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Hindi cinema has always been a major point of reference for Indian culture and society. Not only has it shaped but also expressed the changing scenarios and contours of India's cultural and societal sentiments to such an extent that no other preceding art form could ever achieve. Hindi cinema has influenced the way in which people perceive and deal with various aspects of their own lives.
Cinema means different things for different people, for some it is the greatest and the most appreciated medium of entertainment, while for others it is just a medium that disseminates moving pictures. And then there are people who think that it is a medium that reflects the true mood and the changing scenario or rather reality of the society that produces it. Not only does it reflect, it also shapes and influences a society. One can say that cinema and society influence each other. Cinema, is a true reflection of the society and what we see in movies actually happens, otherwise where do these films get their inspiration from?
Movies now portray live-in relationships, girlfriends and boyfriends, pre-marital sex, corruption, people following live and let live policy in life and family, liberal parents, colleges are depicted like dating parties and professors like friends. Of course one has to admit that it is all exaggerated and blown up, sometimes even in epic proportions, but the core idea, the crux, the central theme, comes from the society itself. Obviously those situations and reflections of life and society are exaggerated and blown up converting it all into a motion picture with elements of drama, suspense and comedy so as to attract spectators.
The society and the world that we live in is changing and these changes are echoed in the cinema. Let's take the example of the humble and illiterate mother or 'ma' depicted in the Hindi movies of 60's, through the 70's right till the 80'. The 'ma' was a female figure, an epitome of sacrifice and hard work, caring and bothered about nothing but her children. She burned the midnight oil to stitch clothes to afford two meals a day and to pay for the hero's BA degree, has slowly got replaced with the modern, educated and sometimes even independent 'mom'.
The heroine who was normally a simple homely girl has now been replaced by a woman who is not only educated and bold but is also confident about her sexuality. The hero no longer falls in love with a innocent uneducated 'gaon-ki-gori'. He has now been replaced by a simple boy next door with no palaces to live in, with human capabilities, flaws and aspirations. The result is that the audience can now easily relate with the lead characters of the film.
But there is a different aspect, a different side to the coin, as well; cinema itself can herald or bring about changes in the society. It inspires fashion and crimes when people try to mimic what they see in movies, failing to realise that what they see on screen is an altered or modified version of reality that is made to look glamorous though instruments and technology and that life like cinema is not predictable. But, there are some movies that bring about positive changes as well like the recent change in the old policy followed by CBSE as a result the movie Tare Zameen Par (2007). CBSE now gives extra time to dyslexic students for their board exams. Similarly, public interest in hockey was renewed after the hit movie Chak De (2007). So it wouldn't be wrong to say that cinema isn't just a source of popular entertainment for families and individuals, but also a vehicle of social change, as it should be.
Audiences like to see the familiar on screen. They like to see what they know, what they are aware of, what they believe and it is this reflection on screen that caters to the tastes and sensibilities of the masses. People derive joy, pleasure and amusement when they watch such films and therefore it is the audience that decides what goes into a film. Next it is the investor. The producer of a film would want to invest in something that would fetch him some returns on his investment and therefore they put their money in films that would make the audience happy and consequently bring in the greens for the investors. Unless a film caters to the mass audience, it will not be economically viable.
The representation of women is often used as a selling point of the films. Audience likes to watch women on screen in various song and dance routines, in stereotypical images, in various costumes ( as discussed in chapter 2) and the reflection of women on screen change from time to time with changing trends in the continuously evolving society ( as discussed in chapter 3).
It is true that the changing ideologies of a society have the power over what is depicted on screen and how it is depicted but another truth is the fact that the patriarchal undercurrents in our society are still the same. Women are still depicted in a way that caters to the male gaze. Women are still categorised and this has been achieved through song and dance sequences, through various forms of dress and through stereotypical images. All these factors help to compartmentalise women, turn them into a fetish leaving no room for the real woman to be depicted on screen.
A cursory glance on the history on Hindi cinema and the changing trends of society and cinema leads one to believe that Bollywood has progressed over time in terms of depiction of women. Globalization and western culture has had a strong influence and a huge impact on the content films, the locations where they are shot and even the settings. But a closer examination of the films reveal that indeed there has been progress, but only in terms of technological devices that are used for special effects, locations as in they are more scenic, the films have begun to represent N.R.Is, the speech has westernised, the dresses have a modern influence and the entire aspect of film making and marketing has becoming more commercial and corporate like. It has truly become an Industry, a business.
Women are still depicted or portrayed in the old moulds of feminity. Heroines are westernised, as is everything around them, but this has resulted in turning a woman into a commodity that needs to be made a spectacle of so that the film can sell well. The western influence and modernisation has led to more skin show in order to make the film commercially viable as it is now sold to Indian as well as western audiences.
Mythology, religion, notions and ideas about family and tradition, cultural ethos, all of these strongly influence Bollywood and consequently the representation of women on screen. But one must understand that all these values that dictate the trends of Bollywood are ruled and dominated by the premise of patriarchy and therefore women are represented in a manner which is submissive to these values and therefore subject to control by men. "The women are shown in subordinate roles, upholding traditional values. They represent the community and are seen as repository of community values. Women authenticate a national/cultural identity. The body of the woman is the carrier of cultural signs. Symbols of marriage like the mangalsutra, sindoor etc. are fetishized."
Women are represented as prototypes, one dimensional characters as daughters, wives, daughter-in-law, courtesan, lover, widow. Such stereotypes have no personal traits, no substance in terms of character and temperament; they only exist in relation to men, to heroes on screen. They are there as foils to the male characters so as to highlight their characteristics. Feminity as it is outlined by the premise of patriarchy is more often than not adhered to in Indian films.
However, through an analysis of new emerging trends in Bollywood cinema as well as the parallel cinema, it becomes clearly visible that some women break this mould. There are films that portray women in bold and strong characters and sometimes even as individuals but such films are not very successful commercially. And also the answer to the question whether women in Hindi cinema are constructed so as to attract male gaze remains yes because even in those films, the heroines who played the bold, strong and individual characters were good looking and attractive, they were used in various song and dance sequences and were objectified through the use of costumes and other cinematic tools.
There have been attempts to emancipate women from the constraining stereotypical moulds through representation of strong women characters in powerful roles in mainstream cinema but they have been only partially successful because those films were made but they weren't very successful. The art movies or parallel cinema as they call it, emerging in the 1970s, avoided objectifying women, and focussed on showcasing the prevalent oppression and exploitation of women in our society. But the overriding themes, ideologies and concepts of religion, culture and tradition have a very strong foothold when it comes to Hindi cinema and they entrap representation of women in fixed moulds of stereotypes strengthened by patriarchy. "Events seldom catapult women characters of Indian cinema to a white-hot spotlight. They are dumped into the quagmires of tension-packed fireworks of the home-prison or the ambitious exploitations of healers and killers, lovers and betrayers. The women are shown as having no spheres of their own, no independent identity, no living space. They go down in collective memory as organic imperfections, ramshackle, rickety, unhinged creations, mere fictional constructs of the 'fragile - handle with care' male ego."
Hindi films with excellent photography, picturesque locations, designer costumes and gorgeous heroines enthral and influence audiences in a manner which slowly and steadily transforms the way they think and perceive the world around them. The youth that forms a large chunk of the audience start aping what is shown in screen in terms of costumes, language, style and above all the norms and ideologies highlighted by the films.
These ideologies prescribe that domestic bliss and societal recognition is achievable only through submission to the pre-established hierarchies. One of the dictates of such ideologies is that women should be submissive and subordinate to the males in family and in society in general. Films often show heroes pursuing the heroines not with poetry, as the idea of chivalry preaches, but with songs and sequences that manhandle the heroine, pestering her with antics like playing with her dupatta, pulling and pinching her cheeks, blocking her path, coming too close for comfort and sometimes even kissing her without her permission. The girl initially tries to get away from this brute but finally gives in to him and accepts his love. The marvel of marvels happens when she succumbs to such degrading antics and is won over by his charm. Is it any wonder that eve teasing is rampant in this country when films show women giving in to such demeaning and crude gestures used by the male in the film in order to court her?
In case a girl is raped in a film, the girl is compelled to marry the perpetuator of such a deplorable and detestable act. The girl isn't even asked if she wants to spend the rest of her life with the man responsible for violating her physically and psychologically in such a horrendous manner and robbing her of her freedom. The woman becomes the property of the man who ruined her life. If she refuses to marry her rapist she is immediately alienated from the society and is deemed undeserving of anyone's sympathy and support for she refused to marry the man who violated her and then was willing to provide for her as his wife. The perpetuator, the criminal here becomes noble and self-righteous for in the act of agreeing to marry the woman he raped he's redeemed himself. The victim, if she refuses to marry him, becomes ungrateful, perverted and promiscuous for she refused a man's offer of marriage, a man who as per the norm, could have shrugged off all responsibility towards her.
Most Hindi films portray love stories between a rich boy and a poor girl or vice versa. The predictable and often repeated story line being that they meet, fall in love, encounter opposition from their respective families, communities and society and finally they get married after innumerable trials and tribulations. The rich boy who wants to marry below his station is considered noble, heroic, sacrificing and generous while a rich girl who wants to marry the poor boy is often portrayed as fashionable, independent, spoilt, pampered and bratty who desperately needs to be tamed and domesticated so as to bring her in line with what the society expects. In other words she needs to wear Indian dresses with bindi and bangles, should be able cook and serve to the family and finally should see her husband as her sole reason for existence. This she is transformed into by the poor boy who as reward gets the woman as a trophy in the end. The whole idea defies logic. Why would a rich and pampered girl want to marry a poor boy for there are enough good men in the world with the same moneyed background? The underlying patriarchal assumption being that any man is good enough to marry a girl, rich or poor doesn't matter.
A woman, in a film, who puts her aspirations, ambitions and career before family is considered ruthless and also at time unwomanly but if a man does the same he becomes noble and virtuous. If a woman does it she is to be condemned for her professional goals come in the way of serving the family and her husband but if a man does it he is doing so to provide for his family which is commendable. The double standards of the society and hypocrisy of the patriarchal ideologies promoted by films are more than evident but such films are accepted by the audiences and they go on to become hits. The same ideology and story is repeated film after film transforming the ideology into a norm that soon becomes a trend followed by the people. "Wielding the camera is probably a more onerous responsibility than wielding the pen, as the visual medium is several times more powerful than the written one. Add to this the sway that tinsel town's charismatic heartthrobs have over the masses and the job of filmmakers as arbiters of taste and public opinion becomes that much more accountable."
The ideology of patriarchy works through the concept of female morality setting territorial limits for the whole idea of feminine identity and exposing the hypocrisy of male attitude that ultimately seeks patriarchal domination of women. A female's body remains central to the society's as well as her realization of self. Patriarchy, that asserts itself through marriage, adultery and rape, works through the female body. On the other hand a female who tries to resist patriarchy uses her body to express her freedom, desire and sexuality.
Powerful woman characters and their impact is eclipsed by the manner in which she is depicted as stereotypes trapping a woman in roles that submit to the dictatorial conventions of our society in the process inhibiting the qualities of a woman as an individual at peace with herself and comfortable in the world of her personal aspirations and interests. This is because a girl child in the formative years of growing up is conditioned through the process of socialization where her freedom and liberty is cut down drastically. At a very young age she learns to submit to the whims and fancies of the patriarchal society. She gives in to the tyrannies of our society and forgets all about her own emotional, social and financial needs along with her individual aspirations.
Women in our society are perceived and therefore represented as inferior beings. The realities of the patriarchal society and the standards set by it make the woman under confident and make her believe that the only form of security she can achieve is through obedience to the society that terrorizes her to begin with. This ideology perpetuated by the masculine world around her makes a woman consent to the unreasonable emotional, social and financial demands made upon her, all in the name of peace, happiness, order and security.