The set is doused in red light. Men are spread out across the floor, lounging on cushions, downing drinks, waiting for the show. Then Munni, supposedly a prostitute, appears on the balcony wearing a green ghagra choli, smiling. Surrounded by a devoted posse of male backup dancers, chest heaving, she breaks into song: “Munni badnaam hui / darling tere liye” (“Munni was defamed / darling, for you”). The men are delighted by the excessive performance. The audience at the cinema smiles along with them, taking in the color, the raunchy lyrics, and the absurdity of a scene featuring countless dudes, but only one woman.
From 2010’s Dabangg, this is an item number, an archetypal song-and-dance in mainstream Indian cinema. It has nothing to do with the plot of the film (then again, few songs really do) and its mission is to glorify a beautiful “item girl.” The seductive vamp shimmies across the screen for a few minutes, every second carefully choreographed to lure in cinemagoers. It’s catchy, it propels its actress to stardom, and it works as a safety net in case the film is a flop, which it sometimes is. During the month of its release, the item number gets itself stuck in the heads of the entire country. Of the 1.1 billion Indians with mobile phones, a sizeable chunk just made “Munni Badnaam Hui” their ringtone.
In 2007, the state of Maharashtra, home to the Bollywood industry, decided to ban sex education on the grounds that drawing penises and vaginas would turn students into wild fornicators instead of responsible adolescents. Last December, the Supreme Court reinstated a colonial law banning homosexuality in the country. In Mumbai, people engaging in benign public displays of affection (cuddling on a bench, for example) are routinely met with fines and threats of jail time. In private—and supposedly progressive—high schools, girls can be sent home for displaying an inch of bra strap. Moral policing in India is all the rage.
Everyone is angrily wagging their fingers at each other, preaching, be chaste! Resist temptation! Have some shame! Meanwhile, the Hindi film industry, with its copious item numbers, gives us an entirely different picture: veritable wonderlands of gyrating, midriff-baring women framed by the hands of men stroking illicit skin; a land where the male gaze is considered a compliment. But all this foreplay only leads to an anticlimax—since India’s independence, the notorious censor board has let only a handful of scripted kisses reach the big screen; the contradictions are endless. And somehow, the two contrasting narratives of Bollywood and real life wind up at the same virtuous ending: a happy marriage between the hero (always male) and the item girl, who, as it turns out, is an excellent cook.
India may have its issues with class and religion, but cinema manages to cut across them all. Each region has its own burgeoning industry, eager to harness the energy of a billion. Churning out movies at an unthinkable rate (over a thousand per year, to be precise), the Bollywood industry in particular seeps into every crack of the subcontinent and beyond, managing to please both the wealthy non-resident Indian community and the likes of rickshaw drivers and chai sellers. It is mass appeal, embodied in three-hour chunks of glittering costumes and dubbed vocals, and it deftly penetrates the subconscious of anyone in the vicinity of a television, radio, billboard, or mobile phone. But as it grows, evolving each year into a more extravagant entity, Bollywood presents an increasingly false image of the India it celebrates.
Screenwriters in the Hindi film industry are notorious for unabashedly faking the plotlines of Hollywood, and not doing a very good job at it. 2004’s box office hit Dhoom was an over-the-top hybrid of Ocean’s Eleven and The Fast and Furious. But even though its plot effectively fell apart by the end, the movie and its sequels, shot in Durban, Rio, and Chicago, demonstrate the Western influence on the Indian film industry. 2011’s Ra.One got Akon to record songs for the soundtrack. English is liberally thrown into screenplays. Even the names of big Indian film hubs ape their American counterpart: Bollywood, Tollywood, Ollywood (B for Bombay, T for Telegu, O for Odisha). And the movie stars who like to wiggle around in seas of male extras continually cite Western progressivism and female empowerment when defending their item numbers. But this is the same Western influence, with its loose morals and obscene miniskirts, that Indian leaders blame for the nation’s rape epidemic. “Foreign culture is not good for India. Women in foreign countries wear jeans and T-shirts, dance with other men and even drink liquor, but that is their culture,” said BJP minister Babulal Gaur, in a press conference a month after the December 2012 gang rape that spurred massive public outcry. Gaur could just as well be describing a Hindi blockbuster. And so, India has another paradox to add to its list: it decries lust in real life, but loves it on screen.
Though the mainstream film industry may claim to celebrate women with item songs, the protagonists of the movies are always male, guaranteed to get the girl before the credits roll. Even the label smacks of objectification: she is an item, a thing, so she can be owned. The real-life counterparts of onscreen lovers aren’t equal either—Indian lead actresses typically earn ten percent of what male stars do. Nandita Das, an Indian director and activist, delivered the keynote address for Brown University’s Feminist & Women’s Media Festival last month, in which she brought up the harmful way mainstream Indian cinema can alter notions of women. “There is this practice of standardizing beauty—that looking good means to be thin or a certain skin color,” Das said. But the same judgment is never wielded upon the men.
The contradiction between the filmi and the real world becomes particularly troubling in light of the Indian treatment of gender. India was recently ranked the worst G20 nation for women, with infanticide, child marriage, dowry deaths and ritualized violence forming an incredibly toxic environment to live in. The sex ratio is noticeably skewed towards men in almost every state; even today, girls are considered burdens to the family.
This drastic imbalance is obvious when a woman walks down the street in any Indian city, on a sweltering afternoon, wearing shorts. Always outnumbered by men, she can feel a dozen eyes unabashedly gawking at her legs. Bollywood suggests that women should enjoy the voyeuristic, invasive behavior of the loitering men on the street, some of whom make their cinematic fantasies clear as they whistle and yell out “kya item!” (“what an item!”). The semantics gets stickier: these casual forms of sexual aggression are called “Eve teasing.” Meanwhile, a female politician in the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission, Asha Mirje, proclaims that women who wear suggestive clothes and go to the movies at night are inviting sexual assault. To be female is, by default, to be a tease.
“I know you want it but you’re never gonna get it / Tere haath kabhi na aani” (“I’ll never be within reach”) – “Sheila Ki Jawani” from Tees Maar Khan (2010)
But the admonitions of the Bollywood temptress aren’t to be respected; they are to be conquered. A Bombay-based couple working under the moniker The Transhuman Collective sought to demonstrate the dangerous gender stereotypes of the industry by making a YouTube video called “No Country for Women.”
“Being in the media industry ourselves, we could see only shallow content being produced, whether in advertising, news, or Bollywood,” Soham Sarcar, co-founder of the Collective, told the Independent. “But Bollywood, being the biggest influencer of our culture, is going towards a dangerous low.” The fourteen-minute compilation of clips starts out with a heaving, belly-dancing pastiche of item numbers, all with the same ratio: one woman, a dozen lascivious men around her. After a while, the musical clips are interspersed with news footage of sexual violence. The songs continue to play over the new images—gangs of men molesting a girl, chasing another down the street—taking on new meaning. The Bollywood ratio stays the same.
Does this fantasy notion of women on big screen affect the treatment of Indian women in real life? As sex in India remains taboo, images of the item girl tempting the boys and baring her stomach could possibly be the only way many Indians grapple with the complexities of human sexuality. Could it be that Bollywood teaches people to think that, because women wear shorts and bikinis, they are somehow asking for it?
Yet film is, and always has been, a form of escape separate from the real world and not to be taken seriously. Das cites this reason for the lax attitude of the typically uptight Indian censor board when it comes to popular Indian films—that it’s all just mindless entertainment. But even if the shallow movies of the mainstream industry do exacerbate a preexisting culture of rape, imposing our own moral standards on Bollywood or any of its counterparts could put us in the same camp as the sex-ed textbook banners and prowling policemen. We can’t blame Bollywood because we can’t prove that its projection of women has directly led to violence. And while “No Country for Women” certainly implies a strong correlation—with a group of male teenage interviewees innocently replying, “If they wear skirts like Rakhi Sawant, why won’t we tease?”—India’s gender troubles find their roots far beyond modern cinema.
Das believes that it ultimately boils down to freedom of expression, the tolerance of intolerance. “In terms of holding Bollywood accountable—I don’t think we can, because we’re a democracy and there is respect for personal space,” she said. “That’s where self-regulation and responsibilities come in, but unfortunately we’re at the mercy of their way of thinking.” She references the same freedom that allowed her to star in Fire, a 1996 Hindi film about a homosexual relationship, which was released to condemnation from the Indian moral brigade.
While it’s a stretch to pinpoint the industry for the way Indian society—historically patriarchal and violent long before movies were made—treats women, it is clear that mainstream cinema studios don’t do much to help create an image of the independent female. With an aesthetic that is increasingly glamorous and just as superficial, Bollywood exaggerates the lives of an elite sliver of society while still managing to seduce the entire population. And there isn’t much hope that it will change. “The power of Bollywood is so massive that the people making it and the ones who see it are blinded by it,” said Sarcar. “It’s sad that people working inside the industry don’t take a step backwards and see how they are influencing the masses.”
The average length of a Bollywood film clocks in somewhere around 135 minutes; they are automatic sagas. They only dabble in one genre. Colloquially termed masala films, they attempt to spread across every type of cinema—action, romance, drama, comedy, it’s all in there. As Bollywood forcefully dances and lip-syncs its way into the Indian collective consciousness, its flabby substance also detaches itself from reality—everything, of course, except its fantasy ideas about women.
But everything has its alternative. In the 1950s, the Parallel Cinema movement began in Bengal as India’s answer to Italian neorealism. It was an alternative that rejected the song-and-dance routines of mainstream cinema and used naturalism to tell the true, honest stories of the country. Satyajit Ray’s 1963 film Mahanagar (The Big City) is the story of a middle-class woman in Calcutta grappling with the consequences of her own financial independence as she begins work as a door-to-door saleswoman. At its heart is a familiar Indian narrative, adjusting to circumstance, and it tells it quietly, without frills.
We could hope for the resurgence of a parallel movement, a cinematic platform that exposes the everyday battles of women or accurately reflects the problems faced by the majority of Indians consuming these movies, the middle class. Unfortunately, India’s alternative cinema of today is left perpetually on the fringe, at the mercy of distributors who prefer the more lucrative appeal of Sheila and Munni. A few indie films come out each year, get critical acclaim, and then leave as soon as they came, always drowned out by the noise of the item number.
MAYA SORABJEE B’16 is not asking for it.