Media today presents a glimpse of the Indian society that is filled with images of tradition, romance, nationalism and familial love. Teeming with energetic music, vibrant colors and heavenly portrayals of Indian families, the audiences are easily cajoled into believing that these depictions are accurate representations of attitudes and beliefs of the Indian life. However, many times, the realities of life do not always approximate the images presented by the media. As a result, media sometimes start affecting the society in an ominous manner. One such issue that is distorted by the media is the dowry system. In the process of raising alarm bells, Bollywood films, TV shows and news media have exploited this issue too much and consequently, worsened its effect. The insatiable greed of the in-laws, which ultimately leads to torturing of brides, has been highlighted so many times by the media that the viewers’ minds no longer recoils from such phenomenon. Moreover, with the rising consumerism, higher standards of living and exposure to the masses through media, the desires of people for material wealth have also gone up, aggravating the malevolent system of dowry.
The dowry system, the custom of making payments from the bride’s family to the groom’s family at the time of marriage, has a long history in India. It stems out from the traditional upper caste practices of ‘kanyadaan’ or gifting the virgin bride (). Traditionally, these gifts could range from anything significant to even small token of good wishes. Historically, the dowry system could have been established as a form of inheritance for women, because only men inherited the family property. Furthermore, it could have been a way of compensating the groom’s family for the economic support that they would give to the new bride as women has little role as bread earners for the family, making them dependent on the in laws. However, in recent times with exposure to mass media, these tokens of gifts or dowry have transformed into substantial transfer of wealth from the groom’s family to the bride’s family, becoming an important factor in marriage proposals. Most of the marriage decisions nowadays are based on how much dowry is the bride’s family ready to give. Even if the bride and groom do not suit each other, their marriage is arranged based on the exchange of dowry between the families. (). However, in the current society, where even women act as economic contributors to the family, this system becomes trivial. Yet, it has only inflamed with time.
Consequently, the Government of India could not do much to alleviate this issue. Even with the changes brought about by the Hindu Succession Acts of 1956, which gave women legal rights of inheritance, and Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, which legally outlawed dowry respectively, this practice still continues mainly because of two reasons. Firstly, even though in recent times, the exposure to media decreased the support for dowry among women, it appears that women have started valuing the resources that their dowries bring to their families. The exposure to mass media increased the desirability of consumer goods, causing the newly wed couples to view dowry as a way of obtaining them (). The other reason is that parents of daughters still believe that a large dowry will ensure better treatment of their daughters by her in-laws. They believe that the dowry will increase their daughter’s standing in her new household as it will act as a signal of parental support of the bride. However, this belief is largely baseless and stems from media’s misrepresentation of this issue through its different outlets.
Dowry is a hot topic that many Bollywood films tried to address. Films like Lajja and Lage Raho Munnabhai try to create awareness about this issue by depicting extreme sequences. However, this path taken by the directors sometimes backfires. In Lajja, Maithili’s parents give everything to fulfill the dowry demands put up by their in-laws. They lose their land, saved money and even take on loans for the dowry. Though, Maithili rebels and calls off the wedding, seeing her father being humiliated by the groom’s family for dowry. Even in Lago Raho Munnabhai, Simran’s father Lucky Singh goes on to appropriating an old age house, leaving 20 old men homeless because the groom’s parents wanted the land on which house was built. These acts by the bride’s family do not take place in the real world. However, they are able to distort the views of audiences, who then start believing strongly in this system. Vivah – A journey from Engagement to Marriage, another mainstream Bollywood film, also presents a distorted vision of the dowry system but towards the other extreme. In the film, the “groom’s father wants nothing more for his son than a virtuous and beautiful wife – dowry is unimportant and unwanted” (). As Poonam’s father is asked for a mere token, the viewers are assured that a dowry is unnecessary when two families are as well suited as these. These films, as a result, distort the way the society views the dowry system.
The reality of dowry demands in India is quite different from its portrayal in Bollywood films. The images of the dowry system presented in these films are not usually what comes to pass for a woman after her marriage and the giving of her dowry. In Lajja, Maithili’s parents tried to call of the wedding because Maithili’s father could not fulfill all but one of their demands. This would never happen in the real world. Similarly, what Lucky Singh did in Lage Raho Munnabhai to fulfill the dowry is unlikely to be seen today. However, one would also not find someone like Poonam’s father- in- law, who declined the dowry given by Poonam’s father. There are still many Indian marriages, where the bride’s treatment at the hands of her in-laws is often tied to the amount of dowry they receive. Moreover, theses dowry demands sometimes do not end with the wedding (). The “shameless” greed of the grooms’ families in the form of dowry demands continue for years after the wedding, with “suggestions” of further gifts to be made-for celebrations of the birth, naming and initiation of grandchildren. Most of the Bollywood fail to show this aftermath of a dowry induced marriage.
According to Bedi, “the ever-increasing demands for dowry have led to an increase in dowry-related violence and death among young married women in India, with 8391 dowry death cases in 2010 alone.” The violence that the women have to undergo, despite giving dowry, has increased exponentially with the demands of the every-growing dowries. This dowry-related violence is mostly prearranged attacks within the groom’s house. Many of these attacks include severe burnings, poisonings, hangings, gunshots, sharp objects, and jumping from height, generally resulting in the immediate deaths of the women (). Furthermore, the victims do not report this due to fear of another attack. They have to accept this “cruelty as the price of keeping their families intact” (). In some of the dowry-induced marriages, women try to commit suicides in a bid to escape the abuse from her in-laws. However, other families try to take advantage of these cases by reporting the death caused by dowry violence as suicides and protect themselves from trials. Media, in such cases, immediately tries to capitalize on them through films and TV shows.
A recent Bollywood film, Teen Behenein is based on the real-life incident of combined suicides by three sisters, which occurred in Kanpur in 1988. Though this film has flaws in every technical aspect, including script, direction and acting, it still managed to receive praise merely because of the issue that it takes up. “Teen Behenien seeks to make an important point about the kinds of sexual, social, psychological and physical violence that continues to be encountered by women. This film only takes the seed of its story from real-life incidents of combined suicides by three sisters, and then builds a narrative around it” (). The director was able to influence the society by combining the fictional and non-fictional worlds. In order to profit, the director exploited the issue of dowry system by exploiting it.
Satyamev Jayate, a reality TV, also tried hard to create awareness about dowry. Aamir Khan, a famous Bollywood actor, is the protagonist who reveals social issues that are prevalent in India which need to be addressed. In the dowry-focused episode, Aamir delineates that every hour one bride in the country dies due to dowry harassment. This certainly is not true. Consequently, he invites a few women who have been victims of the dowry system to speak about their torture. For instance, Komal Sethi spoke about how after being tortured to pay a hefty amount to her in-laws and husband, she was left to die in the US. Lecturer Nishana, who underwent a cosmetic surgery to please her husband, succumbed to the dowry demands of her in-laws and ended up committing suicide (1.5 million rupees that were given by her parents. Though, these cases depict the extremes that this system can go to, they leave a mark of the audience who begin to consider girls as burdens. Furthermore, the fact that Satyamev Jayate commercialized such sensitive issues to profit from them only undermines the validity of its claims.
In a country, where film stars are considered as ideals, the distorted depiction of their personal lives can have a profound effect on society. Through the creation of superstars, media distorts the view of the Indian society on dowry. In India, film is the principal form of entertainment, and therefore, film stars are accorded a respect otherwise offer only to “family elder and men of God”(). An average of ten million people a day spend the equivalent of a day’s wages just to enter into a fantasy world of images of “bad landlord, greedy industrialist, corrupt politicians and traditional virtues of virginity, devotion to God and family and service to men” (). The protagonists, therefore, become the saviors of mankind and the actors start to be revered by the Indian public. According to Gokulsing and Dissanayake, star worship offer a mental escape from the pressures and poverty of everyday life and statements or actions made by big Bollywood stars, like Amitabh or Shahrukh, can have great effects on public attitudes. In high profile and star-studded marriages, the dowry worth fortunes are given; however, just as a custom. Millions of rupees in cash, gold, along with luxurious cars are given by the bride’s family, but this is not a compulsion and is given just out of generosity. However, the masses get influenced when they see this on the televisions and their desires increase many- folds. They start dreaming of lavish wedding and end up making brides’ lives miserable, ruining their families and turning the concept of marriage has been turned into a transaction, without any importance placed on the people or the relationship ().
As a result of the society’s distortion view of the dowry system, in many parts of the country, the birth of a girl is not seen as an event to celebrate. Unlike the loving parents of Poonam in Vivah, the thoughts of many Indian parents are not positive at the birth of a daughter (). The lyrics of an old Indian chant used in Punjab “Eat the jiggery, spin the cotton, you should not come, send your brother” suggests that the birth of a girl is seen as an event of sorrow. There is no singing or celebration, as the parents have to start worrying about the dowry. Girls become a drain of family’s money, unlike boys who create income for the family and stay to take care of his parents in their old age (). This belief has skewed the sex ratio in India, fostered by sex-selective abortions and infanticides. “Matrubhoomi”, a Bollywood film, is set in a hypothetical village in India without women. The film tries to bring forth the message that if the rampant female infanticide and feticide were to continue, then there would be a time where there will be no women left. However, this film failed in its goal. The film is so extreme that the audience could not digest it and the film only succeeded at undermining the seriousness of this issue.
The numerous representations of dowry system on both big and small screens, it seems to be distorting to an extent. Since the introduction of mass media in the Indian society, views of the people on the dowry have change significantly. The system, which was initially meant as a form of inheritance for women, changed over time because of its misrepresentation by media. The increasing exposure to media coupled, which increased the desirability of consumer goods, transformed this system into a substantial transfer of wealth from the bride’s family to the groom’s and made dowry an important factor determining marriage decisions. Furthermore, recent films like Lajja, Vivah or Teen Beheinen only distorted the society’s view on dowry by showing extremes situation that are highly unlikely to occur. On the other hand, TV shows like Satyamev Jayate tried to commercialize this issue; however, undermined its validity in the process. In addition, media’s depictions of lavish weddings of media personalities, increases the dowry system’s prevalence as more and more people try to emulate their ideals. Dowry system, therefore, has become a big problem in India and has led to practices of female infanticide skewing the sex ratio in India. In drawing this paper to a close, it is clear that the problem of dowry is only intensified by media. Until media becomes more responsible in its depiction of the dowry system, leaving aside the monetary intentions, this problem will continue unabated.
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