A look at dialogues, characters, relationships and censorship in 30 landmark Bollywood films.
In the movie Stree, actor Pankaj Tripathi warns other men against the ways in which the female-ghost might attack them. She would call out her prey’s name, but only make a move if they turn around and look at her—thereby perhaps, consenting to the ghost.
Compare this to Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), where Keshav, played by Akshay Kumar, goes about stalking and clicking pictures of the woman he claims to love, even after she asks him to stop. It seems that in Bollywood, ghosts (and that too, female ghosts) are the only ones familiar with the concept of consent—the figures suggest as much.
In our study of 30 landmark Bollywood films (conducted at the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality over a course of 10 months), among the total number of scenes displaying sexual relations, 74 per cent translate into near sexual harassment. Our sample size was narrowed through filtering films based on critical acclaim, box office figures and state recognition, to best reflect what the Indian audience has deemed worthy of their entertainment—from Karan Arjun to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
This explains why we have normalised rampant sexism in our daily lives. In 1995, it was a leather jacket-clad Raj from Aditya Chopra’s debut, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, who found no issues with ‘flirting’ with a woman travelling with her friends, even after she has asked him to back off. The study takes an expansive look at the next couple of decades as well. Whether it is Rahul in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Rancho in 3 Idiots (2009) or Barfi in Barfi! (2012), a woman’s personal or professional space is often taken for granted.
Such acts of harassment, however, are not singular instances of a skewed male-female dynamic. Once we analysed gender and sexuality through a host of different parameters, we saw how we systemically discourage women representation and make caricatures in the name of queer representation. It might be a ubiquitous fact that male characters get a lot more space onscreen than their female counterparts—but how far can we back such claims with statistics? And with the consequent disproportionate numbers, can we even begin to look for examples of female sexual agency?
Characters and dialogue
Take something as basic as the number of credited characters at the beginning of any film: Male characters account for nearly twice as many as female characters (Graph 2) in the credits. Try looking at the number of dialogues between the male and female protagonists and the latter only manages to cross one-third of the total figure (Graph 3).
More than the statistics itself, it was the very masculine nature of the dialogue itself that forced us to repeatedly pause and reflect. In 3 Idiots, for instance, the word “balaatkar” (literally meaning rape) is turned into a joke, trivialising the act itself.
In Dabangg (2010) as well, the lecherous tone of Sonu Sood’s character is used to characterise him as the archetypical villain of this film—but a mere change of background score tries to romanticise similar behaviour for the “hero” of the film, played by Salman Khan, even as he makes his beloved feel uncomfortable on more than one occasion. After a point of time, it should not matter when Sood’s character says “Kiske batashey zyaada gol hain?”, for whether he refers to testicular balls or muscular biceps, the rhetoric of the entire film comes across as an exercise in highly toxic masculinity.
Vast differences between the male and female characters also occur in their respective occupations onscreen. While men are shown in their workplaces, in meetings with their colleagues or even in uniforms and hence ‘on duty’, women are largely shown within the domestic sphere—their labour within the home rendered invisible by its marked absence.
Instead of labelling them as ‘unemployed’, we categorise them as characters with ‘occupations not mentioned’. This was perhaps the only category where female characters occupied a larger share, mostly because a chunk of them were represented as home-makers, while male characters in this category were older and hence, retired—or simply belonged to families that were so rich that they need not work.
We also tried seeing the way in which these films have interacted with the state on the basis of the number of cuts ordered by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The past year was marred with controversy for the board, what with ordering a large number of cuts for the “lady oriented” film, Lipstick Under My Burkha. But the data for 20 of the 30 films in our study, available on the CBFC website, made it clear that the expression of any form of sexuality has historically made the state a tad bit uncomfortable. Almost one-third of the cuts ordered by the CBFC were on sexual expression. While in Taal (1999), they objected to “visuals of women wearing bras”, in both Parineeta (2005) and Rang De Basanti (2006), the Board ordered omission of scenes portraying consensual sexual relations altogether.
Queen or English Vinglish (women-centric films with their own set of problems)—are not a part of this study. And yet, we tried our best to pick films that have stayed in public memory, long after they moved out of movie theatres.
The fact that there were only a handful of “women-centric” films that ticked these boxes is an indicator of the Bollywood’s gender bias itself. And while a piece of poetry or a film does not always launch us into action, ‘entertainment’ does not exist in a bubble either. What we find entertaining, tells us what we approve of— a thought we could munch on, along with our popcorn.
This study was conducted by Dhriti Nadir, Ishan Mehandru and Navya Sara Monson at the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality.