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Lights, camera, sexism — the glorification of abuse in Bollywood films

The tragic story of Bollywood is playing out in front of a population that’s redefining what love is
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ANUSHKA SAINI/THE VARSITY
ANUSHKA SAINI/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses sexual harrassment, sexual violence, and rape.

The link between Bollywood and love stories has shaped the very definition of love for the vast population of India. To film viewers, love is no longer a meaningless noun the way it was back in fourth grade English — instead, it is visible and can be measured by characters’ actions.

The criminality of Bollywood love

In its utmost Bollywood glory, love is when you run halfway around the world through rain, sleet, and snow for a final chance at winning over the person of your dreams. It’s also when you stalk a girl without a care in the world to get her to notice you; it’s when you slap someone in a fit of rage and harass them constantly. Somewhere in those scenes, I crossed a line, didn’t I? 

That line, however, is rather nonexistent in a majority of Bollywood love stories, which sometimes portray messed-up actions under the garb of undying love. Problematic actions like stalking and abuse are not only portrayed but also glorified by the characters in such films. Additionally, most actors who portray these characters have a positive reputation with their fans. This is problematic, given George Gerbner’s advancement of ‘cultivation theory,’ which suggests that actors’ on-screen actions mould the moral values of their fans.

This alarming situation is reminiscent of the concern among parents that rappers promoting guns and drugs would lead to their children being attracted to drug use and criminal activities. However, in India, instead of guns, the weapon being glamourized is sexual harassment, an offence which is being acted out by bona fide film stars. This promotes a largely dramatized definition of love, which is adopted by a majority of the population; a definition that often dips into criminal territory. 

Bollywood films constantly depict different forms of harassment as exhibitions of innocent love by the protagonist. The unfortunate result is a population of men — who are devoid of formal sexual education, given that the first sexual education program in Indian schools was only introduced in 2018 — who consider this problematic behaviour as a proven path to win a woman’s affection.

Another troubling part of these movies is their tendency to portray a woman as an object that male protagonists work to obtain. Through actions such as stalking and harassment, women characters are painted through the thick brushstrokes of the male gaze as people who will inevitably give in to men’s advances. 

The magnitude of the gesture of love displayed by the protagonist is directly proportional to the probability that a girl will accept his advances. Such depictions make a mockery of the concept of consent.

Upholding cultural taboos       

At times, Bollywood movies play a significant role in encouraging cultural taboos. One Bollywood-fuelled taboo that clutches the population by the throat is the idea of shaming citizens — especially women — for participating in premarital sex. Famous films have promoted the idea that women are obligated to retain their ‘purity’ for the man that they marry. Failure to do so is depicted as an undeniable lack of character. 

This belief has been amplified to the extent that an unhealthy number of Indian men actively think that they have an inherent right to constant sexual intercourse after marriage — as if it were a clause in their wedding vows. In January, I read of a series of tweets wherein Indian men were advocating for the boycott of marriages after a Public Interest Litigation filed in the Supreme Court of India demanded a criminalization of marital rape. Yes, you read that right — under its current constitution, marital rape isn’t a criminal offence in India.

The callousness of the executive bodies in cracking down against these incidents sheds light on the fact that films alone cannot be blamed. There is an urgent need to go one step further and reform the organizations that are responsible for allowing the release of films that glorify such primitive ideologies. 

The Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has an infamous history of removing scenes involving sexual intercourse and graphic language from movies — according to their actions, these audio-visuals are not considered fit for the Indian audience. It is then important to question why casual sexism, stalking, harassment, and abuse aren’t categorized under the same realm and removed. In a nation where almost 80 per cent of women have faced some form of public harassment, it would benefit the country a lot more if the CBFC would confront the scenes mentioned above with a similar rigour. 

What’s next in Bollywood cinema?

In the new wave of Bollywood cinema, there are a number of up-and-coming filmmakers who are driven to tell honest stories that break barriers instead of ones that reinforce them. In the past two years, they’ve produced movies that have addressed issues including domestic violence, marital rape, and harassment. 

To some extent, films of this nature have always existed. The problem is not that Bollywood fails to make films that positively change how people think — it’s that, even now, many Bollywood films rely on cheap humour, blatant objectification, and disturbing love stories to generate views. This problem is fuelled by the fact that the audience count for the latter type of cinema far surpasses the former. 

If one day, Bollywood filmmakers were to renounce such devices in the depiction of love, it’s clear that a large number of filmgoers would fall in love with Bollywood all over again. But until then, the tragic love story of Bollywood and romance movies continues — in front of a population that is slowly redefining what love is.