Misogyny and Bollywood

Up and against the Colloquial: Misogyny and Bollywood – Sona Mitra

Sexism comes naturally to Bollywood and blatantly so within the ‘item
numbers’ which it has so easily and  unashamedly adopted and
institutionalized in its mainstream commercial films. Almost all the
mainstream Bollywood flicks
for over a decade now contain at least one song where women are clearly
objectified and treated as sex objects – the item number- which is then solely
justified on commercial viability of the movie. Typically, the lyrics are such that not men but
women identify themselves as sex/commercial objects. Anti-women lyrics in these ‘item numbers’ and dialogues in
these films have become a trend, the attitude displayed being one of “it’s 
cool to
abuse women and make merry at their expense” and this particular attitude sells
like hot-cakes, with the films
earning in crores.

While in its history of 100 years, Bollywood never displayed any
radical stance when it came to challenging  patriarchy per se, rather the
films on most occasions espoused all the retrograde notions of patriarchy and
male chauvinism but it was never as
unabashedly misogynous as they are now! Bollywood in fact portrayed women
as the ‘weaker sex’, the ‘fairer sex’,
often as the ‘damsel in distress’ in need of utmost protection from the
‘stronger’ counterpart. Women lead actors used to be compared with the ‘softer’
poetic entities such as the moon, the breeze, the rivers, etc. apart from the stereotypical portrayals of
ideal Indian womanhood. In the least there was some amount of respect displayed for
women, albeit only for those who conformed to the patriarchal constructs.
However in the past decade, it has changed tracks and entered into a phase
where misogyny is prevalent over other forms of retrograde portrayals within Bollywood. And it glares at
you whenever a new ‘item number’ is released.

Item numbers are not a new phenomenon for Bollywood. Item numbers
(though not known as such) were part of Bollywood long before India’s economic
liberalization. With the onset of the
nineties, portrayal of women performers in sassy and rhythmic numbers,
termed as ‘
’ hit
the silver screen in which women were blatantly portrayed as ‘items’- that would sell in the market! However,
there has been a progression of the trends. The performances have made a
progression from kothas, cabarets, disco and nightclubs to currently
anywhere and everywhere, sometimes
in rustic settings. The performers have also progressed from
Monica (Monica…oh
my darling!
) to Munni (Munni badnaam hui, Film: Dabang, Released: 2010), Shiela (Shiela ki jawani, Film: Tees Maar Khan, Released: 2010) and more recently Babli (Babli badmash hai… Film: Shootout at Wadala, Released: 2013). Increasingly in the last few
years the ‘
items’ have been popularized with colloquial female
names that ring familiar bells of
daughters, sisters, friends and little girls in frocks playing in the schools
of rural India which might make you
wonder whether Bollywood is up and against the common rural adolescent
girls/women! With common sensibilities while one would get
irritated at such connotations, the reality tells a different story; a stark
but familiar story! While
marketability of movies, even in the rural areas, with a motive to maximize
profits and create records at the box office, is a justification of the
inclusions of item numbers, the change in the nature of item numbers reveal an unashamed
Bollywood’s heightened zeal to pander with the common but subconscious misogynous psyche of the society!

As one tries to think logically, one of course realizes that Bollywood
is not up and against the common ‘woman’ per se, but it is blatantly pandering with the retrograde societal
norms; the norms that is often reflected in the everyday attitude of a rabidly
patriarchal society where women are merely looked at as objects; a mindset
that confines women within the
households; a mindset that particularly is enraged as women find their voices.
It is not only Bollywood, but also misogynist individuals, singing tracks with
both preposterous and outlandish lyrics which are as good as almost spewing venom against the female sex, and
thus spreading a culture of misogyny. One then wonders why is there such a lot of hatred towards women and why
is it getting such exhilarated response from the
society, especially the men?

The answer lies in the fact that misogyny sells. However the answer to
‘why does it sell?’ is deeply rooted in the organisation of the relations between the sexes since the development of

In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, while women were
significantly contributing to the process of  accumulation, yet they remained
excluded from receiving a wage. Most of the work done by women were  confined to the unpaid labor of
raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands
or partners, and maintaining
the home thereby initiating a process of ‘housewifization of women’ in which
women were reduced to a second-class
entity, entirely dependent on the income of men. While there have been temporary changes in the
roles of women, in the course of capitalist development, as paid or unpaid
workers, according to the needs of capital,
patriarchy under capitalism complemented each other as the extraction of surplus, absolute and relative, was
subsidized by way of having women to take care of the home front. Such a process also created certain
mechanisms of ‘social control’ over women by the men, thus strengthening patriarchy. But with the
advancement of capitalism marked by capital’s endless search for profit and an
ever increased need for
cheaper labour could not keep women confined within homes for a long time. In
effect then what transpired has been a
male-female segregation of the social structures, providing women a lower
status and reduced space compared to men. 

Feminist theories as well as historical experiences reflect that
whenever women have challenged the social constructs and have raised their
voices, have competed to venture into public spaces, there emerged a counter-reaction from the
other half of the society which have responded violently to restrict such
movements of women, have attempted to suppress women and send them back to
their confinements. This is essentially ‘the fight for public space’ in which as women
endeavor into newer spaces, there is a threat perceived by their male counterparts. The sheer fact that as
more women are being educated, as more women are aspiring to join the
workforce, earn a living for themselves, becoming conscious of their rightful
place in the society, there is a threat faced by men of losing out to women.
With increasing liberalization, such aspirations of women have also increased
as newer avenues for women have opened up (albeit highly inadequate in
proportion to what is required). Such trends of women’s involvement in the ‘public’ have perpetuated the
‘gender conflicts’ that takes place in all societies, often manifesting itself
in violent outbursts and blatant display of hatred against women in spaces
that  are unchallenged and uncontrolled.
And hence, misogyny sells because men would never leave space for women without
adequate resistance. One can recollect a number of such instances. The ‘Black
Night of December 16’ in Delhi is a brazen example of such manifestations. The
Khap Panchayats in our society is another such example of display of hatred towards

Returning to the context of Bollywood, its portrayal of women is also a
reflection of such societal constructs that are striving to keep women confined to specific roles, to not let women
come out and raise their voices, threatening women not to
cross boundaries set by the orthodox patriarchal societies. The ‘item numbers’
Munni and Babli are expressions of such convictions! It portrays the common woman who has
ventured out in the world, as vampish and vulgar and a sexual object in a
manner that coerces the ‘real-life’
Munnis and Bablis to remain confined within the ‘private’.

Given this, the point that I wish to make is while Bollywood is one of
the most popular forms of entertainment within the country, more so among the underclass, it is also a space
where misogyny is both produced and consumed in large quantities. It
indulges in the commonly regressive social constructs and more recently
has identified the common
rural ‘wo’man for spreading obscenity and misogyny. It is common knowledge
that Bollywood as an
industry, in its unscrupulous drive for profits, adopts all sorts of regressive
strategies but the fact  that such
representation gets a positive response from the targeted audience is
reflective of the prevalent misogyny. It is well understood that cinema is often a reflection of
reality and that increased item numbers with such diminutive representation of women is met with energized response
points out to a social system that in no way is conducive for women. While the
government through institutions like the Censor Board can act to a substantive level to control and
raise objections on such depiction of women, but it is not enough. It is
equally important to raise the
awareness levels as high as to reject the Bollywood style of derogatory
depiction of women through increased activism and uphold and popularize other
forms of entertainment and popular culture which strongly criticize such violent and
misogynist culture. More importantly, as pointed out, that cinema is a
reflection of reality, it is important to change the reality, that is,
intensify struggles against the patriarchal structures, intensify struggles against
exploitation and discrimination, only then Bollywood could be expected to act
more respectfully
towards women.