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Indian Cinema’s Own Brand of Sexism

When it comes to its treatment of women, India’s entertainment industry needs a reality check.

“We can’t cast her, she’s too fat.” “What am I going to do with an actress who can act but doesn’t look good?”

I lapped up these statements as harmless feedback for a year and a half in the television industry in India. As a 21-year-old, I was under the impression that women were objectified on screen to satisfy the need of a largely male audience. But a short market research trip made me realize that television reflected the current social status of women in India, and that sexism was an accepted fact both on screen and across the wider society.

In December 2014, I conducted market research for a popular daily soap opera in a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh. I was surprised to learn that only women watched soap operas. When I asked a lady what her impression was of the lead character in a certain show, she told me: “Akshara, my role model. The way she manages her household, her in-laws, her office work, while still managing to look good, is an inspiration for me. I aspire to be like her.”

What I discerned from three grueling days in Madhya Pradesh was that women aspired to a certain standard of beauty and lifestyle after being influenced by daily soaps. These serials showcase the traditional role a woman is expected to play in society — that of a homemaker and a child-bearer. Women across India aspire to be like the lead character in their favorite daily soap, who has a high sense of morality, is happily married and can manage both household and office work with equal ease.

Protagonists on these shows go to sleep looking like a model and wake up looking like one. They are decked out in gorgeous saris and heavy jewelry, and are represented along oversimplified moral lines. More often than not, the positive female character has to face opposition from a negative female antagonist who has no sense of morality, keeps multiple partners and is always trying to break up families.

Fair & Lovely

The problematic portrayal of women on television extends to advertising as well. Around a decade ago, Indian TV was permeated with advertisements of Fair & Lovely — a skin-lightening cream — spurring young women across the country into changing their skin color. Skin lightening is a $500-million industry in India, and in 2010 it was estimated to be growing at a rate of 18%. From whitening facial skin, underarms and even bleaching the vagina, Indian TV ads had all the options. It was not uncommon to see ads where a woman is rejected at a job interview or by her lover because of her skin color.

These ads represent the same regressive mentality of the soap operas that demand a slim, fair-skinned woman with a pretty face who looks radiant while managing household chores. It took the Advertising Standards Council of India over two decades to ban ads depicting dark skin as inferior to fair complexion. Unfortunately, advertisements of Fair & Lovely are still visible on Indian television, though they are less subtle in their preference of white skin over dark skin.

But Indian television has not always been this regressive. TV once portrayed powerful women like Shanti, from the eponymous show, a journalist out to avenge the rape of her mother by two powerful men, and Simran, a doctor who marries a man 10 years her junior and later becomes a single mother, in the largely popular soap opera, Astitva (existence). Indian soap opera producers are capable of creating sensible content, but, unfortunately, in the past few years, Indian television has regressed to the extent that now shows mostly portray women as homemakers who are ideal wives and mothers.

Television is just a prong in the wheel of misogyny and sexism that is the entertainment industry in India. While television has a wider reach, films are equally important as they influence popular culture. Storylines of Indian films have a history of harassment, eve-teasing — making unwanted sexual remarks to a woman in a public place — and stalking. Many films feature a song and dance sequence known as an item number, in which a slim, athletic woman, usually wearing scanty clothes, is gyrating to music. Such songs are included in films to lure male crowds into theaters. Kangana Ranaut has lashed out at filmmakers for inserting sexist and obscene item numbers into films, which serve no purpose other than to objectify women.

The Wheel of Sexism

The Indian film industry, more popularly known as Bollywood, is the world’s second-largest, churning out over 1,700 films annually. Over the past few years, many prominent female actors have called out sexism in the industry and have pointed out various instances when they faced discrimination. They have lamented the fact that women are only expected to look good on screen and that their opinions on scripts and direction are not welcome. Female actors are mainly expected to be the arm candy of the larger-than-life Bollywood film hero. Even with an emancipated heroine, there’s always a titular male character who plays a critical part in eventually empowering her to be successful in her goals.

For the past two years, the debate around women in Bollywood has intensified, with prominent female actors such as Kangana Ranaut, Anushka Sharma and Sonam Kapoor speaking out against sexism. Sharma had pointed out an instance where the better hotel room was given to the male actor because he was the more popular star. Kapoor has always been vocal about the disparity in pay between male and female actors. Meanwhile, Ranaut, who is known to be vocal about her views on scripts and direction, has been subjected to verbal abuse for her honesty and has earned a reputation in the media for being a “loud mouth.”

The crevices run deeper when there are controversies surrounding female stars. Apart from being objectified and criticized for being vocal, they are often subjected to boycotts by powerful families who control the film industry. In one instance, Ranaut claimed that she faced harassment after she revealed that she had had an affair with a popular film actor, Hrithik Roshan, which he denied. Roshan is the son of Rakesh Roshan, a powerful film producer. Following her claim, Indian media filled with articles questioning Ranaut’s mental state and sanity. She went on record to say that she was told by a famous female actor to not pursue the issue further as it would damage her career. The matter eventually reached a stalemate, with many people siding with Roshan’s version of the story. But the extent to which Ranaut and her family were harassed and singled out brought out the ugly, sexist side of the Indian film world.

Bollywood is largely dominated by powerful film families that have engaged in filmmaking for generations. This has led to wide-ranging nepotism and lesser opportunities for new talent to make a mark and create change in the industry. The number of women directors, producers and scriptwriters has also remained low over the years, meaning that women-centric cinema is yet to see a breakthrough. According to a 2017 report by the Geena Davis Institute, only 1 in 10 directors in Bollywood are women. While this has trend has started to change, women-centric films are known to rake in less money than commercial cinema that is powered by a male hero.

Sexism runs deeper than just the roles portrayed by women on screen. Bollywood has a culture of casting older male heroes alongside young heroines, as male stars are unwilling to retire and play older characters. Meanwhile, female actors are expected to play the role of a mother or grandmother the moment they reach 35. This has resulted in stark age differences between co-actors. According to a study, the age difference between co-stars in Bollywood has increased from two to three years to over 25 in the past decade.

Change Has To Come

The glass ceiling is tough to break, but there are some who are trying to combat sexism and sexist portrayals of women on screen. It is now widely accepted that change has to come from within the film industry for audiences to change their taste in cinema. Actor Aamir Khan received national acclaim in 2016 for his film, Dangal (wrestling competition), on the real-life story of wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat. What made Dangal different from traditional cinema was the fact that the story focused on Geeta Phogat’s journey, instead of giving screen space to the male lead, Aamir Khan. The film also addressed the gender disparity in villages in India and highlighted the myriad struggles women athletes face compared to their male counterparts.

Women-centric cinema has also started getting some traction, with many films such as Parched and Lipstick Under My Burkha receiving accolades from critics and moviegoers alike. However, Lipstick Under My Burkha faced the ire of the Censor Board of India that didn’t want to see the film released owing to its “lady-oriented” content, “sexual scenes, abusive words [and] audio pornography,” as it showcased the sexual desires and sexual autonomy of four Muslim women in a small town in India. Following an outcry in the mainstream media for banning a film about women and infringing on women’s rights, after a long battle with the censors, the feature was eventually released in July 2017 to critical acclaim.

Women-centric films are also facing hurdles in raising money. Sonam Kapoor once rightly pointed out that she was facing difficulty in raising money for her all-female film, whereas two popular male actors had received billions of rupees for their action feature. Similarly, actors like Ranaut, who refuse to endorse beauty creams or dance in item numbers, are offered fewer roles and earn less compared to their more commercial female counterparts. Bollywood’s power play is also underscored by the fact that female actors need to attain a certain level of success before they can even start expressing their opinion.

The road to equal rights for women in entertainment is still a far-fetched dream. The Harvey Weinstein scandal opened a Pandora’s box of sexual harassment cases in Hollywood and showed that women aren’t safe in the entertainment industry. Bollywood is no different. Many famous directors, such as Madhur Bhandarkar, who is known for his movies on social and feminist issues, and Mahmood Farooqui have been accused of rape. Following the Weinstein disclosures, some Indian actors told the media that speaking out in Bollywood against sexual harassment was uncommon as the victim was usually shamed and the perpetrator escaped scot-free.

The story of a struggling actor, Jiah Khan, who committed suicide after being harassed by her colleague, Sooraj Pancholi, son of Aditya Pancholi, a famous actor and producer, is a case in point. Despite evidence of Pancholi’s involvement in inciting Khan to kill herself, he walked away unpunished. Aditya Pancholi has also been accused of stalking and sexual harassment by Kangana Ranaut. Pancholi and his wife have repeatedly denied Ranaut’s claims.

The Indian entertainment industry is a quagmire of sexism. It runs from the very bottom to the very top, with no change in sight. While the portrayal of women is improving, female actors are yet to get the same treatment as male actors who unconditionally dominate the industry. Bollywood has a problem with women, and it’s time to address it, before a Weinstein-like earthquake devastates the industry.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit:  Sabuhi Novruzov / Shutterstock.com