Article written for WMN Magazine, a magazine created with five classmates as a university project. It is also available here.
Huge sets, colourful costumes, a lot of dancing and love stories. This is what Bollywood is to most people. But behind what appears to be a lively world, it portrays ideal female characters who are not always a reflection of real women. Hollywood seems to be no better with its numerous Bond girls or its sexy Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft or Mrs Smith.
Bollywood, which is the name the Indian film industry is known by, is actually bigger than Hollywood in terms of the number of films produced each year. According to Forbes, 2.6 billion tickets were sold for the 1,602 Indian films released in 2012, compared to 1.36 billion tickets for 476 American movies.
“This ideal woman, either being a weeping mother, a love interest or a princess waiting to be rescued, is very much part of Indian mythology and Indian culture”
Although Hollywood gets better results in box office figures – an average of $11bn (£9bn) compared to $2bn (£1.7bn) for Bollywood – the influence of Indian movies is getting bigger with a lot of films now being screened internationally. Some of their biggest stars like Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar were respectively the 10th and 12th highest-paid actors in the world in 2016 behind number one Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock.
But there is a dark reality in South Asian cinema: its portrayal of women. For Mike McCahill, a film critic for the Guardian, this portrayal of women in the shadow of the male hero has existed forever “This ideal woman, either being a weeping mother, a love interest or a princess waiting to be rescued, is very much part of Indian mythology and Indian culture,” he says.
From the early age of Bollywood in the 1920s most women were portrayed as lovers, for their goal is to find a man, get married, have children, and be supportive wives. Films were aimed at showing a traditional lady, who respected old-fashioned values such as wearing appropriate clothes and shunning cigarettes and alcohol.
But being only perfect wives and mothers is not the life of every woman in India or anywhere else. It can be seen just as often in Lollywood, the Pakistani film industry, and even in Hollywood. From the 1970s, some actresses decided to speak up by playing different roles during the New Cinema era. Through their acting they showed the difficulties faced by women, the sexual exploitation and the patriarchy in their countries.
Bollywood’s problematic portrayal of women
The London Asian Film Festival, which is taking place this month, tries to raise awareness by promoting female filmmakers and stories that affect women. The festival coordinator, Jaanuja Sriskantha, agrees that the lack of women’s representation is “shocking” and that it is important for filmmakers “to do movies that focus on them [women]”.
In 2012 Indian medical student Jyoti Singh, 23, was tortured and gang-raped on a Delhi bus. She died two weeks later from the horrific injuries she suffered. One of her six attackers, Mukesh Singh, said she would not have died if she had not fought back and should not have been on an evening bus in the presence of a male friend. In other words, she was raped because she did not behave like a “good girl”.
“One of her six attackers, Mukesh Singh, said she would not have died if she had not fought back and should not have been on an evening bus in the presence of a male friend”
The event sparked protests and angered activists fighting for a heavy punishment of such acts. India’s Crime Records Bureau released the 2015 figures for rape cases last August, showing that more than 34,000 rapes were reported that year, implying the total number might be higher. And some movies might have an influence on such behaviours towards women.
An exclusive analysis by WMN shows that 115 female characters were only the love interest who is chased by the male lead, and were sometimes sexually abused, in a total of 100 Bollywood movies released in 2016. In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil for instance, the lead character Ayan cannot choose between the two ladies he is pursuing. In the trailers alone of those same 100 movies, female characters were sexualised 137 times, either sensually dancing, being sometimes half-naked or having a sex relationship. In Mastizaade’s trailer only, we can see 11 explicit scenes or gestures by ex porn star Sunny Leone.
“The situation has got worse compared to before,” explains Aubrey Shayler, the founder of the International Women’s Initiative, working to protect women’s rights around the world. “These issues can be dealt with in documentaries, but not that many theatres are going to play a documentary, and people don’t really want to see what is already going on in their lives.”
The root of the problem
Ms Z. (name kept secret for her safety) is a Pakistani theatre director and actress working with students. She uses her art to combat issues such as so-called honour-killings, which are a traditional practice of killing a family member who is said to have brought shame on the family by his or her actions, though the victims are most of the time girls. She thinks theatre is more advanced than cinema in portraying strong female characters. “I think film industries scared of doing any kind of experience, that the film won’t work,” she says, and so to try to talk about these serious issues.
But her real life experience shows that even actresses are not always living in a perfect world. In her caste – the hereditary classes dividing the different social status in South Asian societies – women are supposed to cover their heads and should not be seen by men. Theatre is the last thing they are expected to do. “It’s very difficult for actresses to be taken seriously,” she adds. And it seems even more complicated when they try to “challenge the institutions” and the views of the society. “My students and I were called shameless because we were doing a dance piece in the streets. Once I was walking and someone told me I should wear a head scarf. It’s not safe, it’s a constant struggle,” she says.
“My students and I were called shameless because we were doing a dance piece in the streets. Once I was walking and someone told me I should wear a head scarf. It’s not safe, it’s a constant struggle”
Films dealing with these issues do not necessarily turn out to be blockbusters. On the other hand, the most commercial films seem to ignore the real life taboos most women face of sexualisation and exposure of their love life: Bollywood audiences demand sex on-screen but attack it in real life.
The situation is the same in Lollywood. “Pakistani films are mostly low-budget films, so you need what one calls ‘masala’ (‘spice’),” says Wajiha Raza Rizvi, a research scholar in Pakistani performing arts. “Sexuality increased in Pakistani movies from 1970 onwards. They do it because they need the audiences.”
The highest-grossing films are the ones depicting female characters as sexy, rich and desirable. In the song Lovely, from Indian film Happy New Year in 2014, Deepika Padukone is sensually dancing in a bra-top and light skirt in the middle of a crowd full of men screaming at her as if in a hard-rock mosh pit.
For Aubrey Shayler, it is not a good thing to show women in this way. “This is actually a universal problem,” she says. “It all comes down to money when it comes to entertainment. But in movies, men see women in a certain way, they like it, so they then go back to their normal lives and try to look for women like this, or hold the women in their lives accountable for not looking like this.”
In Bollywood, Lollywood or Hollywood, the demand for sexual perfection means many actresses can also work as models. Ms Shayler adds that girls might want to identify to and look like these actresses playing the perfect characters. But in some extreme cases they want to go through plastic surgery. For Mrs Shayler, this can be “destructive physically and mentally”.
Fighting for change
If the situation of women in society is not improving, their portrayal in Bollywood and Lollywood films may be changing for the better. Another part of the WMN analysis shows that there is a growing number of strong female characters, even though they are not necessarily lead ones. In Sultan, Anushka Sharma is playing a wrestler and faces the loss of her baby; and in Pink, women are seen speaking about sexual assault publicly. In the 100 movies reviewed, women were portrayed as strong 31 times, and as a strong and main character six times.
“Women seem to be getting more power within this very traditionally patriarchal system,” says Mike McCahill. “You’re getting stars like Priyanka Chopra and Alia Bhatt who were just the love interests at the early point of their careers, but in recent times they started to look out for scripts that I think strengthen who they are as individuals and represent an image that they want to put out into the world.”
« Being an actress wasn’t just about fame, it was about how I could use that to bring about a change in my country”
There seems to also be a gradual change in audiences. As real women gain education they want to see a true representation of themselves in movies, not just the traditional housewife who sticks to old values that used to be portrayed.
For Hifza Khan, a 19-year-old Pakistani actress who just started with her first role in a TV show called Khuda Aur Muhabbat, being an actress is much more than just acting. “My mum has been an actress for almost 30 years,” she says. “I always wanted to use this access in a different way. It wasn’t just about fame, it was about how I could use that to bring a change in my country.”
But she agrees that society’s mindset still influences the industry. “People have this whole idea that women are dependent on men,” she adds. “We’re slowly moving towards the concept of women’s empowerment and gender equality in movies and TV shows, especially thanks to social media. There’s still only one out of 10 dramas where you’ll see women shown as powerful individuals, but our opinions are starting to matter.”
Actors who may have benefited from the sexist attitudes of Bollywood are now changing their views. Shah Rukh Khan has praised the actresses who have helped him throughout his career saying: “Everything I am is because of them.”
Others, like Pakistani actor Fawad Khan who recently started his career in Bollywood blockbusters, are involved in promoting women’s empowerment. « Women not only play a professional role wonderfully well but I think [they are] the creators of everything that happens in men’s life too,” he said at an event. “Whatever accomplishments men achieve is because of women and I think no one can match [their] strength and courage.”