There is nothing as popular as films in India, and the Indian Cinema as a whole.
As Indians, we are officially certified “emotional people” who let emotions overrule rationality. We take our cinema and our film stars very seriously. Ironically, the degree of seriousness is so immature that we let their fiction affect our reality. Each of their actions, statements and opinions come off as “breaking news” in National Media. There are countless instances when this has happened, but few are still fresh. We can take into reference Aamir Khans’ ‘Intolerance’, Kangana’s series of statements, and the very recent ‘Padmaavat’ controversy. And all of this because films are so influential.
People look up to stars; reel and real alike. Over decades we have accepted scenes in our films without questioning them and without even realizing that they are wrong on so many levels. We took all of this casually because they were being shown in almost every other film. Until very recently, we have overlooked the objectification of women; women being reduced to mere love interests or sex objects. We have seen our favourite stars harassing a girl and the girl laughing it off. We have been served these sexist scenes and songs as “entertainment” in this chauvinist industry which is often labelled as “demand of the story”.
But, if we shift our glances from the glamorous storylines and take a deeper look into reality, sexism and patriarchy have both always existed in Bollywood. Almost half a year ago in October 2017, IBM and two major institutes of Delhi prepared a report on Bollywood by analyzing more than four thousand movies. After looking into four thousand Hindi films, the researchers concluded, “different features like occupation, the introduction of a cast in a text, associated actions, and descriptions… show the pervasiveness of gender bias and stereotype in movies”. The report included a deep dive-in to the major aspects of filmmaking.
A few quoted remarks of the report says:
Occupations and Gender Stereotypes: How are the males and females portrayed, based on their jobs? On the basis of jobs, how do their levels differ? How does it correlate with gender bias and stereotype?
Appearance and Description: On the basis of their appearance, how are males and females described? How do the descriptions differ in both of them? How does the appearance indicate gender stereotyping?
The centrality of Male and Female Characters: Referring to the movie plots, what is the role of males and females? What is the difference in the number of movies depicting the male being central or female being central character? How does it present a male or female bias?
Mentions (Image vs Plot): The number of males and females, who are the faces of the promotional posters? How does this number that is mentioned in the plot affect them? What are the results conveyed on the combined analysis?
Emotions of Males and Females: What are the most commonly displayed emotions in a movie trailer? Does this correspond with the gender stereotypes which exist in society?
Singers: Does this bias occur in the movie songs as well? How does the distribution of singers with gender vary over a period of time for different movies?
Female-centric Movies: Are the movie stories and portrayal of females evolving? Have we seen female-centric movies in the recent past?
Screen Time: Which gender has a greater screen time in movie trailers as well as the screen?
Emotions of Males and Females: Which emotions are most commonly displayed by males and females in a movie trailer? Does this correspond with the gender stereotypes which exist in society?
As these points strongly suggest, the situation of gender biases in the film industry is alarming. The report was published in 2017 and was not quite welcomed by the people in the industry. While most of them completely denied the existence of such partiality and sexism in Bollywood, others accepted it as a tradition and decided to go with the flow. However, even after the release of this report, some of the biggest female stars of Bollywood have “whined” about how they have been struggling with the same. Even the highest paid actresses of Bollywood have raised a firm voice against it.
Priyanka Chopra spoke about sexism and confessed that she encountered the infamous sexist attitude that Indian Cinema is associated with. A famous film producer, with whom she was discussing her remuneration, told her that they could just as easily replace her with someone else if it didn’t work for her since girls in movies could easily be replaced by one another.
In the recent past when the furore over the movie ‘Padmaavat‘ was much above the levels of sanity, versatile actress Swara Bhaskar sparked another controversy with her open letter about sexism. Even if we do not completely relate to her letter about the period film, few of her points did make complete sense. In her open letter, Swara wrote, “You know that contentious thing called the workplace, the “professional” context… when in my workplace, men in positions to hire me, or give me work… made a pass at me or a proposition or just grabbed me and began to try and neck me. Instead of being offended I smiled. I was nice! I didn’t say NO! I was apologetic even. I said, “Please! Please! I can’t”… When a director (struggling himself) rejected me for the female lead part saying, “You look too intelligent to be the heroine!” I smiled and said – “I can try and look dumb! See.”… When another director (also struggling may I add) rejected me for yet another female protagonist role saying I don’t look like lead material – I smiled and started wearing heels! (stick out a heel).”
Having said that, it is also important to say that there have been some improvements in the recent past. Bollywood produced more female-centric movies since the 70s. Between 2015 and 2017, female roles were written as central characters in 11.9% of Hindi movies. In the 70s, this figure was closer to 7%. The change in the numbers is remarkable, and it reflects in the way movies are being made. Strong women are not afraid to speak up and they have made it very clear that they are seeking change. Also, the audience is changing as well. They are embracing this specific change in the world of cinema. This could be counted as a silver lining in the dense dark cloud.