Objects on screen only reflect a partial picture

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Hips don’t lie Item numbers still cater to the whims of patriarchy despite being choreographed by women

FILMS, PARTICULARLY those that fall in the category of popular entertainment, objectify women. There are no two ways about it. They embody the traditional understanding of women as devious, doublefaced, wilful and wild, as needing to be controlled and dominated. Women need to be taught their boundaries. This can be traced back to Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew, for instance) all the way back to the One Thousand and One Nights, and finally, to the uncomfortable space of our own mythology. Even when cinema made its first appearance, these cultural stereotypes were already long in place.

Men being the prime producers and consumers of cinema caused the ‘male gaze’ to predominate in the early years. But today the ‘male gaze’ is a bit more complicated: recall that the two most most popular item numbers in recent times, Munni Badnaam Hui and Sheila ki Jawani, were both choreographed by a woman, Farah Khan. Another woman, Saroj Khan, blazed the trail with Choli ke Peeche and Dhak Dhak. Dance moves are decided by the choreographers; directors usually have little to do with it.

With more and more women professionals entering the film industry, the gaze is no longer only male. But it remains deeply patriarchal. I suggest then the use of the term ‘patriarchal gaze’ rather than the overused (now in an almost “boys will be boys” sense) term ‘male gaze’.

Films are a commercial activity, and like any other business, try to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Although satellite rights are a big addition to revenue generation, they can only sustain small films. The big films still depend on theatrical earnings, at least in the opening weekend. Till the late 1980s, the lowest common denominator was the rickshaw puller. Films, therefore, also spoke of their concerns and class dynamics were a staple source for stories. The Amitabh Bachchan phenomenon reigned supreme there.

Today, the lowest common denominator for cinema is the section that can afford the exorbitant ticket prices in an upscale multiplex. This is also the section that plays songs such as Honey Singh’s in their parties, weddings and on their iPods. This is our middle class.

It will be incorrect to assume that since the spending power is in the hands of a middle or upper-class man, thus the choice of entertainment is also his. Mundane decisions such as this are often left to the women of the house. Shah Rukh Khan is Shah Rukh Khan not because men watch him, but because women and children love him. They love him when he harasses a Simran in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and they love him when he tries to pick his keys from a voluptuous woman’s cleavage in Ra.One. And yet similar behaviour on the streets, for any woman, is highly traumatic. Why is it then acceptable to us in cinema? Could it be that cinema is not really taken that seriously?

I think it is also highly dubious to think that what is called serious cinema or new-age cinema has altered this outlook towards women. Let’s take, for instance, a film like Gandu, which didn’t release in India, but has been seen by a lot of people in private screenings. It is considered by many to be cutting-edge filmmaking. Gandu has three main women characters. The first is a mother, who from shot one to the last is fucking her rich boyfriend so that she can get some money out of him and retain the house that he has given her.

The second one we meet in a lively Internet café and her conversations with her husband, who is clearly posted elsewhere, are sexually charged and seem full of innuendo. This character has nothing to do with the plot, and appears only for short spans to mouth some sexual dialogues and disappear.

The third character is the woman of the protagonist’s dreams, whom he can acquire only once he has enough money by buying the correct lottery ticket. It is interesting to note that the woman of his dreams appears dressed as a cat, licking a plate full of cream and all the while making funny facial expressions at the camera. Sitting in that 14-seater hole of a hall at Cannes, I wondered if the difference between the two kinds of filmmaking is only cosmetic.

ANOTHER CUTTING-edge-yet-popular film, Gangs of Wasseypur, when seen critically, fares similarly. The media and the critics hailed the women characters of the film as strong, never before seen in Hindi cinema. This reading of the film largely revolved around the character of Sardar Khan’s first wife. Her strength apparently manifests itself when she tells her husband to eat well so that when he is sleeping with another woman, he doesn’t have a no show. Strength also comes in the form of acknowledging sexual needs; however, when she chooses to demand it of a ‘100- year-old’ uncle, I cannot understand the aftermath. Rethink the sequence for a minute. An image of this woman lying on a bed with her sari up to her thighs, her legs wide open, while the said uncle stands on the side, tying his pajamas. This is from the point of view of her child, who is later played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Part Two. The child runs away. Cut to the child trying a joint for the first time, presumably in direct connection to his mother’s ‘whorishness’. Cut back to Mr Uncle beating himself while a voiceover tells us that he actually rejected her overtures. The man upheld virtue and even recognised his folly in desiring another man’s property. So shocked is he that he even forgets that he is a Sunni and uses strictly Shia gestures to seek repentance.

Which films lead to the rape of two-year-old kids? They don’t teach people to unleash unspeakable brutalities

I must now come to the blind spot in this argument. However patriarchal and problematic our cinema may be, it is still far behind the brutality and the violence we witness in the everyday world. I watch a lot of Hindi films, but I have not seen a single one, barring Bandit Queen (which is a biopic), where a woman is paraded naked. Nor have I seen one where the degree of violence shown compares in any way with mutilation of breasts and cutting open wombs to kill foetuses, or where women’s vaginas have been stuffed with stones. Yet, such instances abound in this country, not just in violence against women in urban centres, but also in violence against women in the name of caste or occupation or war. No films promote rapes by armed forces in conflict zones. Which films lead to the rape of two-and-half-year-old children? Films don’t teach countries and cultures to unleash unspeakable brutalities on each other. If films had the power to do so, then there would be no communal violence in this country, given the film industry’s simple but strong, consistent, unflinching and persistent stand for secular values.

So, although we can argue that the content and aggressive marketing of misogynaist Hindi film songs and films affirm stereotypes about women and create an unsafe atmosphere on the road, it is not the full picture. Yes, as practitioners of mass media, we need to be very careful with the powerful tool in our hands, but what do we do about the violence and misogyny that enters our homes through news channels and newspapers? What do we do when the State uses violence against women as a tool to maintain status quo? Surely, we must concede that truth is stranger than fiction.

letters@tehelka.com
ALSO READ: Rape. And how men see it By Shoma Chaudhury

9 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t understand why you feign bewilderment at the connection between on-screen objectification and the dehumanization/othering that leads to brutal “put her in her place” rapes that are so widespread in India.

    No doubt you know the argument, but I’ll lay it out explicitly: this kind of media encourages men to see women as less than human, since the viewer is rarely required to relate to the emotional state of women. This creates an atmosphere where women are blamed for their own rape, which lets the violent and crazy men rape without fear of reprisal.

    (Consider the typical heroine — we don’t relate to her, we relate to the hero, since it’s his story. The hero is attracted to the heroine, and the film does its best to make us see her the same way, emphasizing her sexuality and attractiveness. And in most movies she is the romantic challenge that must be overcome, by persistence, or poetry, or bravery, or whatever. We rarely see the heroine attracted to the hero, rarely see the world through *her* eyes. Romance movies are sometimes the exception, but they rarely look at the hero the way a, say, Salman Khan movie looks at the heroine.)

    This leads to people (more men than women) not thinking about the feelings of women when they talk about women being responsible for their own rape. Everyone empathises with the poor men, constantly shown attractive women they can’t touch, but no one empathises with the people who actually get raped! This twisted state of affairs, where you sympathise with some sexual frustration more than you sympathise with someone who was sexually brutalized just for walking home after dark — this is crazy, and it’s partially because of the way media treats women.

    This widespread societal refusal to recognize the experiences of women and blame men for rape leads to rapists getting away with rape.

    It’s not the only factor, but it’s a factor.

    So you see, movies do not actually have to be a HOW-TO manual for sexual crimes (thought Salman Khan movies come close) in order to make society more hostile to women. They just have to refuse to see them as human.

    • Right to the point. If mass entertainment does not cause to create/shape the minds of the viewers then why would such crores of rupees is spent on advertising.

  2. nah, this is not even remotely close to reality! this write up is too myopic. Films do have an effect. forget films even lousy choppy TV serials have an effect on human behavior. Recall Suicides after ShaktiMan, recall body building craze after Salman Khan. Its a shame that this articles comes from a female film director who assumes that she knows the trade!!! huh! hogwash

  3. The girls who expose do not realize that they are inadvertently participating in a vicious game by male chauviniss to promote prurience and sexual anarchy in the society. The dance floors of our cities are remnants of the ancient Devadasi system, except that molestation is disguised in rhythmic and provoking moves of female bodies. I wonder how and why ‘DANCING’ appeared in the list of ARTS! Well, unless it is due to the reactionary nexus between ancient Kings and Priests!

  4. Anusha, I don’t really subscribe to what-so-ever is scribbled…. if that is the case, hollywood has more nakedness, vulgarity and atrocities inflicted on women and in the western world, women are equally safe on roads..

  5. This article refutes an accusation that no one makes, and pretends as if the accusation that many have made, does not even exist. No one has said that the link between sexual violence or misogyny and popular cinema (and other media products in general) is limited to COPY-CAT imitation of what is depicted on the screen. Even so, this is what this article trains its guns on and demolishes.

    However, what a lot of people have long been saying is that movies and other media play an important role in setting the stage for a few spectacular and countless not-so-dramatic sexual crimes to occur. The mildest levels at which this is done is through the objectification of women (and occasionally, men), and by making misogynistic behavior look like harmless fun. How many of us can forget the elaborate joke around “balaatkaar” in the super-hit Aamir Khan starrer “3 Idiots”?

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