How much is too much?

Recent events have brought back into focus the objectification of woman in our films.

January 03, 2013 08:10 pm | Updated 08:10 pm IST

Indecent proposal: Vidya Balan in the movie 'The Dirty Picture'.

Indecent proposal: Vidya Balan in the movie 'The Dirty Picture'.

On my way back home one day, I took an auto rickshaw that had Punjabi songs blaring. Curious, I asked who the singer was. “Honey Singh,” he said, his head swinging to the beats. Considering we were in Ghaziabad and the driver sounded like an inhabitant of Eastern Uttar Pradesh, I asked if he understood Punjabi. He said only a bit but the songs give him a kick because they have words that describe female anatomy in great detail and some of them extol rape. Surprised, I asked him how he got them and how he played them when female passengers were in the auto. “I play them at night when they have no other option but to behave as if they are either not listening or can’t understand. The CDs are available on footpaths in MP3 (format). You just have to ask, ‘Honey Singh ka gande (dirty) song wala CD de do.’”

He is referring to the same Yo Yo Honey Singh who is being eulogised as the next big thing in Bollywood music.. His numbers were on YouTube’s top 10 list last year, and Anurag Kashyap has said he wants to make a biopic on him. Though Honey Singh has denied singing such offensive songs, the impression on the ground tells a different story.

In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape case, the role of mass media in manufacturing perceptions about women is once again being questioned. While there is no scholarly study to prove a direct link between cinema and insensitive male behaviour towards women, long-term exposure to regressive images and stereotypes does play a crucial role in a country where a large number of people still don’t know how to consume the images generated by the media. Cinema is already a pre-censored medium and freedom of speech is sacrosanct, but there is a greater need to look within and self-regulate.

There is a school of thought that believes that cinema is a reflection of society and draws selectively from mythology. So Duryodhan’s action of disrobing Draupadi — fuelled by Draupadi’s taunt linking his slipping into a water pond in the palace with the blindness of his father — finds a reflection in our filmy characterisations time and again. Some are layered, others lewd. And the ‘realistic’ approach could also get numbers because somebody somewhere is watching it for the ‘scene’ and not the bigger picture. We have seen it happening with “Bandit Queen” and “Fire”. Our films have definitely evolved, and a scene that has gone out of the narrative structure is the rape episode. There was a time in the 1970s and ’80s where certain female characters could be picked out from a distance as the ones to be assaulted at some point in the movie, to give our young man a chance to get angry. Some villains were anointed as rape experts. And when a heroine-oriented film was attempted, rape became an obstacle the character should cross to become a champion. Remember “Zakhmi Aurat”? The phool had to be masticated by a man to become an angaara. Thank god we have moved on from those sadistic portrayals. Or have we? Haven’t rape experts been replaced by serial kissers and shirtless wonders? Mind you, they are not placed as the villain of the piece.

Till a few years ago, many male journalists who covered the film beat had a staple question for female actors. How much will you expose? The heroine used to have a staple answer: “According to the demands of the script.” Still, some scribes apparently got a perverse pleasure out of this question. But when the portrayal of the Hindi film heroine changed, skin exposure no longer remained limited to one scene or song and explicit expression of sexual desire became a metaphor for female liberation rather than vampish behaviour, the question became ‘out-of-syllabus’. Top heroines of the industry acquiesced to this change. There is nothing wrong with finding a middle ground for the heroine between the goddess and whore extremes that existed for years, but there is a very thin line between celebration of sensuality and commoditisation of woman.

There is a difference between being a centre of desire and a means of titillation. And this line is frequently being crossed, particularly in item songs where through lyrics and dance movements the girl almost beseeches to be pounced upon — and since the song has no connection with the story, the director has no compulsion to justify its presence. The fact that celebrated faces of the film industry are gyrating to these racy tunes gives them a sort of legitimacy in the minds of an impressionable audience. The independence of woman is being seen largely in sexual terms. After years, Deepa Sahi is still looking for a producer to fund a biopic on Rani Laxmibai but the biopic of Silk Smitha got made in a jiffy. (see box) Rani Mukerji is struggling to find good scripts, but ‘adult’ film star Sunny Leone, who self admittedly can’t act or dance, has four films in her kitty and performed on New Year’s Eve at a Central Delhi hotel. But can we question her when we are allowing Katrina Kaif to learn on the job for a decade? Also, it seems those who protested against Honey Singh’s performance in a Gurgaon hotel missed Sunny’s jig.

One of the faces of the new female protagonist is of someone who enjoys her drink, scoffs at the institution of marriage and shows an inclination towards the physical side of love. At least till the intermission. Recently, we saw it in “Cocktail”. Strangely, after the intermission, Veronica tries to conform to traditional mores but still doesn’t get the guy, who is equally ‘liberal’ but ultimately marries a prototype of the Sati Savitri. It gives an impression that so-called outgoing girls are meant to be used and the ultimate aim of every girl is marriage. Somehow our films generated the notion that in a woman’s refusal of a man’s advances there is an implicit ‘yes’ hiding somewhere. This led to the birth of the stalking hero. The recent example was the monstrous hit “Rowdy Rathore” (granted a U/A certificate, it was the second highest grosser of 2012) where the hero describes his girl as maal and turns her ‘no’ into ‘yes’ within minutes. Impressionable minds might like to copy his style if they are so predisposed.

If Akshay Kumar were to take a stand that he won’t play a stalking hero, “rowdies” would not be able see the light of day because our mainstream cinema is still star-driven.

Herein comes the question of tyranny of taste. Mahesh Bhatt says the keys of the treasure of creativity should not be in the hands of the intellectual elite. But creativity should not be allowed to propagate depravity either.

Then again, why don’t we respect the ‘A’ certificate? One has seen families going to watch films like “Murder 2” where a psychopath stalks women and then cuts them into pieces. Groups espousing women’s rights say that assault on women in real life has nothing to do with what they wear, but on the other hand they criticise filmmakers for objectifying women. Isn’t there a link between the two? Why is it that young mothers take their three-year-olds to learn to dance to a “Chikni Chameli” and why does a “Fevicol” play at family functions? Isn’t there a complicit consent? The questions are many and the answers are not easy but a little introspection holds the key…

What's entertainment

That an actress of the calibre of Vidya Balan played the lead in “The Dirty Picture” turned it from a B-grade affair to A-class.

In fact, producer Ekta Kapoor said the title and subject gave an impression that somebody like Bipasha Basu would be cast but that would have limited the appeal of the film. One is not running down Ekta or Vidya, one is talking about the choices producers, performers and the public are making.

...If “Cocktail” was set in London, “Ishaqzaade” unfolded near Lucknow. Here we had a girl who prefers guns over jewellery and wants to become a politician but ends up falling in love with a naughty guy who lures her into a physical relationship for political gain. We were expected to support the girl’s choice because the guy was really sorry.

Director Habib Faisal said he didn’t set out to make a feminist film and both his characters had strengths and flaws. Are our audiences mature enough to understand this nuance which many film critics missed?

...In “Kismat Love Paisa Dilli”, where a group of goons kidnap a girl from the road to celebrate their gang leader’s birthday in a moving van. Isn’t the plot similar to what happened with the victim of the gang rape?

The film failed in the metros and we heaved a sigh of relief that the crass was cut short. But what if the film is still playing in Dadri or Sikanderabad, towns within a few kilometres from the Capital? The film starred Vivek Oberoi, considered an actor conscious of his duties towards society.

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