Bollywood, or mainstream Indian (Hindi) cinema, is the mainstay of entertainment in India. A large fan following of millions idealize, almost worship, Bollywood actors, or ‘stars’ as they are commonly recognized, which in turn causes the movies to have a deep and powerful impact on India’s societal beliefs and values. These mainstream commercial movies generally depict the male protagonist as some sort of a ‘superhero’ who has a larger-than-life persona while relegating the women to the secondary role of either ‘eye candy’ or the self-sacrificing mother, wife, or daughter.
During the last decade, several relatively new movie makers have started experimenting with new themes covering issues such as identity, ambitions, social norms, ethics, morality, and political corruption. Despite these new experiments, sensitive issues such as gender and sexuality have rarely, if ever, been given much attention in mainstream commercial cinema, until very recently, which I have found to be a refreshing surprise. These new Bollywood movies demonstrate – and may themselves promote – changing attitudes towards gender and sexuality through the portrayal of lived and bodily experiences of the protagonists.
The Bollywood film Pink (2016) deals with the issue of consent (for sex) and the sexual vulnerability of young girls living independently in Delhi. The movie brought the message to urban India that in no uncertain terms ‘No means No’ and every individual (including someone selling sex) has the right to refuse sex and sexual activity. As well as developing discussions around consent, Pink also helped challenge the negative stereotyping of modern independent teenage girls and women in Indian society. The movie endeavored to shatter common and negative stereotypes in Indian society which are placed on women who go against the norm of so-called ‘expected behavior.’ Such stereotypes presume women who consume alcohol or dress in modern styles of clothing, for example, engage in sexual and intimate behaviors outside of marriage therefore being negatively deemed as ‘loose characters’, yet these same norms also deny women sexual autonomy and the right to refuse sex. This negative stereotyping perpetuates the belief of victim blaming where women are accused of inviting harassment, violence and/or abuse. The film was successful in triggering the debate in the society about the right of every individual (irrespective of their personal preferences/lifestyles) to sexual autonomy and respect.
Male sexuality has also become a present theme throughout these new Bollywood movies. The 2017 release titled ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan’ (Beware of Marriage) dealt with the taboo subject of ‘erectile dysfunction’. This light comedy became a box office success with both actors and directors being nominated for awards alongside the critical acclaim the movie received. The success and popularity of the movie provided a platform which allowed for open dialogue in Indian society on consequences and restrictions of traditional and binary gender narratives. It also brought into public space discourse on hegemonic (toxic) masculinities that expect men to be physically strong and sexually virile. These new narratives have the ability to enable young males to feel comfortable with their identity and explore other sides of masculinity that are not toxic. These changes in gender conceptions will hopefully alter future generations ideals of what it means to be masculine, seeing this as less restrictive and open to different interpretations.
Thappad (The Slap), released in 2020, is a movie about the everyday subtleness of violence that an Indian wife (Taapsi Punnu) is expected to accept from her husband as part of her ‘normal life’, despite being a modern, educated woman living in metropolitan India. Examples of this violence include verbal abuse such as demeaning their contribution to the family (care work), especially if they are not working for wages outside the home, physical abuse, or sexual abuse/violence (including forcing sex against their will). The heroine of this movie refuses to accept a onetime slap as ‘normal’ marital behavior. She is advised by everyone including her own mother, mother-in-law and even the female lawyer she approaches for filing a case of divorce to ignore this ‘small incident’ and carry on with her ‘normal’ life. The protagonist cannot ignore the slap and is made to feel uncomfortable and small. It is not only the slap, but also the subsequent behavior of her husband (his failure to recognize his mistake and apologize) that makes her decide to end the relationship. Although the film was not a big commercial success (made with a budget of Rs. 24 crores, it went to earn Rs. 44 crores), it sparked conversations about the issues of domestic violence, the place of a woman in marriage and the non-recognition of the unpaid care work performed by women.
Taapsi Punnu recently starred in ‘Rashmi Rocket’, a movie which challenges the gender injustices experienced by women athletes in the name of the so-called ‘gender test’ which does not allow female athletes to compete if their body shows a higher than ‘normal’ level of testosterone. The film is based on the true stories of several female athletes who were shamed and barred from competitive sports in the name of the gender test. The movie was released on Zee 5 streaming platform in October 2021 and crossed 12 million views within the first 10 days. I feel the movie did a great job in challenging the notion of a ‘normal body’ and the sex binaries, as well as bringing awareness to the public that such tests exist and demonstrating that bodies do not always fit with desired and expected categories of sex.
Another film that created awareness about the existing sex and gender diversities is ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’ (2021), a mainstream Hindi film about a trans girl. Although made with a sizeable budget of Rs. 60 crores, the film sadly failed in cinematic viewings due to the Covid-19 pandemic and earned only Rs. 38 crores two months into its release. However, it became the most-streamed content within 24 hours of the movie being released on OTT platform Netflix on January 7. The movie has been praised by film critics for handling of the tough “reality of the subject with sensitivity and maturity” (Hiren Kotwani’s review of the movie in Times of India). Its streaming popularity and positive reviews demonstrate that the youth (millennials) in India (including those living in small towns and cities) are interested in issues of gender identity and sexuality and are ready for open conversations/debates on these.
From a time when homosexuality was ridiculed in popular Hindi Cinema and made fun of (see Dostana, Kal Ho Na Ho etc.), Bollywood has come a long way in last few years with movies realistically portraying gender and sexuality issues such as consent, domestic violence, unpaid care work and breaking gender stereotypes. It is difficult to say what prompted these new filmmakers to choose these subjects, but their popularity is partly due to the fact that young Indians, who make up majority of the cinema viewers, are questioning age-old beliefs and morality. The moral compass of Generation Y and Z is less focused on sexual orientation and places greater emphasis on honesty and transparency in relationships and can recognize the negative consequences of instilling traditional gender norms and sexualities upon individuals and new generations. These films have started conversations on subjects that have previously, and still in some cases, been considered taboo. The movies I have discussed are not niche films seen by elite and/or intellectual audience only, rather they are mainstream in the sense of their popularity and therefore will have wider positive impact on Indian society by challenging age-old beliefs on sexuality and changing everyday norms. The fact that these radical ideas are being promoted by idolized actors and ‘film stars’ who are highly respected and have such widespread influence, is both a reflection of societal change and a driving force for more positive societal change.
This is one of a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2021-2022 Autumn Term.
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