Sexism in 3 of Bollywood’s Most Popular Films

This article was originally posted on for their “Women and Gender in Foreign Films” theme week.

It is no secret that India has problems when it comes to the status of women. Everyone heard about the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012; it was broadcast in America so much that some people didn’t even know about the events in Steubenville, but knew all about India. There is a common perception in America these days that women in India are seen as “sub-human” by all of Indian culture, and this is entirely false. However, it is true that I do not feel safe being a woman and walking down the streets of India alone, and this is a problem.

I adore Bollywood; it allows me to watch an entire generation evolve on the silver screen, no matter what country I’m currently living in. I even love the fact that some Bollywood love stories are more romantic than the sappiest fairytales. However, some of these love stories come with the price of reinforcing terrible patriarchal standards – and any story that makes sexual harassment appear commonplace and “okay” isn’t romantic, no matter how charismatic the leading man is.

Which Bollywood films become hits and which become flops can be indicative of which values Indian society places the most importance on. Perhaps if the right films are successful, the next time I go to India I’ll feel safe walking down the street alone – maybe even at night. Safety for women doesn’t have to be some elusive fantasy, and Bollywood can help us create this change.

Terrible Films That Everyone Loves

There are a lot of films in India which have been wildly successful, but which have also been detrimental for the feminist agenda in India. All of the films that follow are in this category. These three films together encompass all three major Bollywood stars and are on the must-watch list for anyone interested in Bollywood. I am also convinced that every single one of these films has played a role in shaping the way Indian society thinks, making it more difficult for women to live safely and comfortably in India.

Shahrukh Khan and Kajol star in DDLJ

Shahrukh Khan and Kajol star in DDLJ

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, 1995 

To give you an idea of just how wildly successful DDLJ is: it has been running in some theaters for 900 weeks straight as of January 11, 2013. People love this film. Shah Rukh Khan plays Raj, a charming douchebag; Kajol plays opposite him as Simran and is stunning and loveable as usual. It is one of the first films to address the problems that affect NRI’s (Indians living outside of India), as well as the conflict of “tradition vs modernity” faced by Indians in the 1990s as everyone tried to reconcile their family’s values and traditions with the growing influence of Western culture – and it does an amazing job portraying each.

What it also does, though, is help to solidify a patriarchal standard. This film tells people, through the love story of Raj and Simran, that with enough persistence, harassment, and stalking, a man can convince any girl to fall in love with him. A girl is a prize to be won, and sexual harassment is the way to win her. Not only that, but the ultimate way to show respect for a woman is by refusing to marry her until her father literally hands her over to you – solidifying the female’s complete lack of choice in the scenario.

(Spoilers follow the images)

How Simran feels about Raj before intermission

How Simran feels about Raj before intermission

How Simran feels about Raj after intermission

How Simran feels about Raj after intermission

Raj spends the entire first half of the film harassing Simran non-stop throughout Europe. They are trapped together in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but Simran remains wonderfully strong. Soon, however, Raj professes his love for Simran – and she, apparently suffering from some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, returns his love.

However, Simran and Raj can’t be together; Simran has already promised to follow through with a marriage her parents have arranged for her back in India. Raj follows Simran to India, but they can’t just run off together. Simran has been won and is willing to leave her family behind forever to spend her life with Raj, but unfortunately for her Raj still has another challenge to complete before he can run off with his prize. Simran is still owned by her father, and Raj is too decent to steal an object from another man. He has to convince Simran’s father to give her to him, and so commences the second half of the film.

Of course it turns out well for the couple, as after and hour and a half of convincing and fifteen minutes of dramatic tension, Simran’s father literally allows her leave his hands and run into Raj’s.

Every single line used by Raj in his harassment of Simran over the course of this film has also been used on me in India. By Raj succeeding in marrying Simran, her discomfort at his harassment is transformed into simply a girl playing “hard to get”. DDLJ has helped shape my coarse response to similar harassment into nothing more than encouragement for men to try harder.

Aamir Khan stars in Lagaan

Aamir Khan stars in Lagaan

Lagaan, 2006 

Lagaan is only the third film out of India to be nominated for an Oscar. It didn’t win, but it put India on the map for the first time since the 1980’s as a place where legitimate films are made. It is set during the British Raj, where an insufferable British officer is abusing his power over the local villagers by imposing a land tax they can’t afford to pay. They end up placing a bet over a cricket match: If the villagers, with a strong-headed patriot named Bhuvan at the lead, can learn the game and defeat the British officers, they will not have to pay the tax. It is a very well-made film starring Aamir Khan, who is known in India for fighting for social change across the country.

There are a lot of good things about the film, and it deserves most of the positive attention it has garnered. However, there is a major problem with the film as well: there are only two female characters, and both of them serve the sole purpose of fawning over the male lead. Elizabeth Russell is a very kind British woman who sneaks out of her house to teach the villagers the game of cricket, despite the language barrier and opposition from her family. Essentially, the instant she meets Bhuvan, she forgets her greater purpose of helping the fight against injustice and falls head over heels for him. She even professes her love for him, but of course Bhuvan can’t speak English so doesn’t understand what she is saying. Elizabeth’s opposition is Gauri, a village girl who is also in love with Bhuvan, but who has never told him. She has, however, shown her love through making him rotis, as any good Indian wife should. (Spoiler alert ahead!) In the end, Bhuvan marries Gauri and Elizabeth moves back to England to be single for the rest of her life.

Elizabeth singing about how much she loves Bhuvan

Elizabeth singing about how much she loves Bhuvan

Gauri singing about how much she loves Bhuvan

Gauri singing about how much she loves Bhuvan

In a typical move of exoticizing the other, there is a common stereotype in India of white or “Westernized” women being sexual to the point that they have already given their consent for anything a man might want to do to them. We did the same to them by popularizing and exaggerating the kama sutra, so you can’t blame them too much – but by creating Elizabeth Russell, this stereotype is only being reinforced. White women clearly all come to India for the sole purpose of falling in lust with men they can’t even communicate with, but Indian women shouldn’t worry – men will always marry the proper Indian girl who makes delicious rotis in the end.

Salman Khan stars in Dabangg

Salman Khan stars in Dabangg

Dabangg, 2010 

I could have easily and accurately instead said “every movie starring Salman Khan in the past few years”, but Dabangg was the beginning of the movement. I was in India when Dabangg came out, and the excitement over Salman Khan’s comeback film was pervasive and insane.

This is a ridiculous film starring a man who epitomizes a certain standard of masculinity: Chulbul Pandey has bulging muscles, a propensity for fighting, and an ability to woo girls by harassing them until they fall in love with them (a la DDLJ). Chulbul Pandey’s signature dance move is the hip thrust, and he uses it every chance he can get. If Dabangg did anything right, it was play to Salman Khan’s strengths. This is a man who has gotten away with killing a man while driving drunk, and who has a restraining order placed against him by his ex-girlfriend whom he used to physically abuse. He was the first Bollywood star to really “bulk up”, which has helped him win over a few of the most lusted-after Bollywood starlets. Chulbul Pandey has testosterone flowing in every inch of his body, and Salman can play this character perfectly.

Mallika Sherawat dancing her item number in Dabangg

Malaika Arora dancing her item number in Dabangg

There are essentially two females in this movie: the one Chulbul woos by harassing her until she feels she has no choice but to marry him, and an item dancer – a girl whose sole purpose is to appear in one song wearing close to nothing while a bunch of drunk men (Chulbul included) fawn over her oozing female sexuality. Other Salman Khan films since, including the Dabangg sequel, haven’t been any better.

(For a well-written, feminist perspective on Dabangg 2, see Priya Joshi’s review for Digital Spy)

Is There a Bright Side?

For the most part, last year was a great year for Hindi films. February gave us Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, winning the feminist audience over with its ending, in which the central relationship is left to proceed on the girl’s terms. March gave us Kahaani, an amazingly well-made movie with a strong, central female character. In October, we were brought something amazing through English Vinglish: a female-directed film with a strong female lead, which beautifully addresses some of the issues middle-aged Indian women are facing both in India and abroad. Previously, the cut-off age for female leads in Bollywood has been around 30, so Sridevi’s starring role in this film in itself is an additional breakthrough on the feminist front. I haven’t watched anything promising yet in 2013, but given the success of more progressive films in 2012, we can remain optimistic. In Mera Naam Joker, there is a female character named Meena who pretends to be a man and carries a knife, which she pulls out at the tiniest threat to her safety – simply so she is able to live alone in Bombay. Even though this film is over 50 years old, I have spent a lot of time myself wondering if I could pull off what Meena did. The situation now isn’t much better, but it can be. We can control our own future as women in India, and Bollywood can help us – not just hold us back.

35 responses to “Sexism in 3 of Bollywood’s Most Popular Films

  1. That’s great! Thanks for reading, and I really appreciate the comment – since as I said in a different response, I really know embarrassingly little about Hollywood films. I actually didn’t realize the Alien series had a significant female character, and I will now check the series out for sure! And Bigelow is great 🙂

    I also really admire Deepa Mehta (looking forward to seeing what she did with Midnight’s Children) and what she’s done for women in Indian(ish) cinema. The only problem with art films such as Mehta’s is that they can’t ever be mainstream because they really only appeal to the intellectual-types; I like their message, but even I don’t even find them nearly as entertaining as I find the typical light-hearted more “Bollywood” flicks. What I really want to see is women making more mainstream films in Bollywood with strong female representation. That’s why I loved English Vinglish and Ek Main Aur Ek Tu: they used the already popular genre to show strong women, without crossing into the territory that wouldn’t appeal to the average cinema-goer in India. Aiyyaa was another 2012 film that was good about this, but it had so many other problems I can’t actually suggest it to other people, haha.

    • I agree with your sentiments that works such as Mehta’s tend to have somewhat limited impact because they are, by their very nature, appealing only to people of more “highbrow,” artistic interests, rather than mass appeal and the general population’s lowest common denominator. ‘Fire’s stance and narrative style limited a lot of the impact that it was trying to have.

      As for the Alien series, I cannot recommend them enough, especially for someone who has an appreciation for feminist overtones in narrative fiction. Sigourney Weaver is an absolute powerhouse in all four films (although I would personally stick with the fantastic first two, by Ridley Scott and James Cameron). Really, science-fiction doesn’t pander much more to feminism, sexuality analysis, and realistic female characters than in ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘Aliens’ (1986), and to a lesser extent, ‘Alien 3’ (1992).

      As for English Vinglish, Ek Main Aur Ek Tu, and Aiyyaa, I can’t speak to either their objective artistic quality nor their gender analysis, as I am unfamiliar with all of those films. Are they all Hindi/Bollywood films? I actually only recently got into Bollywood through my girlfriend, who is from Nepal. I’m still trying to expand my South Asian film vocabulary, haha…

      • yeah, those 3 are all relatively mainstream Bollywood films that came out last year! I recommend them, but mostly just for your general Hindi film knowledge – if you’re used to Mehta-type films I’m not sure how much you’ll actually like any of them, haha.

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  3. You are right that most Hindi movies essentially reflect the mores of society when it comes to treating women. Yet, there are a handful of movies churned out by Bollywood which portray women in stronger roles. ‘Arth’, ‘Sparsh’, ‘Mirch Masala’ and ‘Godmother’, to name just a few.

    • You are definitely right; however, I was focusing on mainstream movies that appeal to the masses. There are some mainstream gems as well! (like the few I mentioned at the end of this post) I just think the fact that 3 of the most popular Bollywood films of the last 30 years have perpetrated negative attitudes towards women says more about society than a handful of art films can.

      • I agree with you. Due to commercial considerations, ‘mainstream’ has to cater to all segments of the society. Also, movies, like literature, mirror life! I also share with you the optimism that more and more movies are now coming out with unconventional themes backed by strong scripts and excellent production values.

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  7. Sometimes we cannot see anything but how women is been harassed in film this is typical feminism n that why every women get bashed. sometimes we just need to think as part of society the film ddlj ur saying the guy was not harrassing her the concept was o shown there is that opposite attracts thats all where comes this harassing n all in movie lagan the setback is of early 20th century n that time the society was like that they were just showing that what we can do we cant repair what happen 150 years back

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