The ghastly assault and rape of a female paramedic in Delhi has produced an avalanche of protest and comment on why we treat women so badly. But a major cause, the film industry, has hardly been mentioned. It has fostered thoroughly retrograde male attitudes that are at least partly responsible.
Some feminists focus on the commodification of women in Bollywood’s “item numbers”, sex-laden dances by Isha Koppikar, Mallika Sherawat and others. Others highlight the popularity of rape scenes to titillate audiences. Old-time villain Ranjeet did close to 100 rape scenes, with the audience almost cheering him on.
Yet item numbers and rape scenes are not the main problem. After all, cabaret dancers and villains are not role models. What’s truly terrible is the manner in which film heroes have for decades pestered, stalked and forced their unwanted attentions on heroines in a thousand films, yet ended up getting the girl. That sends the most outrageous of all messages to the public: pestering girls is what heroes do, and a girl’s “no” actually means “yes.”
Hit film songs that glorify harassment and stalking have compounded the problem. These are perpetuated in memory and social attitudes through repeated humming of the songs and viewing of video clips.
Dev Anand was the great romantic lover of my youth. We watched him serenade Nalini Jaywant in the film Munimji (“jeevan ke safar mein rahi“), while pawing and pestering her. He was equally obstreperous with Nutan in the film Paying Guest, with the hit song “Mana janab ne pukara nahin.” The song’s words frankly admit that although he is not welcome at all, he must insist on gaily forcing his attentions on her. For decades after audiences sang these songs, barely conscious of the sordid values they implied.
Raj Kapoor couldn’t be far behind. In his opus Sangam he sang a megahit while pestering a bathing Vyjianthimala: “Mere man ki Ganga, aur teri man ki Yamuna, bol Radha bol sangam hoga ke nahin.” As justification for this boorishness, he stuck a feather in his hair in imitation of Lord Krishna, who also harassed bathing gopis. Whereas Krishna played on the flute, Raj Kapoor played on Scottish bagpipes, a variation difficult to explain except as a side-effect of the actor’s fondness for Scotch whisky.
Amitabh Bachchan strode the Bollywood scene like a colossus. His biggest contribution to female degradation was in the film Hum. In this, he and a gang of maybe 300 leering males demand a kiss from actress Kimi Katkar—the hit song “Jumma chumma de de.”
Katkar sings back that she will not give a kiss. The male leerers insist on a kiss and douse her with a hosepipe. Ultimately, after several refusals, the song ends with Bachchan finally getting his kiss. He emerges grinning from the melee with lipstick smeared across his face. There could hardly be a more graphic message: if only you harass a woman enough, no matter how often she says no, she will ultimately say yes.
The greatest Hindi film of all time was probably Sholay. This had Dharmendra giving his version of how to win a girl. He jumps on the tonga (horse carriage) of tongawali Hema Malini, serenading her and grabbing her from behind. She fights him off, knocking him off the tonga. But he once again climbs aboard and continues with his musical harassment. The song goes, “Koi hasina jab rooth jati hai to, aur bhi hasin ho jati hai.” (translation: when a beautiful girl gets pissed off with you, she becomes even more beautiful). Does he go to jail for this behaviour? Alas no, she falls into his arms! Great are the rewards of harassment.
I don’t see films in other Indian languages. Some say they are even cruder, so let’s not blame Bollywood alone. I’m told such crudity doesn’t happen in big Bollywood films any more. Really? I saw Rockstar, in which Ranbir Kapoor forces his attentions on a girl, who initially resists but then asks him to take her to a raunchy film!
Let the last word come from somebody in the film business.“There are films in which romantic wooing has been replaced by a kind of harassment of the heroine. The heroes of these films could be considered stalkers in some civil societies. Now imagine that this actor is a role model to millions… wouldn’t his fans think this behaviour is okay? Now imagine that this actress is a role model to millions… what message does it send to women across the country?”
These are the words of actor-director Farhan Akhtar. When he says things are getting worse, please pay attention.