Life Imitates Art – Cinema and Violence against Women

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life – Oscar Wilde

In the normal course, it is art that imitates life. The art forms –literature, painting and cinema – for most part depended upon and depicted reality. It was art holding up the mirror to life in the description of pastoral England in the novels of Hardy and Eliot;and the squalor and suffering in the aftermath of industrial revolution in Dickens’s novels. It is said of John Millais’ painting of Ophelia that the detailed flora around the riverbank was so true to life that the botany students would take a short trip to the art gallery rather than make a field visit.

It is not that a few, like HG Wells, did not take flights of fancy. In some measure the life also imitated art – especially, set off fashion trends in hair styles (Sadhana and Audrey Hepburn), dresses and so on. Sometimes, it seems that the line between the art and life is blurred as in the case of ‘bad’ cops and ‘vile’ politicians shown in Indian cinema – you wonder who is imitating whom?

It is less worrisome, of course, if life only imitated bad television as Woody Allen said. But it often gets worse. It is well known that some films had inspired daring robberies and heists, and in some cases, even heinous crimes. These, however, remain isolated incidents with few ramifications for society at large. It is disturbing when life starts mimicking art (cinema, for instance) where certain socially unacceptable values are internalized by a large multitude. Indian cinema has given rise to two such appalling values or ideas– one, it is cool and acceptable to stalk / make advances at a girl and two, a girl has no business to reject, spurn or disapprove such unwanted attention.

Films have also propagated the notion of honor killing. Sword / machete wielding mobs running after the young couple are fairly common in movies of this ilk. Qayamat Se Quayamat Tak and many movies made in the same mold (inspired by Romeo Juliet alas!) lend legitimacy to violently ending relationships not approved by families / elders.  

The ranks of young girls subjected to acid attacks are ever growing. Only the other day, a boy in namma Bengaluru burnt down the house of a girl for ‘neglecting’ him. The stalking and kidnapping of Snapdeal executive in Gurgaon was almost filmy and said to have been inspired by Shah Rukh Khan’s Darr. There was gruesome murder of a girl in Vijayawada while she was waiting with others in the college for her viva voce examination. The killer was her classmate and did not take kindly to her ignoring his unwanted attention.

The following is but a very impressionistic account of how women have been portrayed in Hindi films over the years and its possible influence in shaping the attitudes of men towards them. The subject deserves a more in-depth research to establish the connection between the two – art and life – the connection between cinema and violence against women.

Depiction of women as objects of desire and possession in Indian cinema is of recent origin. The idealism that filled freedom struggle continued for almost a decade into 1950s and a little beyond. There were many movies with very progressive themes where the female character played the lead role and in some cases also raised issues pertinent to women. Bimal Roy’s Sujata(1959) was about an untouchable girl raised by a Brahmin couple asserting her individuality.In Sadhana(1958) a girl who is forced into prostitution lands by quirk of fate as bahu of respectable middle class family. The film raises the important issue of exploitation of women. Seema (1955) explores hurt and anguish of an orphan girl falsely accused of theft. It is about not pushing one over the tipping point or the point of no return. Mother India (1957) was about the quintessential mother-woman’s survival against social injustices and upholding values against all odds. Anuradha (1960) tells the story of neglect suffered by talented singer (played by the beautiful Leela Naidu) sacrificing her passion to follow her idealist doctor husband to the backwaters of the country. Even where a woman was not central to the plot, she was at least not shown as vain and as an embellishment.

With sixties came the major change – the Eastman color. With the color came the fantasy. Color lent itself to showing beautiful locales. Love in Tokyo, Night in London, Around the World, An Evening in Paris …. They took the viewer on a three hour pleasure trip set to amazing music. Sixties was indeed the golden era of Hindi film music. Many movies were shot in Kashmir or in hill stations like Shimla and Nainital. Songs were picturized in lovely gardens such as Brindavan Gardens in Mysore. Not that there were no meaningful women-centric movies in sixties. Bandhini, Anpadh, Guide, TeesriKasam, MujheJine Do, etc. did mark their presence – but the mainstream movies became more glamorous, amorous and less engaged with social issues. Movies were an escape. Possibly, the gloomy sixties being what they were –two major wars, food scarcity and political uncertainty – just needed this fix!

While running-around-the-trees routine began in sixties, it also saw the beginning of stalking (pestering the heroine) popularized by the inimitable and lovable Shammi Kapoor. He took stalking to the next level of Budtameez, Janwar, Junglee, … They crossed the thin line between wooing and stalking. Female characters became more glamorous with fancy hair-dos and dresses that showed off their curves more than the substance of their personality. A femme fatale,generally a cabaret dancer, was necessary ingredient of most plots – yet she was mostly shown as one with the golden heart, who saves the hero by taking the bullet in her love laden chest.

In my view, the seventies and eighties were in a way the golden period of Hindi cinema. There were light romantic comedies and art movies happily jostling for space with mainstream commercial cinema. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Basu Chatterjee, ShyamBenegal, Ketan Mehta, Gulzar, Mrinal Sen, Syed Mirza, GovindNihlani, Sai Paranjape, Kundan Shah, M S Sathyu, Prakash Jha, Guatam Ghosh and others provided a good alternative to discerning moviegoer.

The place of women in cinema really took a nose dive in nineties and it only got worse in the new millennium. Shah Rukh Khan played a major role in popularizing this negative image of women as objects of desire to be possessed at any cost. Darr and Anjam deserve special mention of this obsessive lover who will not take a ‘no’ for an answer. His light hearted stalking of Rosanne in Josh while she is with her boyfriend does send an unacceptable message. Ranjhana was another movie that sought to glorify relentlessly and destructively pursuing one’s love interest. Telugu films have specialized in depicting wanton brutality to which woman is subject to by obsessive gangsters (as in Varsham), Police Officer (in Pokiri), etc. 

The worst trend has been set off, unfortunately, by a song written by Gulzar and picturised beautifully by Vishal Bharadwaj – this was the BeediJalayile in Omkara. The song was relevant to the plot. It was not an add-on as it has since become with Munni Bai, Jalebi Bai, Baby Doll and scores of other songs where men are shown pawing and falling over the female dancer.

There is hope yet. In the past few years, the economics of movie making has undergone tremendous change with multiplexes increasingly replacing single screen large theatres even in mall cities and towns. This together with switching to digital cinema technology from the motion picture format has leveled the playing field for small budget film makers. Today, there is a high probability that a small budget film would very likely recover more than its cost. The buzz created in social media gives them free publicity. As a result, we find that there is resurgence of meaningful cinema which deals with social and gender issues with sensitivity. Women in movies like Queen, English-Vinglish, Tanu Weds Manu, Chak De India, Masaan, Dirty Picture, etc. (to name a few) provide a welcome relief from the stereotypical women portrayed in the mainstream films. And unlike the art films of seventies and eighties, clientele of these films is far more broad-based. With increasing exposure in social media, hopefully, the portrayal of women in mainstream commercial cinema would also change for the better sooner than later.

Srinivas Kumar Alamuru
Senior Research Advisor, CBPS

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]



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