Is Bollywood to blame for the cause of Female Discrimination in India?

Films are powerful. They transport you to another lifetime, another timeframe.

Films are alluring. Films have impact. They can influence fashion, style and even tastes in the opposite sex.

Those in the Western hemisphere know the influential power of the cinema. Of course, in cinema and in everything else, sex does sell. In every film, no matter what format, comedy or thriller, there is always a love interest which in the time frame of the film. Romance also sells, but sex is where the money is. Bollywood has cashed in on this, only on a far less obvious way.

Bollywood has tried to modernise itself to such an extent, it has lost its cultural roots in mainstream ‘blockbuster’ Bollywood. There is still beautiful cinema in India, but it’s not as popular with the locals as Bollywood is. The Bollywood industry I am explicitly referring to is the films who over-sexualise women to the point that they are only seen as commodities. In Indian papers and online, Female actors are referred to as the ‘sexiest’, the most ‘alluring’ as well as the most ‘hot’, and most recently, the most ‘cute’.


Actresses such as Katrina Kaif (Above) know what appeals to audiences, and having racy dance numbers are what brings in audiences attention, from young to old, male and female.

This appeal and appetite for hypersexuality has transferred into reality. As Natasha Walter states in her book, Living Dolls, “the hypersexual culture is not only rooted in continuing inequality, it also produces more inequality”. 

The world was horrified at the 16th December 2012 gang rape and eventual murder of a student, aged 23, on a Delhi bus.

Since 16th December, social media from all countries exploded in outrage. They screamed for change. And yet, none.

Two young teenage girls were out to relieve themselves in the cover of darkness in rural India. They did not return alive that night. Found hanging from a mango tree while a crowd of men looked on, local police would not allow the fathers to take their daughters away to be buried at the time.

For the Western world, this is brand new information of modern sexual violence from a postcolonial country. For those in the East, or of Eastern heritage, we have known about the discrimination and violence faced everyday of our lives.

But why?

For a country with a strong ethos for respect of mothers and family values, why is there so much violence against women?

The two incidents were not isolated cases. There are plenty of cases of discrimination, rape and violence against women in India. Yet, there are no records and reports from the police and media of what’s going on. What Indians know most about is Bollywood.

Millions of Indians watch Bollywood films, as the majority of rural Indians have little to no education, watching TV is how they gain insights of the outside world.

With millions living under the poverty line, they believe they do not have any sense of freedom or escape from poverty.

With the majority of Indian men being valued higher than women, the level of discrimination never ceases to end. Even to this day, there are reports of female fetuses being found in watering holes and in bins around rural villages.

Men in Indian society have a greater sense of entitlement. From the household to society, women have been silently in the shadows. Yes, times are changing. Women are on par with men on the work force and in education, yet there is discrimination and sexual assaults happening everyday.

The recent headlines over sexual assaults, discrimination and rape in India are not recent phenomena. Bollywood has been around for many years, since its first arrival to the nation in 1913, showcasing films, which reflect a nation’s views.

The classical films as they are now known, have always reinstated the family values of the traditional Indian household, with respected female roles. Films were filled with romance and melodrama. But up to the 1960s, the values and views of the portrayal of women had drastically changed. The romance films had disappeared to replace far more grittier and violent gangster films. Women were seen as sex objects, and men had more entitlement over them. There are plenty of Indian films, from the 60s to 80s, in which men chase women, a quarter of which films have direct references to rape. There was a brief change in Bollywood in the 80s and 90s, with far more successful films being family centered romantic musicals.

Modern Indian cinema, tries hard to be modern. From the 2000s, Bollywood had seen a dramatic growth in its popularity. It led to the nation creating far more complex scenes, production costs and technical advances and far more beautiful actresses and actors.

Not forgetting the beautiful European backup dancers in the movie’s songs, it’s a plethora of fantasy and escapism. Not many have even realized that although every female dancer is ‘white’ and foreign, male dancers are all of Indian origin.

From the change of Indian values seen on screen, was also the rise of reports of female discrimination. In September 1987, an 18 year old, Roop Kanwar was burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre (Sati), whether willingly or not in Rajasthan. A year before, a woman was set on fire by her husband for not bringing enough dowry to the marriage. In south India, a poor farm couple was ‘forced’ to kill their one-day-old infant, for the fear of not giving enough dowry to a marriage.

Although Indian women had the right to an abortion in 1971, and year and a half before it was legalized in America, Indian ‘society makes you feel bad, so bad if you don’t have a son’.

Throughout Bollywood, the majority of the production crew have been male. Its not until recently, with the rise of Director Farah Khan, have women have started to trickle along the production lines of film. With a male dominated film set, the film stories tend to be aimed towards men, who make up the majority of film seats in Indian cinemas. Films tend to contains:

As of December 2014, Uber was nationally criticized for not checking the criminal records of its Uber drivers in India, after reports of a female passenger being raped by the driver.

A series of widely reported cases have drawn attention to the growing problem of sexual violence towards women in the world’s second-most populous country.

Despite few reforms since December 2012, reported crimes against women such as rape, dowry deaths, abduction and molestation have increased by 26.7% in 2013, compared to the previous year, according to official government statistics. The number of reported rapes in the country rose by more than a third.

A young woman was set on fire after filing a rape complaint against three men in Ludhiana, last week in early December 2014.

Many women complain of systematic harassment, particularly on public transport.

India is the fourth most dangerous place for a woman to take public transport, according to a poll published in October by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. It was ranked second worst on safety at night and for verbal harassment.

In December 2014, Shenaz Treasurywala penned a personal letter to the Indian prime minister as well as those from cricket and Bollywood, for the call to end the narrative of shaming female assault victims, instead of helping them.

“Why do we as women have to feel so threatened? WHY has there been no severe action taken? This has gone on for years now. Not just in Delhi but all over our country and yes even in BOMBAY OR MUMBAI OR Whatever the hell you want to call it! It’s NOT SAFE. NO! My biggest fear ever since I was kid and even today when I walk back home at night from yoga or when I take a rickshaw from a friend’s home is being RAPED. I still feel that fear. I am still am on guard.”

Shenaz Treasurywala – One India

Conservatives have blamed the problems of sexual violence on western values, immodest dress, even on the over-consumption of junk food. Others say young men have caused the violence, coming from traditional rural backgrounds, which see the increasingly independent behaviour of young women as a threat.

But why is it a such a threat to them?

In Eastern culture, men have a greater sense of entitlement, drilled into their minds since they were children. They have always received what they wanted, when they wanted it, and to not have it – well, that’s not right!

If they try to woo a lady, they pursue without pausing.

What for some might be seen as stalking was, for Bollywood aficionados it was argued, “quite normal behaviour” as the movies encourage the idea that a woman will eventually fall in love with a man if he pursues her hard enough.’

Nirpal Dhaliwal, Guardian, 29th January 2015

Indian Cinema has had a profounding effect on its audiences. Whatever the actors do, audiences tend to copy, to be just like their favourite actors.

In the 60s, screen heroes such as Shammi Kapoor, renown for his cheeky on-screen persona, “would flirt and dance in front of the heroine, who initially rejected him but was won over when she found out his real worth”.

Hindi cinema is not realistic in terms of expectations of men and women, in society; what is shown in cinema is usually a contrast to reality in India. In recent blockbusters of 2015, such as Tevar and PK, the lead actors demand that their female counterparts be taken with respect in the films. With Arjun Kapoor, the lead actor, fighting a thug who was ‘eve teasing’ a young girl on a bicycle. Yet, despite his heroic efforts, the plotline seems far too unrealistic, with one man fighting for the chastity and honour of a young maiden against a horde of thugs.

Though his actions are admirable, in reality, eve teasing (Sexual harassment) is widespread in Asia and does not seem to be dissolving, despite efforts.

Bollywood movies always will star Shah Rukh Khan or Saif Ali Khan or Aamir Khan, after all, they are what the audience are drawn to. There are female stars who are popular, but the female stars do not drive the movie. As Kanika Gahlaut, a journalist in Delhi explains, “It’s a male-dominated industry… It’s a male-dominated everything in this country.” it seems that will not change anytime soon. For women in India, it just means to carry on fighting for their rights and equality.

Written by Rezwana Khan

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