Bollywood has always had a massive influence in shaping the perceptions and beliefs of the masses. Moving away from the aristocratic narratives, largely reflective of the British Raj, Bollywood’s sartorial appearance has always resembled that of an ordinary individual. Dealing with the profundities and inanities of the every day, it strikes a chord in the hearts of the people for the stories are always tethered to reality, in the sense that the struggles of the protagonist are something that viewers face in ways in their lives. This sense of belonging creates a profound empathy for the heroes and villains of the story. The audience cries when the hero loses his love, cheer when the goons are punished for their misdeeds and smile in satisfaction as the star-crossed lovers finally dance into the horizon. Inspiring and entertaining three generations of avid moviegoers, Bollywood has created a niche for itself in the global community as a distinctly Indian creation.
As India hurtles towards being a global power and a force to be reckoned with, Bollywood again plays an instrumental role in the same. With the massive influence of Hollywood, the world’s largest entertainment portal, Bollywood’s portrayal of society has also been greatly altered. Lack of versatility or receptivity to different ideas has never been accusations on our entertainment industry. Yet, when we examine our daily lives and see the strict gender segregation based on occupation, clothing, demeanour and even thought processes, there emerges an issue that our industry is not only trivialising, but is in fact, guilty of reinforcing and propagating.
A quintessential Bollywood movie involves a fragile, fair skinned, even flouncy damsel in distress and a ‘manly’ man with a dashing smile, bulging muscles and a knack to always be in the wrong place at the right time. As the necessarily perverted villain and the overly moralistic and righteous hero’s massive egos clash, the damsel clutches her chest and prays for the victory of her lover. Always ready to don a pretty floral dress and be chased through a field, our damsel is a family girl, loved by everyone and ready to fall in love. Always the submissive and shy one in the inevitable romance, she is the one who will avoid the kisses and taunt and tease endlessly until her lover finally pulls her close and satiates his carnal thirst. He is always the rebel, ready to take on the world and she is always the cautious one, or rebellious in a ‘cute’ way such that it doesn’t really affect much. His personality as a strong, clear headed and independent man is strongly accentuated, while her bosom, waist and luscious lips stand out, the person lost somewhere in the script.
This imagery presents itself in not so exaggerated forms at home and everywhere around us when men prowl the streets with swagger and a sense of entitlement and women hurry home as the sun sets. We see this gender appropriation every time the woman is asked pointedly in job interviews whether she plans to have a child in the near future or when a teenage boy is made fun of and called ‘gay’ for liking Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. It manifests itself when the woman is asked whose child she is carrying or is mocked when she wants to pursue a ‘manly’ profession such as being an orthopaedic surgeon or civil engineer. It rears its ugly head every time female journalists are called ‘presstitutes’ and politicians try and mitigate or even justify rape by saying ‘men will be men.’
Gender appropriation is faulty in its very conception, as it quashes all narratives that dare differ from the conventional and highly unrealistic version of men and women.
It presupposes certain traits and characteristics unique to each gender which suppresses sexual transgression and stigmatises homosexuality by treating it as the ultimate form of transgression which is not in accordance to the ‘official’ narrative. As a result, the people end up practising and expressing their desires and fantasies in a surreptitious manner. This suppresses an honest flow of ideas and information. This is problematic because the dominant narrative then isn’t even reflective of the truth, while the miscreants and patriarchs feed off the popular culture to justify their deeds.
It is wrong to say that the entertainment industry caters to a demand from the audience since it plays a crucial role in shaping that very public sentiment. Box office collections cannot be the sole purpose for making the movie, the same way fear of retaliation or outrage cannot be an excuse for silence. The censor board may try and trample upon movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha for talking about female desires and sexuality and conservatives may rally against movies talking about gay rights, but filmmakers can’t be bogged down by that. The gender binary in our country needs to be broken down and ripped out from its very roots.
Instead of the usual bunkum fed by movies such as Dabangg, it would be a refreshing change to see the arrogant cop beaten up by the goons, only to be rescued by the dauntless woman. Perhaps the woman can have a real personality and a substantive role in the plot, besides dancing to item numbers or getting kidnapped now and then. Maybe the hero can have a hidden and vulnerable side, afraid of the unrealistic expectations society has piled upon him. It’s only a question of maybes and ifs, for the minute our imaginations quit being restricted by arbitrary and baseless prejudices; we will truly exploit and explore the potential of our infinite cinematic universe.
[Words by: Rohan Parikh]