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Film

Bollywood in frame over women as sex objects

Sexual violence in India has made headlines across the world over the recent months. Activists have pinned the blame on Bollywood's culture of objectifying women, but how much truth is there to the accusation?

The biggest film industry of the world, Bollywood, recently celebrated 100 years of providing entertainment to the masses and - as far as the role of women is concerned - things have changed considerably.

Back in the early years, acting was considered an indecent profession for women.

Female roles were taken up by men, dressed for the part. A hundred years later, actresses are more than welcome and no longer shy away from flaunting their bodies and sex appeal.

Critics blame Bollywood songs with "lewd" dances for degrading women on screen, changing male perceptions of women in society.

The country's media now hotly debates the responsibility of the entertainment industry to its audience, with Bollywood blamed for diminishing the image of the women through the nature of its female roles.

Tackling the taboos

The entertainment industry has cashed in on the notion that women with revealing clothing can draw an audience. "It’s all about giving the audience what they want," Taran Adarsh, a film critic based in Mumbai told DW.

***Achtung: Nur zur Berichterstattung über diesen Film verwenden!*** 
Indian Bollywood personalities Tushar Kapoor, director Milan Luthria, actress Vidya Balan and producer Ekta Kapoor pose during the DVD release event for the Hindi film The Dirty Picture in Mumbai on January 30, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

The Dirty Picture is one of a new breed of movie where women take center-stage

The latest genre of erotic thrillers has given the Indian audience the chance to talk about sex and passion, subjects that have always been a taboo in the Indian society.

Mahesh Bhatt, one of India's most successful film directors attributes the new trend in film to the changing times in India. He told DW "Cinema since the dawn of time has used the female form to attract, to seduce, to lure, to scintillate, to titillate, there is no denying, the female form has been used not only by the movies but also by artists."

Bhatt had made his name with 1980s films such as Arth and Swayam, which looked at the women in new light. "It is true that women are mostly projected as a doormat in Bollywood, but then there is another Bollywood that has liberated her from that stereotype," he said.

Changing times and expectations in the new millennium have pressurized Bollywood to commit to blockbusters, said Bhatt.

Schauspielerin und Regisseurin Nandita Das. 
Photographer: Vidhi Thakur, 09.01.2013.
Copyright: Vidhi Thakur Photography

Nandita Das is not happy about the trend that has seen women wear ever-more revealing clothes

"We made cinema which was consciously eroticized, had a strong criminal component, great music, and erotica was added to it because television did not provide that," said Bhatt. "Creating revenue took priority and different kind of cinema were being written and made. A woman could be scantily clad, yet in charge of her own life, she could be dressed from head to toe in a very traditional attire and be a commodity"

Women as objects

Bollywood film heroines are worshipped in India and some even have temples built in their honour. They are role models for thousands of young women.

Nandita Das, an unconventional actress, known for her roles in films like Fire and 1947 Earth, is disdainful of the changing trends in Bollywood. "The main stream cinema has definitely objectified women, and has used them not just as sex-symbols, but there is also a certain stereotyping of gender roles," she told DW.

Das believes that the Indian heroine in the mainstream cinema has limited choices. "She is the epitome of a good wife, a good daughter and a good mother. She is allowed to don miniskirts for the first half but is clad in traditional attire as soon as she is married. Largely, there are male-centric stories; women are there to provide the emotional, physical, visual treat. To please the eye."

Das points out that the problem lies in the fact that the industry is a patriarchal one. She told DW "The audience plays an important part in the kind of films being created, but we, in the industry cannot absolve ourselves from the responsibility, in creating this kind of imagery of women."

Film critic Taran Adarsh contradicts Das. He believes that more and more directors are rising to the challenge and producing commercial cinema that cater for women's tastes and reflect their attitudes. "It's woman power that is ruling Bollywood these days. Women are the center stage in films like 'The Dirty Picture' and 'No one killed Jessica.' At a time people said that female-oriented films would not work at the Box office, but they have been proved wrong."

Adarsh vehemently criticizes the media for blowing the issue out of proportion. The industry has been known to experiment with many different genres.

Filmaker Mahesh Bhatt  in different moods during an interaction in (Photo: DW, Mahesh Bhatt)

Bhatt is anxious that the 'moral police' should not dictate popular film culture

After the notorious gang rape and subsequent death of a student in December last year - prompting a wave of protest and debate about the position of women in Indian society - producers and viewers expressed the need for introspection about what was being released to the market.

Breaking the mold

Das believes that some changes in the film roles could have a positive impact on the society and has her own advice for filmmakers.

"Push the envelope a little bit," she urged. "Showing women as womanly is okay, but show that they also have a mind of their own, a voice of dissent, can make choices of their own which is not guided by the men or the roles that women are expected to play all the time."

Moral concerns about Bollywood have been voiced from other sections of the society. Freedom of artistic expression has been a serious issue in the country for decades, with films frequently banned over protests by religious minorities.

As a director, Bhatt is concerned about the calls for a return to traditional values, doubting that it would be a progressive move. "It’s a big dangerous curve that we are negotiating. You could have moral policing back at the centre stage, you will have these interest groups who are the architects of the patriarchal system compelling you to adhere to their idea of what is pure and what is impure and what is correct and what is incorrect. It will take us into a very dangerous direction."

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