Sexism comes naturally to Bollywood and blatantly so within the ‘item numbers’ which it has so easily and unashamedly adopted and institutionalized in its mainstream commercial films. Almost all the mainstream Bollywood flicks for over a decade now contain at least one song where women are clearly objectified and treated as sex objects - the item number- which is then solely justified on commercial viability of the movie. Typically, the lyrics are such that not men but women identify themselves as sex/commercial objects. Anti-women lyrics in these ‘item numbers’ and dialogues in these films have become a trend, the attitude displayed being one of “it’s cool to abuse women and make merry at their expense” and this particular attitude sells like hot-cakes, with the films earning in crores.
While in its history of 100 years, Bollywood never displayed any radical stance when it came to challenging patriarchy per se, rather the films on most occasions espoused all the retrograde notions of patriarchy and male chauvinism but it was never as unabashedly misogynous as they are now! Bollywood in fact portrayed women as the ‘weaker sex’, the ‘fairer sex’, often as the ‘damsel in distress’ in need of utmost protection from the ‘stronger’ counterpart. Women lead actors used to be compared with the ‘softer’ poetic entities such as the moon, the breeze, the rivers, etc. apart from the stereotypical portrayals of ideal Indian womanhood. In the least there was some amount of respect displayed for women, albeit only for those who conformed to the patriarchal constructs. However in the past decade, it has changed tracks and entered into a phase where misogyny is prevalent over other forms of retrograde portrayals within Bollywood. And it glares at you whenever a new ‘item number’ is released.
Item numbers are not a new phenomenon for Bollywood. Item numbers (though not known as such) were part of Bollywood long before India’s economic liberalization. With the onset of the nineties, portrayal of women performers in sassy and rhythmic numbers, termed as ‘item numbers’ hit the silver screen in which women were blatantly portrayed as ‘items’- that would sell in the market! However, there has been a progression of the trends. The performances have made a progression from kothas, cabarets, disco and nightclubs to currently anywhere and everywhere, sometimes in rustic settings. The performers have also progressed from Monica (Monica…oh my darling!) to Munni (Munni badnaam hui, Film: Dabang, Released: 2010), Shiela (Shiela ki jawani, Film: Tees Maar Khan, Released: 2010) and more recently Babli (Babli badmash hai… Film: Shootout at Wadala, Released: 2013). Increasingly in the last few years the ‘items’ have been popularized with colloquial female names that ring familiar bells of daughters, sisters, friends and little girls in frocks playing in the schools of rural India which might make you wonder whether Bollywood is up and against the common rural adolescent girls/women! With common sensibilities while one would get irritated at such connotations, the reality tells a different story; a stark but familiar story! While marketability of movies, even in the rural areas, with a motive to maximize profits and create records at the box office, is a justification of the inclusions of item numbers, the change in the nature of item numbers reveal an unashamed Bollywood’s heightened zeal to pander with the common but subconscious misogynous psyche of the society!
As one tries to think logically, one of course realizes that Bollywood is not up and against the common ‘woman' per se, but it is blatantly pandering with the retrograde societal norms; the norms that is often reflected in the everyday attitude of a rabidly patriarchal society where women are merely looked at as objects; a mindset that confines women within the households; a mindset that particularly is enraged as women find their voices. It is not only Bollywood, but also misogynist individuals, singing tracks with both preposterous and outlandish lyrics which are as good as almost spewing venom against the female sex, and thus spreading a culture of misogyny. One then wonders why is there such a lot of hatred towards women and why is it getting such exhilarated response from the society, especially the men?
The answer lies in the fact that misogyny sells. However the answer to ‘why does it sell?’ is deeply rooted in the organisation of the relations between the sexes since the development of capitalism.
In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, while women were significantly contributing to the process of accumulation, yet they remained excluded from receiving a wage. Most of the work done by women were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners, and maintaining the home thereby initiating a process of ‘housewifization of women’ in which women were reduced to a second-class entity, entirely dependent on the income of men. While there have been temporary changes in the roles of women, in the course of capitalist development, as paid or unpaid workers, according to the needs of capital, patriarchy under capitalism complemented each other as the extraction of surplus, absolute and relative, was subsidized by way of having women to take care of the home front. Such a process also created certain mechanisms of ‘social control’ over women by the men, thus strengthening patriarchy. But with the advancement of capitalism marked by capital’s endless search for profit and an ever increased need for cheaper labour could not keep women confined within homes for a long time. In effect then what transpired has been a male-female segregation of the social structures, providing women a lower status and reduced space compared to men.
Feminist theories as well as historical experiences reflect that whenever women have challenged the social constructs and have raised their voices, have competed to venture into public spaces, there emerged a counter-reaction from the other half of the society which have responded violently to restrict such movements of women, have attempted to suppress women and send them back to their confinements. This is essentially ‘the fight for public space’ in which as women endeavor into newer spaces, there is a threat perceived by their male counterparts. The sheer fact that as more women are being educated, as more women are aspiring to join the workforce, earn a living for themselves, becoming conscious of their rightful place in the society, there is a threat faced by men of losing out to women. With increasing liberalization, such aspirations of women have also increased as newer avenues for women have opened up (albeit highly inadequate in proportion to what is required). Such trends of women’s involvement in the ‘public’ have perpetuated the ‘gender conflicts’ that takes place in all societies, often manifesting itself in violent outbursts and blatant display of hatred against women in spaces that are unchallenged and uncontrolled. And hence, misogyny sells because men would never leave space for women without adequate resistance. One can recollect a number of such instances. The ‘Black Night of December 16’ in Delhi is a brazen example of such manifestations. The Khap Panchayats in our society is another such example of display of hatred towards women.
Returning to the context of Bollywood, its portrayal of women is also a reflection of such societal constructs that are striving to keep women confined to specific roles, to not let women come out and raise their voices, threatening women not to cross boundaries set by the orthodox patriarchal societies. The ‘item numbers’ using Munni and Babli are expressions of such convictions! It portrays the common woman who has ventured out in the world, as vampish and vulgar and a sexual object in a manner that coerces the ‘real-life’ Munnis and Bablis to remain confined within the ‘private’.
Given this, the point that I wish to make is while Bollywood is one of the most popular forms of entertainment within the country, more so among the underclass, it is also a space where misogyny is both produced and consumed in large quantities. It indulges in the commonly regressive social constructs and more recently has identified the common rural ‘wo’man for spreading obscenity and misogyny. It is common knowledge that Bollywood as an industry, in its unscrupulous drive for profits, adopts all sorts of regressive strategies but the fact that such representation gets a positive response from the targeted audience is reflective of the prevalent misogyny. It is well understood that cinema is often a reflection of reality and that increased item numbers with such diminutive representation of women is met with energized response points out to a social system that in no way is conducive for women. While the government through institutions like the Censor Board can act to a substantive level to control and raise objections on such depiction of women, but it is not enough. It is equally important to raise the awareness levels as high as to reject the Bollywood style of derogatory depiction of women through increased activism and uphold and popularize other forms of entertainment and popular culture which strongly criticize such violent and misogynist culture. More importantly, as pointed out, that cinema is a reflection of reality, it is important to change the reality, that is, intensify struggles against the patriarchal structures, intensify struggles against exploitation and discrimination, only then Bollywood could be expected to act more respectfully towards women.