An opinion piece by contributor Natasha Bhagwanani
Despite growing up in America, Bollywood was an integral part of my childhood. My dad, a cinephile, and my mom a talented singer meant I was surrounded not only by Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, but also Rajesh Khanna and Hema Malini, and with sounds of Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, and Mohammad Rafi in my house. And I relished it all. I felt that it connected me to being Indian, since the rest of my world was Nickelodeon, Disney, Pixar and so on. So to write these words, to speak up against the world of Indian cinema, is not because I am anti-Bollywood, or anti-Indian. Rather, I am against the ignorance of the Bolly World and its failure to use its power to impact society, and most importantly, rape culture.
In more recent years, there are two kinds of Bollywood. There are the more socially conscious art films that speak to reality, and those that point out the flaws in humanity which are still waiting to get the proper recognition from their own culture. Then there is the box office breaking and trope-filled movies that are meant to be watched with your brain put aside. These box office “masala” films typically hit some or all of these notes:
- Guy hanging out, looking for a girl to fall in “love” with.
- Guy making a fool of himself when they happen upon said girl.
- Guy thinking said girl is beautiful, and that that is the sole basis of falling in love with her.
- Guy asking the girl in a public declaration of love, to be his girlfriend/wife/thirst-quencher.
- Girl saying no, so guy continues to find ways to MAKE HER fall in love.
- Girl still saying no, guy continues to try.
- Item song with another girl—possibly because directors think that lead girl isn’t “sexy” enough OR lead girl said no to being objectified, so let’s throw in another girl to do some sexy moves in a skimpy lengha, thirst somewhat quenched? (I don’t want to have the whole “oh but she has a right to shake what her momma gave her” argument here, because I’m all for it, but in this instance, the intention of the production house is more of what I’m going after. And also, it most likely is not plot-driven.)
- Something ridiculous happens in plot, end of story: girl decides she loves this guy or was worn down by his antics and declarations.
You begin to see the same patterns in every other movie and the viewer’s brain starts going “hmm, this seems like it works. I should try it.” And boom. Life starts to imitate art, with no item number cheering on the perverted minds. Instead, there are the sounds of screams and cries of help, of a woman whose clothes are off and not by choice.
Also, let’s focus on the children who are growing up with these movies since they are the future and can still be saved. In my world, we watched stories about lions who are kings, toys who teach us good vs. bad, and an old man and a puppet who taught us the consequences of lying. We watched as a teacher took her students on magical field trips and learned about science. We learned about friends and family values. And yes, we also watched a group of friends and a dog solve a ridiculous mystery because it was just hilarious.
What are the kids in India watching? When a family decides to go to the movies on a Sunday afternoon, are the parents saying, let’s go and watch the new Pixar movie? In most cases, no, because movies are expensive or because of a widely-held belief that “Hollywood teaches bad values.” Or because mom and dad want to watch the new box office hit. So instead, they decide to spend their movie budget on one movie, and it’s usually the one that follows the tropes listed above. And when the little boys are watching, what are they learning from the actors on screen who are chasing after their conquests? What is their takeaway when their father whistles at the screen during the item number? They imitate the one man who is their role model and follow along. When these same dads’ daughters look on, they start to wonder if that is what they should aspire to be since it appears that these are the women getting all the attention and praise from the most important men in their lives.
There needs to be more child-friendly content in India and not just dubbed cartoons where a Sponge and a starfish are speaking in Hindi (cringe-worthy, to say the least) but protagonists that children can relate to.
My hope is that there will be more appropriate content made available to children so that Bolly World is not all they digest until they are old enough to have their own beliefs and until they can understand consequences, morals, and respect. We need to end the cycle of these children growing up accepting rape culture, and maybe we will finally see the change one day. It is not an immediate solution, but it can be a start.