiting off what’s been racking in money for decades.