The year 2016 ended with a trail of nastiness in the world of Indian cinema. Director Suraj of the Tamil action-comedy film “Kaththi Sandai” starring Vishal and Tamannaah claimed that the Tamil audience wanted “glamour” in cinema, and he catered to such demands by making sure that his heroines always wore clothing over the knee. He smugly stated that the heroines could go explore their acting skills elsewhere; commercial cinema needed them just to be “glamorous”.
This intensely crude and misogynistic remark left the industry rattled, with the actress Tamannaah reacting forcefully and demanding an apology from the director. Yet one has to acknowledge that Suraj was in fact putting into words an everyday reality of the tinsel town; the most important function of women in the film industry is to look good on-screen and outside of it.
The sexualisation on the silver screen when it came to women has long been prevailing. The world of cinema has been a platform for the representation of women as objects of sexual desire. The theatrical skill of heroines takes a backseat in favour of their sexual appeal. The rampant sexism and underrepresentation of women in cinema is a standard phenomenon all over the world. Hyper sexualisation of the female body and impossible beauty standards set by movies has an untold level of impact on society, furthering the problems of misogyny and gender inequality.
Indian cinema is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the objectification of women on the silver screen. The quintessential heroine of an Indian commercial movie, be it from Bollywood or from regional film industries like that in Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, is a weak non-entity whose major contribution to the movie is the satisfaction of male sexual fantasy. Commercial Indian cinema portrays women as existing merely to titillate. In a standard pot-boiler, the heroine is made to strut around wearing flimsy clothing that leaves little to the imagination.
At every turn she gets ogled at by the male lead who behaves like a sexual predator of sorts. An alarming level of harassment and stalking later, the heroine ends up “in love” with the male lead and the story gets a happy ending, normalizing the entire scenario of objectification of the female for the benefit of the male. Such sexualisation on the silver screen not only fuels the existing patriarchy, but the influence of pop-culture has actually normalised the commodification of women time and again.
Watch AIB’S take on the sexualisation on the silver screen to get a better idea of things – Harassment through the ages
Objectification of women is not a recent phenomenon in Indian cinema. Upto the 1970s, Bollywood used the idea of a “vamp”, usually a courtesan or a cabaret dancer to bring in the sexual angle to a story. These were “bold” women of supposedly loose morals, emphasized by the highly sexualised dances they performed. The word “item” is a filmy Mumbai slang used for the specific purpose of objectifying women.
“Item songs” – raunchy dance performances with catchy beats – have become an integral part of commercial Indian cinema. Early exponents like Helen and Zeenat Aman popularised the idea of item songs with their steamy performances like “Mehbooba Mehbooba” from Sholay and “Aap jaisa koi” from Qurbani respectively.
The trend has continued to gain enormous popularity, and now there is an entire contingent of actresses who have made their names specifically as “item girls”. Actresses like Malaika Arora Khan and Yana Gupta prefer to work exclusively for special appearances in item songs, while Rakhi Sawant has claimed to be the “original item girl”. In recent times, the lyrics of item songs have reached a new low in terms of bring distasteful; from “Munni badnaam hui” to “Jalebi bai” to “Baby Doll” and “Gandi baat” – most of the lyrics are thinly veiled crude erotica in verse.
A surprising number of movies are made with next to no plotlines that target the large section of male audience who want nothing other than sexual electrification. Movies like Masti, Jism ,Ragini MMS and Desi Boyz sell exclusively because of the amount of skin show and titillation the female characters provide.
Many of these movies follow the well-worn tactic of having voluptuous women romp around and fall all over the male leads to emphasize their so-called masculinity through their feminine sexuality. The dialogues and innuendoes in some of these movies, purportedly for the purpose of entertainment, are so tastelessly pornographic that they make all right thinking individuals cringe in disgust.
What is even worse regarding the sexualisation on the silver screen is how it continues to exist insidiously even in mainstream cinema.
A modern day city dwelling woman is always portrayed as having a visually pleasing body and a pretty face, catering to the idealistic standards to sexuality prevalent in society. Her sartorial habits are often quite different – and once again, aimed at emphasizing her sexuality – than the everyday woman living in Indian cities. She is shown to be getting special treatment because of her gender and her physical beauty, sometimes to the extent of diverting from the central theme of the movie.
It is as if the entire existence of the woman gets limited to and defined by the physical and the sexual aspects of her being. In this context, one must also point out the conventional age barrier that female actors face in the film industry; the audience insists on watching young and beautiful women on-screen, and so the desirability of the actresses decreases once she crosses over to the wrong side of thirty.
A direct result of objectification of women in cinema is the inverse relation that actresses have between their age and film offers as compared to the growing popularity that male actors often gain with increasing age.
In recent years some level of positive changes has taken place at least in Bollywood. More number of women-centric movies are being made successfully than ever before. Movies like Mardaani and Queen and Pink and Ishqiya have done well in the market and received considerable accolades.
What is alarming is that even these movies have in some way or the other made use of female sexuality: Mardaani revolves around child trafficking and the flesh trade, Queen is the story of a girl who gets stood up on her wedding day, Pink deals with the very important idea of sexual consent and Ishqiya talks about a femme fatale who plays two men to have her way. It is as if the world at large cannot bear to separate a woman from her sexuality, so deeply are the ideas entrenched in the social psyche.
Sexualisation on the silver screen when it comes to women, is a very dangerous phenomenon that leads to crime and violence in society. The Bangalore incident isn’t an exception. Since cinema is a vehicle of education and information for large sections of society, the message delivered to the youth of the nation by on-screen objectification is that it is normal and acceptable to harass women and treat them as sexual objects.
This increases misogyny and violence against women to a large extent. Several interviews and social experiments across the country have found that young men in both urban and rural areas are inspired by movies to treat women shabbily.
In fact, there has even been an incident in Tasmania where an Indian man accused of stalking two Australian women was let off by the court when his lawyer argued that the cultural socialization brought about by Bollywood had led the man to believe that doggedly pursuing women to the extent of harassing them would eventually cause them to fall in love with him.
If this incident does not shame the world of Indian cinema into re-evaluating the portrayal of women on-screen, one fears that nothing will.
On the 29th of January, a renowned theatre troupe from Pune is travelling all the way across to Kolkata, as a part of Mad About Drama’s National Theatre Exchange Chapter-2. Their play ‘ITEM’ is about the objectification of female actors in Indian Cinema. Following the life of a B-grade Hindi film heroine, the film is about the male chauvinism, and patriarchy operating in our movie industry. Mad About Drama’s popular show ‘A History of Butchers’ is returning on the 3rd of February, as the final act of this event.
Venue – Gyan Manch. Contact 9851716039 for the tickets.