by Tejaswi Subramanian
For an Indian woman in the spotlight, it seems near impossible to escape the male gaze. Female protagonists are often depicted as objects of desire: sexy, playful, coy, flirty, decidedly feminine. Many a time they are arm candy, or props to the narratives of men. The spectrum of female archetypes available for the women of the Indian film industry is painfully limited. Any exploration beyond this realm is deemed an ‘art film’ or the character is treated as an outlier, often a comic relief or the very obvious object of non-desire from the men—think Anjali in the first half of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Sanjana in the first half of Main Hoon Na. Obviously if the women were to remain relevant for the second half, they had to transform into something more ‘appealing’. Other times, she’s the muse, inspiring feelings of protection, admiration, and affection. These sentiments are then hurled at the muse, who is often shown to yield to it—think Ms. Chandini in Main Hoon Na or Tamizhselvi in Rajni-starrer Sivaji. At the end of the day, what women must want is to merge with the one man that they love. Else, there is the ‘ambitious’ woman who has all but buried her femininity. There is no two ways about it.
When the talent is this ‘disposable’ and objectified on screen, then one can only imagine how they are treated off-screen. The male gaze is an oversimplified lens that views the world from a hypermasculine, heteronormative point of view. Things are black or white, masculine or feminine, powerful or surrendering. It sees anything ‘feminine’ as something to be hounded, bludgeoned with projected emotions, possessed, guarded like chattel, and won over like an endgame. And when rejected, the ‘Red Pill’ mentality disses the feminine for being unable to give the ‘man’ unconditional love, something that ‘he’ is entitled to.
My usage of male pronouns here is not targeted at men in general, but the hypermasculine men who are portrayed and worshipped in Indian movies. On the other hand, only gamine women or sex sirens are the kind of women who usually receive the kind of fan following that actors do—a telling trend in itself. The estimation is that the audience is predominantly male, looking for reassurance about their traditional sense of masculinity in a rather emasculating world. The outcome is not emotional reflection or vulnerability, but a retreat to the dreamy world of Indian movies.
When actors are worshipped for their hypermasculine on-screen presence, their brand swells. Their life begins to imitate their art. It can blur lines. When their onscreen personas translate into off-screen wealth, they become revered in more ways than one. Their faults and shortcomings are covered up, as more and more stakeholders become financially invested in them. I see a similar issue in the Malayalam film industry where Janpriya Nayagan Dileep, had a beloved on-screen presence and a brand that was family-friendly since the days of Meesa Madhavan. Suddenly tarnished by allegations of extra-marital affair, he reportedly went after a noted actress and conspired for her to be sexually assaulted and intimidated. While the Association of Malayalm Movie Artists (AMMA) initially shunned him through suspension, his clout emerged a year later when he was inducted back into the union. When the victim and other women, who were also members of the AMMA protested and quit over the issue, the justification was that the decision was taken unanimously at a general body meeting where they were coincidentally absent. On the other hand, despite the charges against Dileep, even in the heat of the scandal mid-2017, the Kerala Film Exhibitors’ United Organization, a union that Dileep was instrumental in founding and establishing, insisted that he should be their President. When he reportedly refused due to the circumstances, the elected President openly stated that his role was temporary, and that it was just a vacancy he was filling until Dileep could return to business-as-usual.
It almost seems like an ostrich’s reaction to a hard situation. Dunk your head into a hole and pretend the world is as ignorant as you are.
Meanwhile in Bollywood, several artistes have alluded to the existence of the casting couch. In recent years, pictures have emerged from the 1950s where women were stripped and examined before they were cast in films. Even male artistes like Ranveer Singh and Irffan Khan (who was later accused of sexual abuse himself) have admitted that they were sexually propositioned when they were trying to find work in their early days in the industry.
The treatment that whistleblowers get in the Indian film industry reminds me of the infamous movie Jaani Dushman that was made the butt of jokes in Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath’s episode for their YouTube series, Pretentious Movie Reviews.
In the movie, the perpetrators try to rape a woman, and instead of criminal action, they are sent to ask the woman for forgiveness. The woman, portrayed by Manisha Koirala, is then peer-pressured into forgiving them. What is noteworthy is the cast that plays these roles: big industry names like Sonu Nigam, Akshay Kumar, Sunil Shetty. Since the movie’s plot is not worth protecting, here’s how things turn out: Koirala’s character gets revenge by turning into a naagin, because that’s how absurd things have to get before the crime is recognised for what it really is, instead of seeing it like some petulant child’s honest mistake.
Asking for forgiveness and complimenting the woman’s good looks after trying to take sexual advantage of her seems to be the socially accepted way of atoning such mistakes. Or at least, that’s what Saroj Khan seemed to suggest when she made the comment about how the industry does not ‘abandon’ you after subjecting you to the casting couch. While the men may get hypermasculine roles or they are made the stars of the narrative, it is rare that the women get such meaty roles or paychecks. So breadcrumbs and peanuts are to suffice as the solace one gets after enduring such trauma.
With movies like Lust Stories, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and Angry Indian Goddesses, women’s stories about sexuality are being explored in recent times in the Hindi film industry. Friends tell me that some of the shows in Tamil created for online subscription services like Amazon Prime are embracing a wider narrative as well. However, sexuality is hardly the only premise from which a woman’s perspective matters. Parenting, adventure, politics, existentialism, psychological angst – there are so many more emotions that women feel that have near-to-nothing to do with men. Stereotypes need to be broken on-screen for shackles to be broken off-screen.
When asked about the importance of the representation of women on-screen, Meghna Chaudhury who is a learning experience designer, and is the founder of The Irrelevant Project, said: “in a survey with children about whether women be race car drivers, 80 percent of the children said no. Their reasons were as simple as “women are not strong enough”. However, there was one child who had seen Herbie: Fully Loaded (with Lindsay Lohan), the movie and was vehemently against this common opinion. While this is a small instance, it is important to note the influence of cinema’s representation of women on children.”
Tejaswi Subramanian is a senior copy editor at Qrius.