Bollywood’s women: A Reading List

Continuing the theme guest-blogger Diptakirti riffed on in his previous post, here is a compilation of interesting takes on Bollywood, women, misogyny, gender violence, and much else:

Rituparna Chatterjee, movie editor of IBNLive.com, speaks here to her belief that Bollywood is equally culpable in perpetuating the misogyny that is so much a part of Indian culture

And here, Diptakirti Choudhuri speaks of the essential difference (which Bollywood seems unwilling or unable to get, for the most part) between wooing and stalking

And while on that, Anna Vetticad (who with exemplary courage spent a year watching every movie being released in Bollywood before writing about it — here is Jai Arjun Singh’s review) speaks of stalking extensively, in her review of Ranjhanaa

Staying with Anna (and selecting from an exhaustive collection on her blog), here is her review of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, incorporating thoughts of gender equations in the movies

Anna’s review of Houseful 2 deals exhaustively with The Great Bollywood Rape Joke

Bollywood’s women

A guest-post for @genderlogindia by DIPTAKIRTI CHOUDHURI:

Bollywood is usually the go-to guy for bashing. Anything evil in this country is, by and large, attributed to Bollywood’s zestful propagation of the same. Smoking – check. Dumbing down – check. Eve teasing – double check.

The meme goes that Bollywood has made stalking into an art form and otherwise respectable composers- choreographers-costumers have participated wholeheartedly to make this activity into a grand and enduring success.

The ‘stalking song’ is what stars and directors are most reviled for, but I am inclined to overlook it because it is never an end. If the villain does it, there is swift dispensation of justice by the hero. If the hero does it, he either reforms soon after or does something completely monumental (like strangling his Mafia don father’s pet anaconda to marry the girl) that underlines his true love.

My logic is simple: If a molester claims that he got his idea from Akshay Kumar, he should immediately be made to fight thirteen sword-wielding goons to save a girl. Because that’s what Akshay did – right after he teased the girl.

However, this is not to say Bollywood can hold its head high when gender is being discussed. What Bollywood kills us with are the stereotypes it silently perpetuates through stock characters or situations, either for convenience or through not wanting to take a risk. This is – in my opinion – far more damning than a raucous song. Because it is a subtle and, more critically, ongoing message that certain things are ‘wrong’.

Here is my quick list of six stereotypes Bollywood perpetrates. (Please feel free to add more. ):

Heroines don’t do regular work. Unless they are prostitutes or police officers:

Heroines don’t go to offices. (Yes, I know you will jump up and name five movies where they do but that’s exactly my point – those are exceptions.) They study. They are nice people, but they don’t ‘do’ anything.

In the two biggest hits of this year – Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Chennai Express – we are not sure what the heroine does. In the former, Deepika Padukone is shown preparing to become a doctor in the flashback but in the present day, she is quite happy looking gorgeous, and no mention of her medical practice is ever made. Ditto for Chennai Express.

In the Top 10 grossers in Bollywood history (all of which are from the last few years), only one heroine – Kareena Kapoor of 3 Idiots – uses her profession to make a contribution to the story. The rest just dance spectacularly.

And this has been a standard template in Bollywood. For example, Madhuri Dixit was supposed to be a ‘student of computers’ in Hum Aapke Hain Koun but she never goes even close to one in the film. In Maine Pyar Kiya, heroine Bhagyashree had excellent marks in ‘inter’ but she chose to be deposited in a family friend’s home instead of a working woman’s hostel.

Take the biggest hits (and the not so big ones, as well) and you will see the same trend. The only working girl I can think of in a major hit is Sholay’s Basanti. And she abandoned her promising career to get married.

Working mothers are bad. Actually, mothers are bad whenever they are not doing the act of ‘mothering’:

Basanti’s abandoned career brings us to the subtle messaging about mothers who work. In Taare Zameen Par, the working mother gave up her career to make her sons into class-toppers. In Akele Hum Akele Tum, the career-focussed mother (who left her son for a promising singing career) almost became the vamp till she decided to return to domesticity.

Whenever a child is shown to be in physical danger (road accident, kidnapping etc), the mother is usually doing something frivolous (like shopping) and is meted out some hard-hitting advice (“Tum kaisi maa ho?”) by a bystander – advice that leads to terrible remorse.

 

Pre-marital sex is punishable by death or imprisonment (though, by and large, not both):

If rain, crackling fire, skimpy clothing and sensuous songs cause you to slip (‘behek jaana’) and taste the forbidden fruit before marriage, you will die. Because sex is done by bad girls.

Sometimes the man dies (Aradhana), leaving the woman to a lifetime of struggle (including some jail time).

Sometimes, the woman dies (Trishul), thus getting a version of ‘capital punishment’.

Even in a totally realistic film like Masoom, the woman dies leaving her son in the care of her married lover.

In recent times, the moment of passion is dealt a little less severely — but the non-virgin never gets the hero (Deepika Padukone in Cocktail, for example).

Only prostitutes initiate sex:

As per Bollywood logic, all sexually aggressive women are prostitutes (or similar), though all prostitutes are not sexually aggressive (if she is the heroine).

Traditionally, characters artistes like Helen and Aruna Irani have performed – with great aplomb – the cabaret that caused the hero to sway slightly off the straight and narrow path before he progressed on his way towards the virginal heroine. In recent times, the purpose of the ‘item number’ has been to introduce a guest star who can do the Fevicol-Zandu inspired gyrations while the heroine can dutifully avert her face when the hero zeroes in for a kiss.

[NB: The heroes can sow a few wild oats here and there. If you take the last five films of current heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor, he has been polygamous in three of them unlike his heroines who, without exception,  were steadfastly monogamous.]

Even in an explicit movie like Murder, it is the man who initiates the adulterous relationship. The heroine initially turns away and is about to leave,  when there is an excuse for her to come back (she left her purse behind, you see) and get sucked into the affair. (Maybe an adulterous relationship is not the right example to make a point about women in Bollywood not having a say in sexual activity, though).

Women are allowed to kill villains but only with help from new lover:

There was a time when all of Bollywood was gainfully employed in remaking the Julia Roberts hit Sleeping With The Enemy. Agnisakshi, Daraar and Yaraana faithfully replicated every detail from the original and differed from their source code on only one major front – the hero rushed in to kill the obsessive husband. While the fragile Julia Roberts pulled the trigger herself in Hollywood, a chubby Rishi Kapoor (whose heroines were much fitter than him) and a hungover Jackie Shroff ambled into the last scene to perform the heroic honors in Bollywood.

At one point of time, when Rekha was acting in a series of films as a female vigilante, it was always the hero who rushed in to assist her in the climax. The most famous example is probably Khoon Bhari Maang where she was doing a mean job of chopping Kabir Bedi up till Shatrughan Sinha was made to intervene.

In a love triangle, only the men get to chose the ‘winner’:

A Bollywood woman is, at the risk of over-simplification, property. She doesn’t really have a say in matters of the heart.

From Sangam to Saajan, from Dostana to Dobara OUATIM, the woman is just a method of sacrificing for the sake of a friend (or proving one’s masculinity for the sake of the world).

The friends decide – depending on who saw the girl first, whose relative debts are higher, whose box office clout is bigger – who gets the girl. This often leads to death or the honorable exit of one participant while the surviving one, usually the docile girl, goes with the guy. Simple, no?

And when you see a rather cavalier tyaag by Ranbir Kapoor in favor of his elder brother in Raajneeti, you realize this is a tradition as old as the Mahabharat itself!

Often one wonders about the wasted charisma of Bollywood’s leading ladies, and if the system will ever change to portray them as true role models. Right now, there are lakhs of young girls copying Priyanka Chopra’s tattoo. What impact she would make if she is shown actually working hard to become – say – a boxer!

A Mary Kom biopic – starring Priyanka Chopra – is currently in production. So yes, there is hope.

Diptakirti Choudhuri, everyone’s go-to guy for movie trivia, is a salesman  by day and writes by night. He lives in Gurgaon with his wife, son and daughter. His nocturnal activities result in this blog; this column for Yahoo; and a couple of books (Kitnay Aadmi The, the Bollywood one, is a total hoot), not to mention random musings on Twitter

 

The casual cruelties of everyday life

A little over a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with someone I know. I asked for her opinion about a story I had read. “Why do you want to know?” she shot back.
It was uncharacteristic of the thoughtful, intelligent, fun woman I know (or thought I knew). I asked why, she parried, and then a little later, as if she couldn’t hold it in any longer, she told me this:
She was at a dinner party shortly prior to our chat, with her husband and four other couples. The wine flowed, so did the conversation. It’s an eclectic group, ours, so the topics tend to be wide-ranging at times, she explained. And so they were heatedly discussing something, and one of the company turned to my friend and asked her what she thought.
Oh, her husband laughed, don’t bother asking her, unless it is about whether Ranbir and Katrina should get married.
“I was stunned, shamed,” my friend said. “My husband and I have endless, often heated, discussions about all sorts of things — it is not as if he thinks I only do Bollywood. But that was not it, really — he was ‘being jolly’, ‘just joking’. ‘You know I think highly of you,’ he told me later. And that is what hurt — I get ‘jokes’, but did he really not see how wounding that off-hand ‘joke’ was? How gratuitously insulting? How unspeakably demeaning?”
WE FOCUS on rape, on sexual abuse — but this friend, my wife, and others I’ve spoken to have all pointed in their own ways to the many unnoticed, casual cruelties women are routinely subjected to — at the workplace, in the home, in transit, at play. These are not “offenses” as the law would define them, but they are offensive; they wound deeply, and they leave lasting scars.
It is, Natasha Bhadwar (@natashabhadwar on Twitter) said when I chatted offline with her, about respect. Or the lack thereof.
 
She pointed me to some blog posts she had done on related themes. Like here, where she gets angry about the casual, neglectful manner in which arranged marriages are fixed. Why, she asks, this hurry to get the young daughter of the house stamped with the word MARRIED?
Here, Natasha shares abortion and miscarriage stories. What’s they big deal about abortion, they ask. “The right to life. Goddamn life,” Natasha says.
Here, a mother is  caught unawares as she celebrates a moment with her daughter, only to be reminded that it would be better if she had a SON in her arms.

 

And here, a mother’s extremely composed and articulate comeback as she takes on a stranger who suggests that she must have WANTED SONS each time she bore a daughter. (This from Mint Lounge, where others share their remembered slights in comments).

 

Read, also, this eloquent take on domestic violence (of the more overt kind) by Nisha Susan (@chasingiamb on Twitter)

 

Thoughts? Stories? Links? Share — on @genderlogindia where I am curating this week.

Let’s talk about rape

Why?

A friend asked me that question when I told her I’d be curating @genderlogindia for what, Nilanjana Roy tells me, is its last week before it goes into hibernation.

Her question was not ‘Why are you doing this?’ but a more fundamental ‘Why?’

Why have such a site, such a feed – what does it do, what does it solve? Why discuss and debate? What good has all this discussion and debate done since we started “paying attention” in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape of December last year?

She is not the only one among people I know who, once active participants in the conversations that sprung up around Delhi, have retreated into silence.

I see their point. But.

The Times (London) once published this letter, signed ‘respectfully’ by ‘An Earnest Englishwoman’:

 Sir, Whether women are the equal of men has been endlessly debated; whether they have souls has been a moot point; but can it be too much to ask for a definitive acknowledgment that at least they are animals?

 

Many Honorable Members may object to the proposed Bill enacting that, in statutes respecting the suffrage, ‘wherever words occur which import the masculine gender they shall be held to include women’ – but could any object to the insertion of a clause in another Act that ‘whenever the word “animal” occurs, it shall be held to include women?’

 

Suffer me, through your columns, to appeal to our 650 (parliamentary) representatives and ask – Is there not one among you then who will introduce such a motion? There would then at least be an equal interdict on wanton barbarity to cat, dog and woman…”

 

Historian, professor and author Joanna Burke, who quotes this letter in the preface to her book What It Means To Be Human: Historical Reflections from the 1800s To The Present, provides context for this letter:

The Earnest Englishwoman was angry because animals had more rights in law than women did. In fact, the status of women was much worse than that of the rest of the animal kingdom. Regulations prohibiting cruelty against dogs, horses and cattle were significantly more punitive than laws against cruelty towards women. …. Her heartfelt cry, therefore, was for women to be allowed to ‘become animal’, in order to reap the benefits that they were being denied on the grounds that they were not part of ‘mankind’.

 

That letter, asking for women to be granted equal status with animals, was written in April 1872.

We have come a long way, baby. Maybe.

THEN AGAIN, maybe not – did you happen to read the story of the husband who over a period of nearly a dozen years prostituted his wife for sexual abuse and rape, in order to win a small promotion, a small apartment, a small plot of land?

Did you read this other story of a woman who offered her 13 year old daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder?

How about the story of a father who began raping his daughter when she was about 15, because he was told it would bring him prosperity? Of how the girl’s younger brother joined in, and of how the mother stood by passive, accepting of the serial assaults on her own daughter? Of how the rape continued for the better part of nine years before the victim finally spoke out?

Did you read of how Rahim Mollah, 23, recently celebrated his purchase of a new bike?

Did you hear of the wannabe godman who raped a university student because god told him to?

Did you read of the child, six years old, raped by a 40 year old man? Of how the village elders in their wisdom decided that the abused child should be married to the rapist’s eight year old son as palliative? And of how, while these ‘negotiations’ were going on, the man raped the child again?

Did you read of the policewoman who was accompanying the slain body of her brother in law when she was waylaid, robbed, raped?

Does the word ‘chattel’ come to mind? How different is any of this, fundamentally, from the situation the anguished ‘Earnest Englishwoman’ was writing of?

WHILE researching her seminal book Against Our Will, journalist Susan Brownmiller spent a year reading, and researching, coverage of rape in the popular media.

In the immediate aftermath of Delhi, I tried a similar thought experiment: A Google search for ‘rape’, and an email alert to deliver compilations on a daily basis. (The stories I linked to above are from that daily feed). Try it for a spell; see if you have the stomach to sift through the day’s collection of stories of man’s inhumanity to one half of ‘mankind’. (Or simply spend a random hour going through this feed).

After even the briefest period of immersion, it will begin to feel like there has been a vast escalation in the incidence of rape and abuse. Newspaper reports of how, in this city or that state, more cases have been reported in the first six months of this year than in all of the previous year lend some superficial credence to the trope that rape and abuse – in both frequency and brutality – has increased in the aftermath of Delhi.

But what if the real increase is in the number of reported instances? What if the real change post-Delhi is that the media has begun to focus more, devote more newspaper real estate to these cases? And what if this ramped-up coverage has begun to liberate more victims to come forward, to protest their abuse and to stand up to their abusers?

The most horrific story you come across today? It has happened before, in our own immediate circle. The daughter abused and raped by father and son (in the case I am thinking of, father and three brothers) while the mother looked on? I knew that girl, back in 1975. The girl raped in school by her teacher? It happened, to my knowledge, some four years prior to the above. The neighbor who abused a child he was ‘baby-sitting’? It happened in our colony back in 1984.

These stories now coming to light are our stories; we’ve known of them and lived through them in an earlier age, when suffering in silence was preferable to enduring the ‘social stigma’ attached to going public. The difference is that then, we spoke of them in hushed whispers, if we spoke of them at all.

SUNLIGHT, United States Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said, is the best disinfectant. He was speaking of public policy, but the thought is equally applicable to rape, to abuse.

He has a point – Delhi, thanks to the location of the crime, its unimaginably horrific nature, its larger story of the systemic breakdown of the policing systems designed to protect us, was perhaps that first shaft of disinfectant. (I exaggerate? Romanticize? Okay, how many of you truly remember any or all of the cases – many of them as horrific or more so than Delhi – that I mentioned in this earlier blog post?)

Writing in FirstPost of the need to broaden and deepen the conversation, Jay Mazoomdar said:

“Every assault that goes unpunished anywhere is an encouragement to rapists everywhere. It is really all or nothing — no woman will ever really feel safe if another does not.”

True — and the first step to punishment is that the crime be acknowledged, and brought to light, in the first place.

Much of the media coverage has an underlying (and in some cases, even overt) edge of prurience. Some of the coverage has been downright insensitive to, and disrespectful of, the survivors.

But the stepped-up coverage, basic and even insensitive as it is, has had some beneficial effects. It has encouraged more people to speak out against their abusers; it has to at least a limited extent empowered survivors – Suzette Jordan is just one example — to step into the sunlight, to reclaim their identities, and to reach out a helping hand to those similarly affected.

And that perhaps is the best answer I can give my friend, who asked me ‘Why?’

The question is not why sites like Genderlog and feeds like this exist, and speak of what they do.

The real question is, can we afford not to have such conversations. Can we afford to blot out even these admittedly random shafts of sunlight?

PS: As it turns out, this is the last week of @genderlogindia before a hibernation enforced by external factors. Over the next six days, at our request, friends of Genderlog have volunteered their time and their energies to writing of the various issues that surround the subject of abuse, of rape, of violence against women.

Look out for their contributions, on @genderlogindia , beginning tomorrow.

For now, for those who believe – enjoy Ganesh Chathurthi. And be safe.

Dravid on spot-fixing and fear of consequences

Like I said, I can’t speak for other people but at a personal level if I were to doubt everything that happens in this game, it would take away the joy and the love of the game, from what it’s meant to be. It has been my life from the time I can remember, my first memories are of a ball and a cricket bat. So personally no, my first instinct is to trust and believe what is happening on a television screen. I hear, people do come to me, and you hear chat about this might have happened or look at that. But like I said, I’ve seen a lot of strange things on a cricket field and from people and players I would never doubt, I would bet my life on that fact.

Sambit Bal interviews Rahul Dravid on match/spot-fixing, and matters related. Nice, nuanced, and from the heart — typical Rahul. The money segment:

I think a two-pronged approach [is needed]. My personal belief is that education and counselling at a junior level is really important. As we’ve seen recently with these incidents, they aren’t only about international cricketers but we’ve seen with the sting operations last year, with what’s happened this year, is that a lot of these elements are targeting younger players, domestic players, first-class players. So obviously counselling and guidance has to go to the first-class level and junior level. So I think we’ve got to start early, we’ve got to start young but like I said earlier, in answer to your question, that part of it is already being done. I know that India has its own ACSU and even for Ranji Trophy teams this education is given. So I don’t think only education can work, [we have to] police it and have the right laws and ensure that people, when they indulge in these kind of activities, are actually punished.

People must see that there are consequences to your actions. That will create fear for people. For example, look back on the doping in cycling. Everyone knows it’s wrong and it’s frightening having read a little about it and the number of cyclists who were doing it. Surely everyone knows it’s wrong. [But] it was an exception not to do it. So the only people cyclists were scared of was not the testers, not the [cycling] authority, they were scared of the police. You read all the articles, the only guys they were scared of was the police and going to jail. So the only way that people are going to get that fear is if they know the consequences to these actions and the law that will come into play. It has got to be a criminal offence.

Eye Browse: The Spy Edition

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McLeod — Mata Hari, to give her the name she is best known by — was born this day in 1876.

In his book Children of the Days, under the entry for this date, Eduardo Galeano says this about the celebrated Dutch spy who lends her name to her tribe:

Sumptuous beds were her battlefields in the First World War. Top military and political leaders succumbed to her charms, and they confided secrets she then sold to France or Germany or whoever would pay more.

In 1917 a French military court sentenced her to death.

The most beloved spy in the world blew kisses to the firing squad.

Eight of the twelve soldiers missed.

To add to that, here is archival gold: an eyewitness account of the execution. And here is a profile of the iconic lady spy.

In passing, do you know of any writer who does micro-portraiture as well as Galeano? (Here’s an earlier post that has much on him, and on my pick of the best soccer book of all time).

In honor of the celebrated spy who would have been 137 years old today if the other four soldiers had also missed, four stories from the archives about espionage:

The Stasi and the Swann: David Grann brilliance on the last spy of the Cold War era

The Un-Crackable Code: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee on the man who would be a spy, and the code he created that puzzled the best

Double Blind: Mathew Teague on how British intelligence infiltrated the IRA

How Anna Chapman became the face of Kremlin Capitalism: And why it is important for spies to be sexy

The power of the story

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

A chunk of my morning, which should have been devoted to working, was totally hijacked by this excellent talk by Nigerian novelist/story-teller  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — and she nails it when she says:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

In its review of Adichie’s latest, The Thing Around Your Neck, the New York Times says the collection of stories exemplifies the tensions “between fiction and autobiography, the expectations of the observer and the experience of the witness, not to mention the value of certain experiences in the global literary marketplace”.

Many of the stories in this book have been published before, and provide a flavor of Adichie’s writing. A quick list:

  • A Private Experience , where two women, caught up in a communal riot, take refuge in a shop
  • The Headstrong Historian which tells of a woman whose husband was killed by his cousins — or so she believes — and of how she fights to regain the family’s lost inheritance for her son through the latter’s education
  • Cell One in which the son of a professor is caught for a crime and sent to the infamous titular cell of a Nigerian prison

Her own story-telling hero, Chinua Achebe, says this about the young Adichie:

“We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”

And here is Adichie herself, from the talk posted above:

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structure of the world, and it is “nkali”. It is a noun that loosely translates to “To be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with “secondly”. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

 Where she really drives the point home — and in doing that, underlines the danger of the kind of single PoV narratives we are increasingly subjected to by the media — is when she says:

Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.

Arati Kumar-Rao (blog and Twitter), who alerted me to this talk, also points to this excellent playlist of talks on story-telling, featuring the likes of Isabelle Allende, Andrew Stanton, Elif Shafak, JJ Abrams and Scott McCloud. Enjoy. (And if you’ve come across good talks/articles on story-telling, narrative, etc, share links in comments and I’ll round those off into a follow-up post).

PostScript: In response to this post, friend and Caravan writer Rahul Bhatia: