The heinous Delhi gang rape case of 2012 had outraged public sensibility, and since then the position of women in the Indian society and culture has been critically questioned. The image construction of women in song lyrics and ‘item numbers’ has come public scanner and strongly condemned for objectifying women. I believe that there has definitely been a rise in awareness when it comes to issues related to women, and a positive change has been set in motion. However, the prime- time television shows and movies that I have recently seen has prompted me to label their subject matter as ‘regressive’.
On Zee T.V. there is a popular show called ‘Kumkum Bhagya’ where the female lead Pragya is an educated middle class girl and is a college professor. Yet, when she is repeatedly insulted by her sister- in- law, her husband and her husband’s girlfriend, she hardly raises a voice. Some episodes have shown her verbally retaliating to her rival’s jibes, however, what she does in her occasional outbursts is to propound the sanctity of marriage, vermilion mark (‘sindoor’) and ‘mangal sutra’. When she is called a characterless slut – due to a treacherous MMS – all she cares about is her husband’s reputation which would suffer if the MMS is leaked. What’s more! the husband is proudly engaged in an extramarital affair, yet demands loyalty from his wife. The silly plot of this show can easily exasperate any intelligent viewer.
Another popular show is on Channel V, ‘Sadda Haq’, which garnered a lot of attention due to its claim of introducing a revolutionary female protagonist. However, I am not sure of the extent to which a middle class girl and her family can actually relate to the plot. The girl studies mechanical engineering in a prestigious college and scores good marks, yet the parents – a well- to- do middle class family – treat her as a burden and plan to marry her off as soon as possible. The guy that they have selected for her is also irascible. She is forced to wear ‘salwar kameez ‘ and learn household tasks. Also, the Dean of the college, a woman, is physically abused and beaten by her husband. Some may opine that this show successfully exposes the deeply entrenched sexism in our society, but what all of these shows actually do is to strengthen the already prevalent stereotypes.
Most of the T.V. serial viewers are middle class, and in how many middle class families do we see parents of a bright girl child forcing her to marry at an early age and hamper her career? In the present situation, despite the gender discrimination, there are numerous small- town girls staying away from their homes and availing expensive higher education. The female characters that these shows present are basically of two types – one is the angel in the house ( who is actually a doormat); and the other is the vamp or the femme fatale with loose morals and slippery character. Neither of these roles are liberating. The female protagonist is shown as struggling to overcome difficulties – and the viewers are expected to applaud her efforts – but what she usually tries to establish is – one, that she is a sacrificial lamb for her family ; and two, that she is as sexually innocent and mentally pure as pre- pubic girls are. What kind of educated girls do these shows present when they cannot stand up in the face of insult, character assassination and physical abuse? The vamps are equally one – dimensional. Their fiery spirit is used only to create nuisance.
The Bollywood movies also cannot boast of being progressive when it comes to the presentation of female characters. Leaving aside the notorious ‘item numbers’, the mainstream commercial cinema presents women as mere eye – candies, with only a minor relevance to the actual plot. The Salman Khan- movies can be a case study in chauvinism. From the DABANG series to JAI HO to the more recent KICK, the films promote a macho culture where women are on the periphery. The heroine is only the love interest of the hero, and it is him on whom the complexity of the plot is based. He appoints himself as the protector of his lady love which justifies his stalking, groping and pestering her. Kangana Ranaut says an interview with Anupama Chopra, ” We have to earn our bread and butter out of this business. Sometimes, you just have those limited options and as somebody who is self – dependent, I don’t have any other job, so you have to keep working.” Maybe this is the reason why well – established actresses like Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra did films like DHOOM 3, HAPPY NEW YEAR and GUNDAY where they had insignificant roles. Rani Mukherjee’s MARDAANI made a commendable effort in showcasing women power, but the title indicates that the streak of toughness and roughness is fundamentally a masculine characteristic, and the woman exhibiting it comes close to being masculine.
Inspite of claiming to be progressive in its approach, most of the present day movies and television shows, consciously or unconsciously, shape women in the same age old moulds. That freshness of perception and independence of spirit is not usually made available to the viewers. However, movies like QUEEN, HEROINE and ENGLISH VINGLISH have presented a different perspective, and we hope to see more of these kind of films.