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The Bollywood Dilemma

By Sarah Deonarain | January 18, 2020

India’s Rape Pandemic

Every year, the National Crime Records Bureau of India releases a document with updates on the prevalence of crime throughout the nation, and every year, there is seldom improvement when it comes to crimes against women. The 338,954 crimes against women reported in 2016 marked an increase from the 309,546 incidents reported in 2013. Indian women are often assaulted by men whose intents are to “outrage [their] modesty,” the report says. Crimes against Indian women include stalking, acid attacks, voyeurism, honor killings, female infanticide, sex-selection abortions, and rape. Of the 32,559 women who reported rapes in 2017, 93.1 percent said they knew their attackers. 

The prevalence and intimacy of rape in India send a clear signal of the country’s entrenched normalization of gender violence. Many factors shape and propagate India’s culture of violence towards women, including patriarchal laws, the corruption of law enforcement, cultural traditions like the dowry system, beliefs in the domestication of women through their confinement in the home, certain religious doctrines, educational institutions that do not teach gender equality and sexual rights, patriarchal workplaces, and, perhaps surprisingly, Bollywood, India’s mainstream film industry. 

A close analysis of two particular features of Bollywood films underscores how Bollywood perpetuates India’s culture of gender violence and constantly places Indian women under siege. While Bollywood has produced movies like Pink, Queen, Mary Kom, and Mardaani that portray strong female leads and directly address rape, marriage, gender stereotypes, and child sex trafficking, Bollywood still encourages notions of inferiority by objectifying women — specifically, through “eve-teasing” and “item” songs.

Blaming Bollywood

Eve-teasing refers to a common refrain in Bollywood films in which a man refuses to accept a woman’s rejection of his advances until she finally gives into his desires. This practice becomes incredibly dangerous when Indian men attempt to emulate the romantic successes of the male protagonists they identify with on screen. Shruti Kapoor, founder and CEO of Sayfty, a feminist Indian organization, said in an interview with the HPR that “there is no concept of consent culture in India. The more the girl plays hard-to-get, the more exciting love is.” 

Item songs, meanwhile, are popular musical interludes, often inserted into movies for entertainment and marketing purposes. Shweta Sengar argued in Indiatimes that “an ‘item’ here is an object, translating into an objectified female.” However, Harvard professor Richard Delacy noted in an interview with the HPR that “in [the item song] ‘Dard-E-Disco’ from Om Shanti Om, the body of Shah Rukh Khan, [the leading male actor], is objectified, so men can also be sexualized in these songs, too.” Gender-based violence in India certainly predates the country’s film industry, meaning that the effects of item songs can be more harmful as they play into existing inequalities and imbalances. Hypersexualized item songs and eve-teasing in Bollywood cannot be separated from sexual violence in India. 

Item songs often depict women wearing revealing or modern clothing. Wearing revealing clothing is not in itself an anti-feminist act — indeed, Indian women often use clothing to celebrate modernity and reject traditions dictating how they dress and behave. Indian women increasingly wear modern pieces like cropped, midriff-baring cholis (blouses), low-rise skirts and pants, shorts, jeans and t-shirts. However, modern clothing is weaponized in item songs, conveying the harmful notion that Indian women who wear modern, revealing clothing do so specifically for male attention. 

Actresses in these songs wear this clothing while dancing provocatively in front of men who are usually drunk and making obscene gestures, throwing money and thrusting their pelvises. These songs send the message that Indian women who wear modern clothing are promiscuous and desire sex, which can lead to rape in the real world when Indian men assume that modern clothing symbolizes sexual consent. Additionally, it convinces men that women enjoy dancing in such predatory environments. 

Imagined Stories, Real Consequences 

Masquerading as an embracement of sensuality, these item songs subject female bodies to objectification under the male gaze  — from both the men in the film and the spectators in the audience. According to Kapoor, “[these] sensational, titillating songs [are meant] to entice the audience into watching the movie.” She noted that item songs gain more international acclaim than their corresponding movies because they are widely available through YouTube and other free platforms, so movies often get reduced to these songs and their disparaging messages.

The harms of eve-teasing and item songs come together in “Jumma Chumma De De” — “Give Me a Kiss” — in which one woman, clothed in an ostentatious red dress and sporting bright red lipstick, dances onstage in a huge crowd of men. The song features a call-and-response between the woman saying “Do not kiss me!” and the men responding with “Give me a kiss!” As the men refuse to accept the woman’s rejection of their advances, thrusting their pelvises and waving beer mugs, she smiles and casts seductive glances to the crowd. At one point, the men soak her with a hose and the lead actor picks her up and throws her into the crowd — in response, she splashes around excitedly. And after the men surround her as she spins in circles around a pole, the song culminates with her kissing the lead actor, leaving red kiss marks on his face. The song portrays harassment as an enjoyable experience, sending the message that her early refusals were flirtatious and not genuine. 

Organizations like Feminism in India argue that these songs legitimize sexual harassment; last year, they shared a video claiming that “the choreography of item songs often simulate mass molestation or gang rape.” This is evident in Baby Doll, when actress Sunny Leone lies naked on top of a mass of hands touching her. The lyrics of item songs often compare women to consumable objects like tandoori murgi, a chicken dish, or afghan jalebi, a sweet dessert. One disturbing line from the song “Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai,” “Hai tujh pe right mera, tu hai delight mera, tera rasta joh roku tokne ka nahi,” translates to: “I have every right on you, If I block your path, don’t protest.” The implications of this language speak for themselves. Joyce Connolly, CEO of Snehalaya UK, another feminist Indian organization, told the HPR that she has “always been concerned about Bollywood” particularly given the “large age gaps in relationships on screen between young women and old men,” another characteristic feature of these films. 

These item songs often come abruptly in the narratives of these films, entertaining men in the audience with female sexuality and using women and their bodies as marketing strategies. A study by Oxfam India reported that 95 percent of young girls surveyed said that boys played these derogatory songs when they walked by, using them as “tools for sexual harassment.” For Kapoor, this link is unsurprising: “When you make light of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or rape, that is rape culture.”

But what about the women playing these roles? Popular, “feminist” actresses like Priyanka Chopra, Aishwariya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, and Deepika Padukone appear to sign up for these derogatory roles in exchange for generous paychecks, either not realizing or disregarding the consequences of these portrayals of women. But the muddling of reel and real into one gross, sexualized amalgamation directly disservices Indian women by justifying and exacerbating violence against them. According to Kapoor, “it used to be that only struggling actresses would take up item songs, but because of their popularity, famous actresses now do item songs as well.” Since these women wield more cultural power, the perpetuation of rape culture through Bollywood increases. 

A Responsible Remake

Cinema infiltrates people’s homes and minds, and they retain and carry images from these films that encourage men to relentlessly pursue women or view women as sexual objects. Bollywood does not realize its power as an affordable, accessible, and hugely popular cultural medium. Because it has not recognized this significance, Bollywood has not taken responsibility for the consequences of phenomena like item songs and eve-teasing. Crucially, beyond a few pioneering directors, Bollywood stakeholders have failed to recognize their positive potential to lead their country in fighting against sexual violence and for gender equality. 

Delacy ultimately concluded that “there should be space for films that are purely light and entertaining, but [filmmakers should] definitely be aware that they have a social responsibility. [They should] add to important conversations and help Indian people have a more complex understanding of their society.” Bollywood wields enough power to incite social change; with a rate of 1000 movies per year and an audience of approximately 4 billion viewers around the world, India’s film industry is the largest globally. Bollywood can thus begin to reverse the damage it has done by making more feminist films, by directly addressing gender violence in India, and by confronting those who stand against equality for women. Bollywood can save India by deliberately cultivating a new Indian culture that uplifts women. As long as one Indian woman is raped every four minutes, Bollywood must start using its 24 frames per second to make a difference.