Soon after the #MeToo revelations began pouring out on social media this year, the organisers of the Jio MAMI Mumbai film festival struck off two features and three shorts after allegations were levelled against key people involved in the making of these films. Festival director Anupama Chopra said that she hoped that the decision would lead to an environment that is “constructive, inclusive and just”. While this is a welcome move, our focus should be not only on those accused of inappropriate behaviour but also on filmmakers who churn out sexist films that influence such behaviour.
Bollywood films influence negative societal attitudes towards women in India. If we are to make progress, we must reverse these narratives through better storytelling, for storytelling influences behaviour. A study by Elizabeth Levy of Harvard University showed how a reconciliation-themed radio soap opera changed social norms and behaviour in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. We also know storytelling works because multilateral agencies around the world spend billions of dollars on advertisements and informational campaigns to reach the public. Yet, in India, we ignore or simply don’t accept the impact of storytelling on social behaviour. Last year, IBM India conducted a research study analysing gender stereotypes in 4,000 Bollywood movies released between 1970 and 2017. Among these, the researchers identified only 30 movies where these stereotypes were broken. While filmmakers are attempting to break this mould, they are still few and far between.
One way of initiating change could be for the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to introduce a gender equity certification among the categories of film certification that we have today. This will empower the public to make a choice before heading to the theatres. It will signal to the industry that a gender lens is important and necessary.
Granted, big brother attitudes are dangerous and we need to constantly push for less state regulation. But given the nature of sexual allegations against powerful members of the film industry, who can we trust to be responsible for shaping the narrative around gender stereotypes in India? Are future generations going to continue living in a world where they are encouraged to harass and rape women? Will sexist behaviour be tolerated and, if yes, for how long? Or can we start shaping the narrative around how we view various genders by being more responsible in how we depict them? The answer is, we can. It’s time to think of unique ways of making films more gender sensitive, for this is a medium that has a huge impact on social behaviour as studies time and again have shown.
The writer is a graduate student of public administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University