It is all dark in a theatre. A popular romantic film is running on the big screen. In a gripping scene, after an altercation with the parents of his love interest, the male protagonist is out of his wits angry. Enraged, he first warns the girl and then proceeds to slap her across the face.
A man in the audience hoots in appreciation. As for him, that slap is an expression of the male protagonist’s love for the girl and the power of masculinity.
For some, it was just a film. Yet, for many women, it was nothing short of a nightmarish dystopia. The year was 2019 and the film was Kabir Singh.
With studies in gender becoming more advanced and feminist ideas taking shape, one realizes that violence in the name of love is not justified. Causing a violation (whether physical or mental) of your romantic partner in the name of love is not justified. Unfortunately, Bollywood does not take cognizance of this fact. Time and again, our movies have not just normalised but portrayed violence in the name of love as powerful, intense love.
Violence simply does not mean physical violence. Stalking in itself is an act of violation. Whether it is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Raanjhanaa or Kabir Singh, cult popular movies of Bollywood hinge on a plot where the male lead resorts to stalking to woo the girl.
The celebrated character of Raj from the golden romantic film DDLJ slinks towards the girl, checks out her bag, and forces her to dance when she does not want to. Yet, he is the charmer that the girl and the audience cannot refuse.
Murari’s advice to his friend Kundar in the movie Raanjhanaa is an open invitation to stalking.“Subha se shaam peechha karo, ghar ke bahar, school ke baahar, bazaar mein, sadko pe, cycle pe, ricksha mein, tempo mein, ro do, khana khana chhod do, wazan ghatao, aur ladki ko itna thaka do ke woh thak ke haan bol de.” Kundan is the local hero, whose simple-wit is aimed to mesmerize the audience.
Kabir Singh kisses the girl in their first meeting and says, “Kisi ne nahi dekha”, asks her to leave her lectures while he teaches her by painting diagrams on her hand in the subsequent meetings. Never does the girl say anything.
In these plots, there is little room for consent. Women characters have no agency, and very seldom do they say no. The camera portrays these characters as heroes, with a mise-en-scene made up of leather jackets, trendy bikes and funky beards. All this is accompanied by an edgy background score.
This problem is not of Bollywood alone. Analysis of the inherent misogyny has been studied as part of Feminist Film Theory. Mulvey’s essay Narrative Pleasure and Visual Pleasure highlights how cinema is a medium to empower men while women are used. A camera captures men and women differently. Here, the man is a voyeur while the woman is an object for the active male gaze.
This is true to the age in Bollywood films, one can have a look at item numbers in movies, or many scenes in Bollywood romances, comedies and action films.
Such films eventually give out the message to an average Indian moviegoer that it is okay (worse, romantic) to stalk women, force yourself upon them, and hit them once in a while.
While there is no yardstick to measure the impact of Bollywood’s rampant glorification of violence against women, one may think of the role of Bollywood in our discourses and society.
Parvathy Thiruvothu, a well-known actor of Malayalam films in an interview with Film Companion says, “When a man is being misogynistic and abusive and you show that in a way that incites applause in the audience, then that’s glorification.”
Deepali Desai, from Breakthrough, an NGO that works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls, points out that, currently, gender violence is being normalized with no counter-narrative in popular culture, under the guise of freedom of expression and portrayal of reality.
“It is not the presence of violence, but the justification of scenes of violence against women as well as the valorization of the abusers in such scenes that must be called out.”
A petition started by Mahika Banerji on change.org in 2019 asked the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to make it mandatory for movies depicting and referencing violence against women and girls to carry disclaimers and a public service announcement on screen – both in cinema and on television. To date, this petition has been signed by 2.46 lakh people.
This International Day for eliminating violence against women, let us choose our priorities right, create equal spaces where no one is violated of rights, consent, and opportunities.