Women in Bollywood films have been subject to stereotypes and objectification, and appeared in supplementary rituals for a long period of time. Media also played a part in communicating messages to the masses and shaping their 1ideologies.
“Men act, women appear. Men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at”.
This quote suggests very succinctly the position of women in the realm of the „look‟, including within the mainstream Indian cinema. Women have been relegated to a passive position in a film, not as a maker of meaning but merely an appendage to man who is the holder of substantial roles and undisputed power and authority.
The gender bias in terms of roles parity has been prevalent for long.
If we observe films from the earlier times till now, we will see that the male figure is the one with power, authority and someone who has command over others in the film. The women are given submissive roles of doing household chores or adding glamour to the film.
What counts is what the heroine provokes, rather than what she represents.
She is love or fear she inspires in the hero or he provokes him to act in a certain way, or else an epitome of concern and care. The woman in her does not have the slightest of importance in the roles offered. We rarely see women act independently, with authority, making their own decisions and having a say in what they want.
It is more like they being worshipped for their youth and beauty in Indian films. Traditionally, women have been reduced to just a spectacle in movies, commoditized for their beauty; there is hardly any difference in beauty contests and acting in films (For example Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Sushmita Sen who have won the top beauty pageants).
Over the years, in Bollywood films, one of the noticeable and debatable observations has been the representation of women‟s identity in the films.
In the 90‟s several films were made in the genre called family drama, popular among audiences, especially the women audiences. It was infiltrated with Hindu rights belief in their family structure and the characters. Within this, the roles of the women have been “the ideal wife or mother”, or a victim which has been bought down my male gaze.
In modern times, women have been objectified to “a material that can be owned‟ through movies and item numbers that see women as a sex object. The films in Bollywood today feeds rape culture by portraying behaviours of men that are inappropriate, and glorifying or normalising them.
Women have been given comparatively less important roles than men in the film. She always acts as a support system through her characters.
The characters or role played by women over the evolution of Indian cinema can be broken down into certain standard roles such as – “The ideal mother‟, “the ideal wife/love interest/‟, “the Vamp/ damsel in distress‟ and “The Courtesan‟.
The Ideal Mother – “Mother Goddess” can be interpreted as someone who has power, authority, generally compared to “Durga Ma‟ as someone powerful who can conquer the evil by herself. However if we observe Hindi films she is represented as a tyrant figure or a sacrificing mother. The strong role of a mother is trivialized in films as someone who goes through silent suffering. The importance or impact of the character slips in and what remains behind is a pathetic caricature.
The Ideal Wife/love interest – The caricature of the depiction of an ideal woman is portrayed by filling it with stereotypes. The suppressions inhibit the autonomy of the woman, dictated by the dictatorial authority of the man. The feeling of helplessness and then finally succumbing to the societal pressures have been depicted in Hindi cinema. The women end up playing the love interest of male characters in films, to add glamour and quotient to the film, sometimes even when the strength of the character played is overshadowed.
The Vamp – The evil character played by women in Indian films show western traits. Their behaviour includes smoking, drinking, dancing and someone who has lack of emotions. She depicts the “unacceptable behaviour‟ in the society, while in the end for most of the part she is punished for her behaviour.
The Courtesan – She plays the love interest of a man in the film just to satisfy the emotional and physical needs of the man. She is shown as a characterless woman or a prostitute that plays with the feelings of the man for money and power. By showing this, films have shown the notion that woman achieve success by immoral means of seduction, because they lack the ability or talent to become successful or independent themselves.
The women’s characters are trapped in secondary roles and the vitalizing power of women is primarily ignored. The present portrayal of women on screen also sends out a message which says “I am a girl, therefore bad and therefore destined to suffer”. The misogynist ad patriarchal attitude is prevalent through such depictions.
The global or westernized beauty standards comply most of the actresses to be fair skinned. The body shape of the actresses in Bollywood earlier were more on the healthier side compared to today where there is a pressure for a perfectly toned and a slim body.
The camera angle is also focused on parts of women’s body that are considered sexual such the navel, the lips, the breasts, with glossy costumes and glossy lips. Item play a major role in objectifying a woman with their lyrics and unnecessary inclusion of the songs in the film even when it does not add to the storyline of the film.
Item songs are included in films to please the eyes of the audiences and there are times when the film becomes a hit just because of the item number included in the film. The lyrics bring down the identity of a woman to merely a sexual object that can be harassed and followed till she agrees to be your love interest. The gaze of the male character is more predominant and importantly placed.
The globalisation of Bollywood and the media has made the faces of women highly sexualised, radicalised and gendered. Due to westernization the women in Bollywood films are shown as someone who speaks fluent English, is fair skinned, from the upper echelon of the society. This face is definitely not the face of the millions of Indian women and depict s them inaccurately.
Traditional Indian women are considered as “backward‟ and “middle class‟ in Bollywood films. This dichotomy of representation is disturbing still prevalent in todays times. The women are more often than not represented as a damsel in distress who needs a prince charming to rescue her from all the troubles. The essence of an independent woman is trivialised in Indian Bollywood films.
The infiltration of western ideals since the inception of the newly independent India along with rising of the Indian cinema plays an integral role in naturalizing images of Bollywood women for our consumption.
As a matter of fact from the early days of Bollywood to the current films released the portrayal of women has depicted stereotypes that depicted inequality between the sexes. The dilemma still persists in modern culture even though the Indian cinema continues to change and evolve, reflecting new trends in gender relations and the roles as well as the construction of women.
If certain thoughts are conveyed at a length through cinema, they will eventually never contribute in changing or affecting the thoughts or behaviours of the society. However, films with stereotypes do appeal to the masses and make money, since they have been accepted for long. This motivates many filmmakers to continue making films with more importance to male characters and trivialising of female characters.
Currently due to boost in the media industry, globalisation and normalisation of western ideals, the reach to the masses has become simplified and rampant, making the society more vulnerable to thoughts and cultures. The increased marketization of films reinforces women‟s roles in a strictly heterosexual and rigid fashion. These images are hardly unique across all media channels.
The representation of women has been talked about for quite some time now and more so, in current times due to rise in social media and the society becoming more adapting and comfortable in talking about sensitive issues.
Actresses today are acting in as well as promoting women centric films to break the gender bias in the film industry. The characters offered to actresses from the past films to the present see a tinge of a common stereotype looming over the varied roles in Hindi films.
Bollywood women in the present day have the possibility of more power. Films like Rani Mukherjee’s “Mardaani” shows women as strong, independent and determined individuals. Films like “Lipstick under my Burkha” are trying to break the stereotypes women are subjected to.
When we talk of comedy, we have seen the sphere be dominated by men predominantly because of the notion that woman lack sense of humour. However, actresses such as Sridevi and Juhi Chawla broke that norm. Today we see more actresses venture into the comedy space also due to increase in woman stand up comedians even though it is still largely patriarchal.
The women in the film fraternity today are fighting for woman centric roles and meaningful characters and the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema is changing. Even though we have moved a few steps ahead in terms of offering more meaningful roles to woman, and women themselves becoming more aware of the kind of roles they take, largely, there still exists prejudice and objectification of women.
The point of analysis of the representation of women is not to argue about morality or immorality since these are the choices made by the actresses and the directors. However, this kind of exposure of sexuality and the identity given to women through their characters has an undercurrent reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes in society, adding strength to the vicious cycle.
Bollywood has a long way to go before women are freed from gender bias and stereotypes even though the need the film industry is evolving and growing to provide better opportunities to women.