2 Things On Indian Screens That Need Change: Silence On Sexuality And Glorifying Misogyny

Indian popular media like movies cannot abdicate responsibility of creating more sensitive and mindful cinema if we are to decrease crime against women. What tests can we apply?

Indian popular media like movies cannot abdicate responsibility of creating more sensitive and mindful cinema if we are to decrease crime against women. What tests can we apply?

Enabling environments for crime

Every crime has a motivating factor, or an enabling environment that “allowed for it to happen.” Enabling environments are a combination of passive and active factors that include a range of beliefs, attitudes, actions, legislations and policies, responses and security sector structures. While it is not wholly true that enabling environments are enough by themselves to cause a crime or a particular form of crimes, it is important to understand that they still do impact, encourage and provide the “justification” for the crime.

Misogyny, patriarchy and violence against women thrive in many social set ups. The social mindset often tends to be one that blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes sexual violence. What feeds and keeps this culture alive is a mosaic of different factors that includes culture, interpretations of religion, patriarchal attitudes and historically held and endorsed values of antagonism towards women, among other things.

Influence of mass media

When you look at the influence mass media and films have on a community, it is not rocket science to see that many of the themes, ideas and behaviours that they carry forth make an impact on its consumers.

The Indian Film Industry, including music and music videos from films, are undoubtedly a very significant crystallizing set of elements that inform and feed the misogyny and rape culture in India. By not making sensitised cinema, and with entertainment that may seem mindless to the intelligentsia, the Indian film industry is creating content that feeds the rape culture. Insensitive content is normalized by educated masses, and is internalized as acceptable and permissible by those with little to no sensitized education.

What is the reach of the Indian film industry?

The Indian Film Industry is a blend of many sub-film industries, namely, the Hindi Film Industry or Bollywood, the Tamil Film Industry, the Malayalam Film Industry, the Telugu Film Industry, the Kannada Film Industry, the Marathi Film Industry, the Bengali Film Industry and the Bhojpuri Film Industry, among many others. Of these, Bollywood is easily the largest in terms of revenue, production and reach, in fact, many confuse Bollywood with ‘The Indian Film Industry’.

In general, it has been calculated that Indian movies can count with anaudienceof 1.38 billion people worldwide. The audience for Indian language films in India totals 1.2bn people within the country – including rural and urban populations. It is a given that the film industry is a large mainstay of the pop culture that influences and informs social attitudes among different groups in India. According to the 2013 Annual Report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 24,923 rape cases were reported across India in 2012. Out of these, 24,470 were committed by someone known to the victim. The NCRB report in 2014, there were 33,707 reported rape cases in India in 2013.

Keeping rape culture alive

While it is important to account for the myriad factors that offer a nuanced explanation of why sexual violence and rape is so rampant, it is also important to take into account that certain aspects of popular culture are instrumental in keeping rape culture alive.

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With this in mind, it is important to remember that rape has neither been glorified outright in the Indian film industry nor has it been birthed by the Indian film industry. What the film industry does, though, is to continue to keep alive the projection and promotion of certain behaviours that tend to normalize rape culture, and project notions of toxic masculinity as acceptable conduct for men.

How does this feed the culture of patriarchy, misogyny and violence against women?

It is important to know and acknowledge that the Indian film industry neither conceived, nor remains the sole cause for the creation of rape culture in India. However, it is still a lynchpin in keeping alive the social ethos of antagonism against women. The Indian film industry is a vehicle that portrays these behaviours – most often in an exaggerated fashion – and glorified, in order to encourage mass consumption. These behaviours augment a social climate that is already poised against women, and they feed into the rape culture – and needless to say, an exaggerated portrayal magnifies the impact.

Figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau suggest that a rape takes place every 22 minutes. The portrayal of women in Bollywood, as much as in most other Indian cinema, tends to reiterate the same old stereotypes. A woman is made an object, and is often seen gyrating among lewd and lecherous men, set to songs that are filled with lewd and obscene lyrics.

Men are also portrayed with stereotypes – the hero is a macho man, with a well chiselled body and a sense of obvious masculinity, enough to assert a sense of dominance. He subscribes to the notion of violence to get his dialogues in order, especially with those that disagree with him. Villains are almost always portrayed as completely terrible human beings with no sense of humanity – steeped in debauchery, mindless violence and a tendency towards sexual violence. These stereotypes tend to dehumanize men as well, as slotting masculinity as being black or white, but steeped in machismo.

So how can we make mindful cinema and re-evaluate existing cinema?

The Bechdel test suggests an investigative process that asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named, is also sometimes added. While definitely credit worthy, the Bechdel Test could be satisfied and the film itself may continue to discriminate, be violent, reassert stereotypes and keep substantial representation out of the picture altogether.

A later test, called the Mako Mori test, asks whether a female character has a narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story. While this is again a pretty sound way to evaluate the portrayal of a woman in a film or a work of fiction, it doesn’t account for the subtleties in the portrayal of that narrative arc. It also ignores the possibility of stereotypical portrayals.

What we need

What the masses need – not necessarily want, but definitely desperately need – is mindful cinema that is responsible and clear on the message it offers. As consumers of films, if we need to call a film out for keeping the culture of patriarchy, misogyny and violence alive, it is vital that we account for the intersectionality quotient in the gender equality space and rhetoric. We need to have filmmakers constantly think of these themes.

  • Are women portrayed independently with a narrative backstory unique to them, as opposed to being portrayed through a male lens?
  • Are women portrayed with a narrative arc that is beyond the stereotypes ascribed to them by the culture that the story they are in, is set, in?
  • Are the women treated with value for their personal agency in the portrayal in the film?
  • Are the women portraying hackneyed stereotypes with respect to their individual identities and choices?
  • If violence is shown, is it a portrayal of a realistic situation or an integral part of the story (for instance, telling the story of a survivor of violence)?
  • If violence is shown, is it an unnecessary element to reassert male dominance and masculinity?
  • And finally, what role does her sexual orientation, race, caste, class, religion, language and other cultural attributes, play – are they meaningless caricatures, are they substantial, are they used to mock, or are they portrayed with authenticity?

The Indian film industry carries portrayals that relate to the Indian social and cultural ethos – and it is a sine qua non that these factors be kept in mind while evaluating the way the industry works. That it reflects an undercurrent of institutionalized sexism that prevails in India is now a given. These elements emerge from a social setting in India where homosexuality is criminalized, sex is not spoken about, and sex education is discouraged and even banned in some of the largest cities and states.

The dichotomy in the two approaches – where covertness sheaths all the important conversations that must be had, and misogyny and patriarchy are reasserted time and again – is one of the biggest factors that contributes to a constant cycle of violence. This needs to change.

Image source: stills from Lust Stories & Zero

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