Blame it on Babli, Munni and Chameli?
The Delhi gang rape has given rise to a spirited debate about Bollywood's portrayal of women especially in item numbers
Aurat ne janam diya mardo ko, mardo ne use bazar diya
Jab jee chaha masla kuchla, jab jee chaha dutkar diya
Jin hotho ne inko pyaar kiya, unn hotho kaa vyopaar kiya
Jis kokh me inaka jism dhala, uss kokh kaa karobaar kiya
Jis tan se ugey kapal bankar, uss tan ko zalil-o-khaar kiya
Aurat ne janam diya mardo ko.....
… sang Lata Mangeshkar for B R Chopra’s Sadhna (1958)
Bichhu mere naina, badi zehereeli aankh maare
Kamsin kamariya saali ik thumke se lakh maare
Note hazaaro'n ke, khulla chhutta karaane aayi
Husn ki teelli se beedi-chillam jalaane aayi
Chikni chameli chupke akeli
Pauva chadhake aayi re
… sang Shreya Ghoshal for Agneepath (2012)
There was a time when only the bad girl sang the bad song. Padma Khanna in Johnny Mera Naam (1971) could go that extra mile with Husn ke laakhon rang kaun sa rang dekhoge/ Aag hai yeh badan kaun sa ang dekhoge. It was the first acknowledged orgasmic number of Hindi cinema where post-pubescent youngsters got a free hand at eroticism.
The male gaze has been falling on women on the streets of Indian cities and villages ever since Adam spotted Eve in a crowded village mela, as she cavorted sexily with her sahelis in a skimpy ghagra-choli. The objectification of the female form began with the vamp’s voluptuous frame in the 1970s. The story of the male gaze in Hindi cinema, however, has gone horribly wrong in recent times. The gyrations of the average Hindi film heroine now threaten to shake up Parliament. One hears that the Censor Board Of Film Certification (CBFC) plans radical changes in the way women are perceived, especially in item songs.
Crass and debasing
Shabana Azmi, who has long since been vocal about the way in which women are portrayed in cinema, feels radical changes are needed in the portrayal of the female form in item songs. Says the activist-actress, “Today’s so-called ‘item numbers’ are downright crass. I am not talking about moral policing here. Cinema is about images. Fragmented images of a woman’s heaving bosom, swivelling navel and swinging hips rob her of all autonomy and make her an object of male lust. Voyeuristic camera angles and vulgar lyrics do not celebrate a woman’s sensuality, they demean her. When women are commodified and objectified in films and advertisements, they do not get empowered; they debase themselves and counter the work that the women’s movement has been doing over the decades in creating positive images of women. It’s time our heroines exercised some discretion in choices that they make in their desire for the hit item-number.” However, Shabana warns against tarnishing all specially constructed song-'n'-dance numbers, with the same brush. “There are item numbers and item numbers and we must learn to differentiate between them. We can’t make sweeping generalisations that all item numbers are bad. Celebrating a woman’s sexuality in a robust way such as Beedi jalaye le jigar se piya (rooted in our folk tradition) in the film Omkara is liberating and has the woman in control.”
Objects of desire
Actress-filmmaker Soni Razdan feels our films definitely play a part in the commodification of women in our society. “Women as objects of desire have been around for decades from Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe to Meena Kumari to Rekha. The celebration of sexuality is a natural impulse. To ban or suppress it would have even more damaging consequences. What is required is a more liberal attitude, better sex education, and less secrecy around the topic of sex. Sex is an essential part of life. The less hypocrisy surrounding this the more open and mature our society will eventually become.”
Ila Bedi, granddaughter of the legendary litterateur Rajinder Singh Bedi and daughter of the prolific 1970s’ director Narender Bedi (of Rafoo Chakkar and Jawani Diwani fame) feels item songs are a definite provocation. “Chikni chameli, Sheila ki jawani and Ooh la la are aimed at providing cheap thrills. Gone are the days when heroines were described as chaudhvi ka chand and shabnam ka katra. They call themselves tandoori chicken, fish fry and other edibles, so why should men respect them? With their raunchy pelvic thrusts, item songs definitely commodify women.”
Lack of dignity
Internationally renowned actress Tannishtha Chatterjee feels that the crisis of feminine commodification has gone from bad to worse in recent years. “Bollywood doesn’t treat women with dignity. Having said that, I insist no moral policing should happen. But we as artistes should not carry on with the heaving and thrusting as things that audiences want.” Filmmaker Reema Kagti who lately portrayed Rani Mukherjee and Kareena Kapoor as strong assertive women in Talaash, admits our films commodify women. “Songs definitely do their fair share of that, but to me, the overall misrepresentation of women in our films is a bigger problem. Writers and directors need to get more sensitive. They need to understand women better before portraying them.”
Tanuja Chandra, whose film Dushman starring Kajol deals with rape, feels cinema must take the blame for the way the country looks at women. “Art cannot really change society, but it plays a role in forming opinions, attitudes and perceptions. Even if films are just a reflection of society, they must question the prevalent perceptions in society. Entertainment can’t function in a vacuum.”
Don’t blame us
However, lyricist Prasoon Joshi feels it’s simplistic to blame Hindi films and songs for women in society being treated as sex objects. “I wouldn’t blame film songs. Yes, there are some songs and scenes where restraint could have been exercised. It all depends on the intention of the director and the choreographer. If the intent of the filmmaker/writer isn’t titillation but a certain portrayal of the character’s motivation, then it cannot be considered wrong.” Added Divya Dutta, “I basically blame repressed societal mindsets for looking at women in a particular way. The lyrics in popular item numbers are a big turn-on. Ideally, they could be toned down to bring down the suggestive element. But even if item songs are titillating, we must not forget they are sheer entertainment and they should be treated as such. I certainly don’t think our item songs provoke people to commit ghastly crimes against women.”
What about men?
However, Kabir Bedi feels women’s sex appeal has always been a staple diet for films, fashion, television and advertising. “Why point fingers now?” he asks, adding that men too are commodified. “Handsome hunks are taking off their shirts all the time. Bollywood has its own style of entertainment. It needs to do some rethinking on the question of molestation, or else in this climate of censure the CBFC may soon demand disclaimers saying, ‘Everything You See Is Entertainment. Do Not Imitate In Real Life.’”
Kabir’s daughter Pooja Bedi agrees. “Men are commodified as much as women. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either sex or being sexy and desirable! When a woman is in charge of her sexuality, it is a sign of a woman’s strength, not her weakness. However the message to all men is, look but don’t touch.” She believes the commodification of women goes way beyond cinema. “It starts with the education and upbringing of a male child in his home where he’s taught how to treat women. He watches how his mother and sister are treated. Don’t blame films. They are mere entertainment. And the men are flaunting their bodies more than women do in our films.”
Filmmaker and industry spokesperson Ashok Pandit objects to the word commodification. “Let’s stop using that word. If a heroine exposes her body, so does the hero in this era of six-packs. Film stars are in the business of physical beauty and entertainment. We showcase it. We don’t sell it. If a working woman wears makeup to office it doesn’t mean she is commodifying herself for the men at her workplace. The same goes for actresses. They have to look good. Whether an actor or an actress, it is the era of commodification, if that’s what you want to call it,” he says. Tamil actress Khushboo who has been in the eye of moralistic storms several times says cinema shouldn’t be blamed for the objectification of women. “We need some medium to pass on our failures and shortcomings. Why blame cinema? It is a medium of entertainment. Even smoking causes cancer. How many have stopped smoking because of the health hazard?”
Yet, it cannot be denied that some radical changes would have to be implemented in our cinema’s approach to and perception of woman. As Naseeruddin Shah states bluntly, “I’m afraid our population has become desensitized to rape because of cinema. In our movies it is an act that is either foiled or avenged by the hero. So I don’t think people have a realistic view of this ghastly crime. For the first time the gruesome details of what transpired during the actual act of rape came out in the public domain. I think that caused the public outrage. And that’s good. I just hope this outrage is sustained and doesn’t become one more token protest.”