Sexism in Bollywood

By Faria Athar
August 7, 2015

MUMBAI, India – Bollywood, the sobriquet for India’s $3-billion dollar Hindi film industry, is filled with immense colour, vigor and light. It has vociferous dance sequences, tear-jerking dialogues and a whole lot of sexism.

Lyrics from some of its famous musicals like ”Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast” and “Fevicol se” include calling the female protagonist an “awesome thing”, a firecracker, a piece of meat and such. But the lyrics seem banal when compared to the music videos that accompany them, men dancing along to music, while the hero abuses, catcalls or physically mishandles his “girl”. And in the end the hero ends up getting the girl and they live happily ever after.

Plotlines like these have thrived in this 100-year-old business of the rich, the pretty and the privileged. While Bollywood’s massive appeal is astounding, it is also incredibly scary. With its objectification of women and portrayal of an always win-win situation for men, Bollywood is criticized for being chimerical, unrealistic and an instigator for the rapes and sexual atrocities committed in India.

So recently when Deepika Padukone, an extremely popular Bollywood actress stood up for feminism, hearts ignited. Her message was released as a video in collaboration with Vogue India. It was a viral hit. Men and women began sharing it all over social media, and in the span of a couple of days it had millions of views on YouTube. It was being lauded for its independence and power, but slowly criticism rolled in.

The video titled “My Choice: Women Empower” shows the actress talking about how it’s her choice (or rather a woman’s) to wear the clothes she likes, to be a size zero or a size fifteen or to have sex outside marriage.

This is all wonderful. Of course it’s a woman’s choice to do want she wants with her life, but was the video fair to all?

In a country where, according to UNESCO, the female literacy rate is only about 50% and an alarming gender wage gap is present across all sectors, the actress’s problems seem to be the last on an Indian woman’s mind.

Being a woman is difficult in India. If you manage to escape female foeticide (the act of aborting a foetus because it is female), its takes only a few years before you are married off as a child bride with a significant amount of your parents’ income given to your groom’s family as dowry. When you get older, your education is your parents’, your husband’s or his family’s will. In urban India, you may not face these difficulties, but constant prejudice and fear of harassment follow you around like a shadow. These issues form major impediments to women’s empowerment.

India’s version of feminism, as portrayed in the media and in this ”empowering” video, never sheds light on female empowerment. Rather the focus is on liberation from Indian forms of clothing, music and customs, which translates to Westernization. This feels shallow and superficial. It creates negative stereotypes about the modern and conservative woman that harms feminism more than benefiting it. And while body issues are important, they are not central to feminism. Empowering women has great potential in India with some serious implications for the country’s economy, politics and progress. It is great to have celebrities with such mass appeal endorse feminism, but it would be even more powerful if it focused on issues to educate women about their rights, health and professional development, eventually helping promote equality and female leadership in Indian society.

And now the hypocrisy: The video shows actresses with beautiful hair and skin and fails to include size 15 women or even those that are close to a size 10. The star herself endorses products to promote weight loss and skin lightning (in accordance with the Indian belief that dark skin is inferior to light skin and thus should be altered).

The video is also over-sexualized. Pre- and extra-marital sex are taboo in India. And while it’s a woman’s choice, there is nothing particularly empowering about either. This type of feminism is flawed and doesn’t resonate with the average Indian girl’s wants or needs. Yes, breaking the rules is necessary to empower women, but sometimes it may result in losing friends and family. Young girls and women must instead be encouraged to bring about change within their societies. Confusing feminism with nudity or excessive Westernization repels women who want progress for themselves and their daughters. It presents feminism as a monolithic facade, which further alienates women from their culture and creates a long-lasting negative stereotype that fails to empower India’s women.

Feminist movements, however, haven’t completely failed in India. After the gang-rape of a student in Delhi in 2012, various organizations started to focus on women’s issues. While some took to the streets to protest rape, others have made long-standing contributions to women’s rights

One such movement started in Bundelkhand (Northern India), a place rife with domestic violence, child labour and widespread female illiteracy. Women of the region gathered to form a gang called “Gulabi (Pink) Gang” to fight their detrimental patriarchal culture. They call themselves “Rural Women In Pink Saris, Wielding Broomsticks In Pursuit Of Justice”. These women who themselves come from poor families or the lower castes (Dalit), have successfully stopped several child marriages, overcome corruption in several levels of administration and worked to eradicate the dowry system and violence against women. Since their movement has gained momentum, they’ve also participated in local elections and won.

“For the People and By The People” has worked splendidly in India with regards to feminism. And this is the model that seems to garner the most attention and bring about change.