Sharada: Bollywood Promotes Rape Culture

Most Indian American kids I know grew up watching Bollywood movies. I have so many fond memories of my family going to the Indian video store every Sunday and picking out a VCR with my dad while my mom shopped around for Indian groceries. I’m pretty sure the VCRs were pirated, but no one really cared.

Bollywood movies made me feel more in touch with my Indian culture and community. The same movies we watched back home were famous when I would visit India. It was a way I could connect with my family in India - it seemed like the only thing we had in common. Everyone in India, from all paths and ways of life, watch Bollywood movies. It really brings people together.

In addition to bridging the gap with my Indian family, Bollywood also helped me learn my Mother Tongue™️. I picked up some Hindi from the Hindi movies I watched, and some Tamil from the Tamil movies I watched. I knew the songs and dances to most of the big hit movies, and would sing them with my other Indian-American friends.

Although Bollywood movies taught me about my language, culture, and dance,  it contorted the way I expected to be treated as an Indian woman. Yes, every Bollywood movie growing up was a sappy love story, but it also shaped my view on how women should be treated. In this post I’ll show how Bollywood movies, especially the older ones, promote rape culture.

I’m writing this as a mid 20s American-Indian woman who doesn’t really watch that many Bollywood movies anymore. I would love to hear your thoughts and counterpoints in the comments.

In many Bollywood movies (especially the older ones) Indian women are placed into four limiting tropes – the over emotional mother, the damsel in distress, an overly exposed item girl, and the ditzy girl who falls in love with a man who usually wins her heart through some sort of sexual harassment.

Bollywood is the largest film industry in the entire world. Much of South Asia, the Middle East and European nations, are heavily influenced by the movies that they see on the big screen. Like I mentioned before, Bollywood movies are watched by everyone - regardless of economic status, in urban and rural areas (69% of India’s total population). Bollywood is a billion dollar industry - and it’s a shame that women are portrayed so poorly in an industry that is so powerful.

Some interesting concepts that are vital to the understanding of my points are hegemonic masculinity and feminization as devalorization. Hegemonic masculinity is defined as practices that promote the dominant social position of men while promoting the subordinate social position of women. Hegemonic masculinity happens through moral persuasion and consent rather than brute force.

The next concept I’ll talk about is feminization as devalorization. This concept means that society privileges people, characteristics and traits that are masculinized and devalues those that are feminized. 

We see these concepts in the way Bollywood chooses to portray all male characters as very suave, strong, and multifaceted. You never see any feminine or queer male characters. This is an example of feminization as devalorization. When have you ever seen a feminine man in a fight scene? You don’t.

Women are either cooking and cleaning OR they are half naked, dancing happily in the middle of a group of thirsty men. These representations are social and reproductive. It is very one-dimensional.  

*PS: I could dig in deep about how Bollywood is extremely heteronormative and favors lighter skin but that’s a blog post for another time*. 

There is no better way for me to express my point, than by showing you examples. Please note that these examples are older, as I have not seen any recent Bollywood movies (I have heard it has gotten a little bit better).

Movie Title: Saagar (1985)

Description: This dance/song number starts off with the actor, Rishi Kapoor, forcefully trying to get the actress, Dimple Kapadia’s attention. He touches her while she is sleeping and although she tries to get away she is lured in by him. This entire video centers around Dimple trying to run away from Rishi, but eventually being seduced. At time 1:14, you can see Rishi undressing Dimple against her will, literally unclothing her while she is helpless and not able to do anything about it.

Importance: This video encapsulates so much of what is wrong with Indian media. This video perpetuates rape culture and represents women as easy and weak and men as strong and assertive. It affirms the idea that if a man tries hard, he will be able to get the woman he wants. The actor uses his hegemonic masculinity in order to get the woman he wants. Normalizing sexual assault is extremely dangerous and contributes to the high number of sexual assaults in India, most of them that are so normalized, they don’t go reported (only 5.8% of rapes are reported in India) . It also explains why street harassment and catcalling is extremely common for women in India. 

Movie Title: Dhoom (2004)

Description: Oh Dhoom. A classic. This video starts with Jai, the main character waking up and walking into the kitchen to find Sheena, in sexy, tight clothing doing house work (seriously?). The first thing you see is Sheena’s overly exposed body (not even her face). Also who does housework looking like that? Sheena can’t get a word in before Jai starts kissing and touching her body. She walks away but Jai follows her, even though she does not seem keen in engaging physically. She spends the entire video cleaning the house and trying to get away from Jai even though he keeps luring her in. He then starts spraying her with water, making her clothes transparent, while she starts prancing around. The end of the video shows the couple in bed together. 

Importance: This video portrays the main woman character, Sheena, as 1) someone who does all the housework, 2) a sex object that can be easily pursued into having sex if the man uses enough effort (hegemonic masculinity). The fact that the scene opens with the actress’s body and not even her face just goes to show that the woman’s body is valued more than anything else she can provide to the man. It is important to know that India is an extremely conservative country where women cannot bear much skin without getting harassed or groped. The fact that he is harassing her, and has his way at the end sends a horrible message to men. If they try hard enough, they can get what they want.

It is sad and frustrating that such a ginormous industry that influences so many people sets the standard and norm for how women should be treated. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on this in the comment section. Please send links of other videos that demonstrate this same theme, or show me counter examples.