If you’ve followed Bollywood movies in the last 5 years, chances are you must have caught at least one song featuring a popular actress, clad in skimpy clothes, and shaking a leg to a raunchy item number while the men watching her hooted and whistled. It’s funny how the censor board of India banned AIB Roast for foul language, and a number of English movies for showing anything sexual, yet seem to turn a blind eye to the suggestive dancing in item numbers because they send the box office numbers soaring through the roof.
On one hand, Indian cinema has definitely progressed in the last decade, now quite comfortably showing on-screen kisses and even sex scenes. The topics of Indian movies have also evolved to show “modern” relationships, pre-marital sex, live-in relationships and youngsters who are not adarsh betas/betis (ideal children) still living with their parents. Bollywood no longer projects women in patriarchal societies, but shows them with a mind of their own. They portray women to be empowered enough to wear what they want, yet at the same time they continue to feature them as objects of desire, teasing men with their body in these cheap item numbers.
Although the issue with item numbers is blaringly obvious, it doesn’t stop there. Many Bollywood movies revolve around a love story of boy likes girl and proceeds to chase her in order to woo her. The girl is not interested in the boy, but he is persistent until he has won the girl over. Every clichéd Bollywood party song pans out to the boys popping champagne bottles with bikini clad women surrounding them. The so-called “Western” movies like Cocktail show the hero of the movie first with the independent, party-going girl. Yet, after the fun is over, he truly falls in love with the more homely Mira. What message does this send? The modern party-going women who wear short clothes are to have fun and when that is over, you marry and take home the girl that your mother would love to have as a daughter-in-law.
On the other hand, let’s not even get started with the things that are wrong with Indian Television, that show women sitting around at home all day in colourful saris and a magnanimous amount of jewelry. If they aren’t cooking, sewing or planning a wedding, they are shown to be gossiping, bickering and creating drama in the household. A healthy representation of women and married life isn’t it, eh?
About 70% of India’s male population rural. Most Indian men have had limited social interactions with the opposite sex. Most of young Indian men and women live with their parents until the day they are married, with no open conversations about dating or sex at home. The majority of Indian schools do not offer any form of sex education. Which means what they see on screen majorly guides their perceptions of dating, sex and women. Now imagine what it means for this rural boy, to see the most popular item numbers depicting a naughty village girl, playing up the “Munni”, “Chameli”, or “Shiela” fantasy, leading on the boys who are scattered around to admire her body. Imagine the repercussions of normalizing seeing women as sex objects, eve teasing, and stalking them. Rather than inspiring a social change, which represents women as truly sexually, empowered, all these songs do is further extend the culture of misogyny that has haunted our society and women for years.
We are already a highly divided society along our class lines. On screen we show women wearing whatever they want, while in reality we question and blame their attire for their rape and eve teasing. We need to bridge this gap between the India that Bollywood is trying to portray and the reality of Indian women in a very slowly modernizing and still largely backwards society. It is about time that Bollywood thinks twice about the message they are putting out in the world, especially related to an already sensitive topic. Don’t go back to the black-and-white days where sex was a taboo. But at the same time, don’t go over-board when your audience is like naïve, impressionable children when it comes to sex. Think of the repercussions that over-sexualizing women on screen would have and how it sabotages any progress women are making towards equal opportunities in their professional and personal lives. It’s time that such a powerful industry takes some responsibility in the country they shape.