Bollywood Hypocrisy: Mixed Signals and Faux Feminism

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world. We never just look at just one thing we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves”.

– Ways of Seeing by John Berger

The recent public outrage condemning the brutal rapes and murders of women across the country is once again appreciated. But this time around, can we ask ourselves why it takes such horrendous expressions of misogyny for us to sit up and take notice?

Women have been crying hoarse about rape culture for ages only to be trivialised, marginalised and shut down.

It is particularly interesting that certain members of the film fraternity have denounced the criminals; these are the same people who have written, directed, acted, produced and made buckets of money out of the objectification, violation, domination and abuse of women.

FEAR is the only factor which can change things radically in a society and FEAR should be the new rule. Brutal sentence will set an example. Now every girl in the country needs a firm guarantee. I request @warangalpolice to come into action.#RIPPriyankaReddy

— Sandeep Reddy Vanga (@imvangasandeep) November 30, 2019

Indeed, we as a society are collectively responsible for enabling such an unnerving and unsafe atmosphere for our women. But in this piece, I want to address the film industry specifically because of the socio-psychological impact cinema has as a medium that combines the powers of several art forms to construct, challenge and deconstruct abstract ideals such as beauty, truth, morality, ethics, femininity, masculinity, civilisation etc.

With the kind of entry barriers the industry has, it is the privilege of a select few to have the opportunity to tell stories and be a part of such stories, while many of us are still struggling to find our voices, let alone having a platform as powerful to publicise our thoughts. And as Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson put it:

“Humanity thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.”

How can established scriptwriters, directors, actors and producers shrug off the huge responsibility that follows such immense power that moves people and potentially alter mindsets?

When criticised, they seem to be in denial of their significance, even as they enjoy their status and position. Sure, it’s freedom of expression when they portray intimate partner violence as normal and acceptable in a loving relationship. Depict stalking as a romantic expression of true love.

Also read: Close Encounters of the Bollywood Kind

But in a country where violence or the threat of violence is an everyday reality for millions of women, how this freedom of expression is used has the effect of endangering even the limited freedom women have.

In the cinematic universe created by men for men, women are engineered to, immediately or eventually, respond favourably to these heroes. The male cinematic gaze refuses to see women as full human beings with thoughts and feelings. This gaze is normalised and internalised by all of us to varying extents.

In reality it plays out like this: when I say ‘No’, my stalker thinks he’s Shah Rukh Khan or Ranbir Kapoor or Dhanush. He thinks love bombing me, pestering me a thousand times, claiming me as his bandi will win him my love. He is conditioned to expect this. He feels entitled to my body, mind and soul.

I am uncomfortable and afraid, but he doesn’t see it because he sees me through the same gaze that his super star sees the woman he has staked his claim on, as a beautiful background score elevates the scene.

These objections are usually dismissed because apparently all of it is just for entertainment. But isn’t entertainment a matter of form and presentation? What about the thoughts and ideas being subliminally passed off as entertainment?

Can we please ask ourselves why we are entertained by rendering women dispensable, body-shaming, insult comedy that punches down on people already marginalised? Why is masculine aggression and feminine submission considered romantic? Why is a woman dancing to a song objectifying every inch of her body to satisfy the male gaze entertaining?

I don’t think any woman finds it entertaining when random men sing, hum or whistle these songs as they sexualise and dehumanise us.

The film industry tries to justify these things by saying they are only satisfying the popular demand or that these things are necessary to make a commercially-successful film. It is unfair to put the onus on movies alone as several factors such as family background, upbringing, education, personal experiences determine how a person behaves, they say.

But that is a very simplistic argument. We are still a nation largely uncomfortable with difficult conversations around consent, boundaries, relationships, sexuality and abuse. Very few families are progressive  enough to discuss these things and arrive at a consensus. The education system across the nation is not uniform. Few schools conduct a decent and un-awkward course on sexual education. Schools and several colleges don’t permit healthy socialisation between the genders.

Also read: What to Do When Your Favourite Actor Gets Called out in the Metoo Movement

Cinema and pop culture therefore fills that void in an average individual’s socialisation process. That’s where most of us learnt and continue learning about love, sexual and romantic behaviours from.

This is of course commonly refuted with whataboutary such as ‘why don’t people become thugs or murderers after watching gangster films or crime thrillers’ and that it would be ‘severely limiting for directors to make movies with perfect vanilla characters’.

As someone who finds morally ambiguous characters fascinating, I’m all in support of the maker’s freedom to make such riveting thrillers that explore and represent dark aspects of human nature. However, there is a huge difference between merely depicting the greyness of humanity, which makes for an intriguing watch and weaving a narrative around problematic characters to portray them as normal and worthy of emulation.

We cannot continue to pretend that the reel world and the real world don’t intersect. Cinema, however fictitious, does not exist in a vacuum. The socio-political context in which a film is made is how it will be interpreted and perceived by the masses.

The average person won’t emulate their favourite gangsters, because firstly, they don’t have the requisite skills and power; secondly, the social and legal consequences are real and obvious. On the other hand, we are still a country where the first impulse response to a sex crime is to blame, shame and further traumatise victims – unless she is dead.

In all likelihood, the makers may not be deliberately advancing these narratives. It could be the subconscious biases of the filmmakers, expressing itself in their work. No human being is going to be completely free from such biases.

Having said that, it is a shame that they lack the courage and strength of character to acknowledge the ways in which they may have contributed to perpetuating and re-affirming the worldviews that enable and drive the most impulsive, desperate and aggressive of us to violate women physically, mentally and emotionally under conducive circumstances, that are aplenty.

It is also true, that a society that continues to lap this nonsense up uncritically in 2019 is also responsible for buying tickets and supporting such work. That’s why we need to take this time and reflect on ourselves.

What are we ever going to achieve by quickly taking to social media to damn men who commit such abhorrent crimes? Are women going to be safe from the everyday micro-aggression, sexual harassment, emotional and physical abuse, exclusion, just because you call for the lynching and hanging of rapist-murderers?

They were only acting out on our deeply ingrained and protected belief systems, i.e. patriarchy that upholds toxic masculinity; that most of us refuse to admit, let alone unlearn.

For all we know, while we virtue-signal and outrage on social media, right now, a man in some corner thinks of himself as Shahid Kapoor from Kabir Singh, and is pointing a knife at an unwilling woman, demanding that she take her pants off.

But there is no sudden change of background music that startles him into dropping the knife and leaving.

Mrudula is a lawyer and a cinephile based in Bangalore. You can follow her Twitter handle @lawandemotions, to share your thoughts on this piece.