As the UN commissions for the first time a study on the portrayal of women in world cinema, how guilty are our movies of perpetuating an appalling culture of gender bias.

Maybe violent movies don’t cause people to pick up guns, but do films that objectify women reinforce sexual stereotypes?

UN Women, the entity that works for gender equality and women’s empowerment, has teamed up with former Hollywood star Geena Davis to commission a study on how women are portrayed in cinema. Skewed gender representation in movies has long been an issue of concern because it strongly impacts how women see themselves, how society sees them, and the relationships between sexes. It is interesting in the context of this study, which will span many countries including Australia, China, Germany, Japan, and India, to see just how well our own films handle these sensitivities.

The recent hit Raanjhanaa, to some, is simply the story of a besotted lover. To others, though, the protagonist, Kundan, is a stalker who has no business demanding the audience’s sympathy. The first category of viewers sees Kundan as a man who’s led on by Zoya, the woman he loves, and had she not embraced him like a friend, had she not smeared Holi colours on him, had she, in short, stayed aloof, he wouldn’t have come on so strong. This is a bit like saying that had a rape victim stayed at home, she would not have been raped. This isn’t about the responsibility of cinema, its duty towards society, but about why women always end up being blamed and victimised for the actions of men.

You could compile an encyclopaedia about scenes and plots from our cinema where women are viewed through a patriarchal gaze and advised to stay safe and pure. In Purab aur Paschim, the heroine who smokes and drinks and wears short skirts is shown the error of her ways when the villain attempts to rape her. In the Tamil film Gayathri, the imprisoned heroine discovers that her husband has made blue films of their nights together. But just when she’s about to be rescued, she dies. Her virtue having been “compromised,” the director cannot allow her to live anymore.

For the longest time in our films, the heroine’s virtue had to remain intact. In Kati Patang, Asha Parekh is a widow in white who falls in love with Rajesh Khanna, but she’s also a “pure” widow, a fact that’s established through a convoluted story that shows her marriage never being consummated. That was in the 1970s. Four decades later, little had changed. In the supposedly futuristic Robot/Endhiran, a nude girl rescued from a burning building (she was in the bath) comes under a truck minutes after she is rescued. She has been ‘exposed’ to people, and clearly cannot be allowed to live any longer. In between, we’ve repeatedly seen victims of rape getting married to their rapists/seducers, as in the Tamil drama Moondru Mudichu, where Rajinikanth is “taught a lesson” when the woman he seduces sets up camp in his house and forces his change of heart. She has to, clearly, because, according to the filmmaker, who else will marry her?

Raanjhanaa doesn’t revolve around this nauseating insinuation of purity in an obvious sense — but in its own way, there’s the tiniest implication that if Zoya had been ’pure’, a good Muslim who stayed at home and covered her face and didn’t go around talking to the local boys, then these events in her life may never have come about.

It brings us to the age-old question of whether a filmmaker has a responsibility to society. Do action films incite an audience member to pick up a gun? Or is it only the disturbed individual, who isn’t quite there, likely to be affected by the violent happenings on screen? When millions of viewers go back home and begin to lead their lives with utter normalcy, can movies be held responsible for the actions of a handful of individuals?

But it’s clearly different in the case of portrayal of women, because here the movies seem not so much to be inciting new behaviour as endorsing old ones. When the sub-text shows approval of victims marrying rapists, or of ‘impure’ women being killed, there’s a strong subliminal message going out to the masses.

In a nation whose epic Ramayana contains an episode where the heroine’s virtue is suspected, aren’t the movies that play with notions of the woman’s purity reinforcing caveman philosophies? Can a film — a big mainstream film (not a multiplex movie) — be made in India that shows that women can wear tight T-shirts and down shots of tequila and smoke the odd cigarette and still be seen as figures worthy of respect? Can she express affection casually, the way Zoya does in Raanjhanaa, and not be assumed to be sending out invitations of love? Do you really need to be told the answer?