Violence on women in Indian cinema

2013-11-28 00:00

WITH the 16 days of activism to promote non-violence against women under way across South Africa, a look at how Indian cinema has treated gender violence might be in order.

The centuries-old traditional Indian view that women are subservient to men and that their place is only in the home, coupled with women never complaining about abuse, has all but dissipated with the newest generation.

So, too, has Indian cinema changed in its approach to violence against women.

In previous decades, the abuse of women on screen, whether sexual, violent or emotional, was largely accepted as a reflection of the unspoken societal norms of the times.

But the emancipation of women, as reflected in the changing roles they have played in Indian films of the past decade or so, has seen just how much cinema influences society there.

The slapping around of women, and scenes involving suggested sexual violence, are now fewer and more tastefully done, and even then, are shown only when they are well-justified by the plot.

The emotional abuse of women at different levels, of course remains a central theme in most Indian films, but even these have been tempered somewhat.

In January, the worldwide outrage sparked by the gang rape and subsequent death of a young medical student in Delhi brought about a new consciousness in a nation where cinema is the second greatest passion after cricket — that is if we leave religion aside.

Suddenly, activists were blaming the influence that films and television have on the youth, particularly with the advent of international television channels that show “decadent movies”.

Sensitive to this view, film-makers have started taking such themes seriously and treating them with caution.

The macho man of Bollywood, whose abuse of the women in his life, albeit gentle, was taken for granted by audiences earlier, and actors willingly performed those roles. But now they are more sensitive about it, some even endorsing campaigns by activists.

An in-depth analysis of Hindi films of the early nineties found that men at that time saw submission by women as the norm, with this idea amplified by what they saw in films.

Another study found that nearly 70% of the perpetrators of on-screen violence were the “heroes”, further fuelling this view among men.

But in more recent years, women have begun taking an active role to change this view. This was most aptly reflected in the docu-drama Gulabi Gang.

The film shows how an elderly abused woman mobilised others from rural villages who initially accepted the situation reflected in Indian cinema, to rise up and tackle men who were abusing their contemporaries.

Donning pink saries (gulabi means pink), the elderly women, armed with long sticks, would ironically threaten to beat up men who were abusers, perhaps prompting reform because this would be the worst form of humiliation for a man.

Heroine-oriented films, such as the award-winning Kahaani in 2012, have also played a role in showing that women can run their own lives, without subjecting themselves to abuse for fear of stigmatisation by society.

Indian cinema is, indeed, changing the equation of the relationship between women, men and abuse.

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