Bollywood and it's long-standing problem with portraying gender

Both Kabir Singh and Saaho may have become hits, drawing in huge crowds, however, that does not alleviate the fact that their scripts are riddled with sexism.

Sujeeth Reddy, the director of the Prabhas-Shraddha Kapoor starrer, Saaho, which was released in four languages Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, has broken his silence over the criticism that has been coming his way ever since it was released. The film, which has been minting money in the box office, has been panned widely for its lackluster script which glorifies masculinity and misogyny. The director, who is recovering from dengue, has also been hit with accusations of plagiarism.

In Saaho, Prabhas plays a person who pretends to be a police officer - a character who is so narrowed down in his view of life that he believes that the only raison d’etre for a woman is to be pursued and ogled at. Instances of blatant sexism and misogyny are abundant in the film - while in one scene, he asks Shraddha Kapoor’s character, Amrita Nair, what a pretty girl like her is doing in the police force, in another scene, Amrita enters a pub undercover, wearing a shimmery short dress, just to be commented on by Prabhas. Despite being a cop, Amritha also can’t get anything right, and it often requires Prabhas to save the day.

The submissive Indian woman

To reduce a woman to nothing more than an object of desire, and to make it alright to demean her, is something that Bollywood has been particularly good at. Unfortunately, many movie goers have also been alright with the projection. Despite the whole row over the violence it glorified, Kabir Singh, starring Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani, had a good run in the box office.

The film, which traces the story of a man (Kapoor as Kabir SIngh) who takes to the bottle and goes out of control after his lover (Advani as Preeti) gets married to someone else, has been criticised for being chauvinistic and patriarchal. Singh, who has anger management issues, is rarely derided for his behaviour – rather in certain instances like when a junior doctor fixes a drink for him as he goes into surgery, or when he thrashes another student during a football match, the scenes are glorified. So are the ones where he threatens a girl for refusing to have sex with him or when he marks Preeti as ‘his’ and warns his juniors against ragging her. Even scenes where he hits Preeti and abuses her parents and family members when they refuse to get her married to him, portray him in a sympathetic light. Preeti is shown as the submissive woman who is deeply in love with him, despite his abusive ways.

It is not just Saaho and Kabir Singh that smack heavily of sexism. In Mission Mangal, Akshay Kumar talks about sindoor, kangan, kajal and mangal sutra in a poem, prompting the question - what does a woman’s jewellery or her marital status have anything to do with her ambitions and success? Rather than focusing on the core competencies of the women who have been the forces behind ISRO’s space missions, the film falls back on the same formula of relying on female domesticity and male power to sell.

Bollywood has also constantly projected its idea of the ideal woman – that of being a sanskaari girl who the hero can take home to his mother - one who listens to what the man has to say, one who is chaste and is all-sacrificing. The antagonist has often been the aggressive, opinionated, non-sacrificing and professionally driven woman – the Sridevi, Raveena Tandon starrer, Laadla for example, shows Sridevi as the owner of a company whose cut-throat aggressive attitude projects her in a negative light.

The film industry also portrays women as just objects of desire who don’t have a mind of their own. In Race 2, where Anil Kapoor plays a cop, he has the audacity to tell a woman, “Oopar wale ne tumhe aage aur peechche bahut kuchh diya hain, lekin oopar kuch nahin diya hain.” That Kapoor, who has a rather vocally feminist daughter of his own, agreed to mouth such a dialogue, is distressing.

Dabaang’s much-hyped dialogue, ‘Pyar se de rahe hai, rakh lo, varna thappad maarke bhi de sakte hai’ is a classic case of how a man, who is portrayed as a cop and a hero, can say something like that, get away with it and also end up with the woman at the end of the day.

Decades of gender disparity

Such sexism is not new in the industry. In 2017, an analysis of around 4,000 Bollywood movies done by IBM and two institutes in Delhi - IIIT Delhi and DTU Delhi, had found that there were huge disparities between how women characters were portrayed in films. For the same, the researchers analysed films from between 1971 and 2017, where they used titles, plots, cast information, soundtracks and posters to reveal information regarding sexism in Bollywood.

To show how male characters are introduced in films as opposed to female characters, the researchers took the example of the 2000 film, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. In the plot, Hrithik Roshan is introduced as an aspiring singer Rohit, who works as a salesman in a car showroom, run by Malik (Dalip Tahil), while Sonia Saxena (Ameesha Patel) is introduced as the daughter of Mr. Saxena (Anupam Kher). Here the difference is clear – For Roshan, the description includes his ambitions and his work, while for Patel, it is simply in relationship with another male.

Further, according to the analysis, while the adjectives used to describe male characters are ‘strong, successful, wealthy, honest, famous, real, poor, innocent and rich’ for women, the words used are ‘ beautiful, arrogant, attractive, pregnant, single, sexy, widowed, ailing, adopted.’ Bollywood has also often stereotyped occupations in its movies, with female characters more likely to be categorised as ‘teacher,’ ‘secretary’ or ‘student’ while male characters are more likely to be a ‘doctor’ or a ‘lawyer.’

The analysis also revealed that women were needed as ‘bait’ to lure audience into theatres, even in cases where the films did not have a significant female presence – Raees being a case in point, where the poster prominently features both Shah Rukh Khan and Mahira Khan, while the film has very little to do with the female actress.

The silver linings

Bollywood has, however, thrown rare jewels once in a while, where the focus has been on strong, empowered and liberated women, who do not need to go back to their miserable states, or depend on a male to find happiness. Margarita With A Straw by Shonali Bose, was brilliant in the way it unapologetically showcased the personal and sexual liberation of Laila (Kalki Koechlin) who has cerebral palsy. Queen, albeit the fact that its director has been charged with sexual harassment, was refreshing in the way it shows Rani (Kangana Ranaut) coming out of the shadows of her fiance and learning to live and enjoy life to the fullest, alone.

What Bollywood needs are more films like Parched, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Lajja, Fire rather than the usual films that rely on macho heroes who save helpless heroines.