By Sohini Kumar
Imagine a woman traveling alone when a stranger approaches her on the street. Insisting on having lunch with her, he starts making suggestive comments during the meal. The woman clearly expresses her disinterest in him and leaves. But she keeps running into the man after that. Even when she leaves the country, he follows her, appearing at her workplace and her hotel. And yet, this story doesn’t end in a restraining order for stalking. It ends in love — or rather, the combination of a man’s coercion and a woman’s submission that Bollywood presents as love. An Evening in Paris is one of countless Bollywood movies that present the same tropes.
The Misogynistic Hero
Shah Rukh Khan is famous for transitioning from antihero to the king of romance. One of his early roles was in Darr: A Violent Love Story. It’s telling that the word ‘love’ is attached to a story featuring obsession, stalking, harassment and forced marriage. Love has nothing to do with it, but the antagonist’s criminal behavior is framed as such by the filmmakers.
Even worse, Shah Rukh Khan’s later characters commit many of the same actions, but instead of getting their comeuppance like Darr’s Rahul does, they are lauded as heroes. In Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Raj forces himself into Simran’s personal space and touches her without consent. By the end of the film, Simran is running into his arms in an emotional reunion. There are no consequences for his actions.
The Compliant Heroine
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that women are underrepresented in Indian cinema, and when they do appear, they often portray gender stereotypes. Indeed, an analysis of Wikipedia movie pages containing information on 4,000 films found that male characters tend to be more central to the plot and have higher-level occupations compared to their female counterparts.
When the hero chases the heroine, she initially responds with distaste. But somewhere during the pursuit, a switch flips. Suddenly she falls for the same narrative the audience is being fed: that mistreating women not only acceptable, but commendable. In this way, Bollywood leverages the very figure it disparages, using her as a mouthpiece to give the impression that women are happy to tolerate sexist ideals.
The ‘Romantic’ Songs
The songs accompanying such narratives reinforce misogynistic sentiments. ‘Ruk Ja O Dil Deewane’ from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge professes, “Is she a fragrance or some intoxication? If she comes a little closer, I’ll touch her and see.” In ‘Dil Karta Hai’ from Andaz Apna Apna, Amir Khan’s character follows and throws himself on the distressed female lead, singing, “Look my beloved, don’t show so many tantrums, your body will pain if you’re so stubborn.”
Perhaps an anthem for the typical Bollywood hero is the song ‘Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai’ from Phata Poster Nikhla Hero, whichinsists, “Don’t stop me for no reason, don’t taunt me if I follow you. I have a right on you and you’re my delight. Don’t be surprised if I block your path.” These attitudes are inevitably rewarded with the heroine giving in to the supposed happy ending.
The Item Song
Item songs are another form of misogyny that exists for no other purpose than objectifying women’s bodies while also profiting off the actresses’ names in sales. In their modern form, item songs hyper-sexualize women and present them as objects to covet, likening them to anything from flowers to pieces of meat.
Some argue that item songs are a tool to re-appropriate the male gaze by depicting women who can be looked at but never obtained. But one can also argue that the majority of filmgoers are unlikely to search for layers of meaning when they look at ‘item girls’. They’ll see what’s presented at the surface level: an object for their satisfaction. This becomes more troubling in the context of India’s conservative attitude to sex education and the potential for misogynistic films to become a substitute for formal teaching.
Onscreen to Off-screen
Misogyny in society finds its basis in complex interlinkages of social, economic, and cultural factors. The amount of influence films may have in making or breaking norms is a subject of debate.
Those working for women’s rights are troubled about the potential effect of misogynistic narratives. Breakthrough, an NGO working to end discrimination and violence against women and girls, started a petition in 2020 asking the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Central Board of Film Certification to add disclaimers to scenes depicting gender-based violence. Deepali Desai at the organization points out, “[M]any are even unable to identify acts of gendered violence. The disclaimer in the middle is then handy in films where violence has been packaged as romance, comedy or as a self-righteous path for the ‘hero’ to walk down.”
In contrast, director Kunal Kohli told DW, “Films do not really influence real life, even if they are based on real life.” This argument suggests that misogyny onscreen is inspired by real life but doesn’t feed back into society. While the exact degree of influence might be debated, it’s undeniable that society and cinema feed into each other. In a survey conducted by Oxfam India, for example, 95% of young girls responding said that men and boys used item songs for sexual harassment, playing or singing them at girls on the street.
Film critic Sandipan Sharma asks, “Did India see a revival in Gandhian ideals after Richard Attenborough immortalized the Mahatma with a beautifully inspiring film? No, because, three hours of cinema can’t change a lifetime of learnings.” In a defense of Kabir Singh — which features problematic behaviors, from harassment to abuse to sexual violence, yet was one of the highest grossing films of 2019 — Sharma insists on filmmakers’ right to “explore the mind of a flawed person.” This stance not only disregards the difference between depiction and glorification, it also ignores the volume of ‘romantic’ movies churned out by Bollywood each year — whichamounts to more than just a few hours of exposure.
Such exposure is bound to have some kind of impact. While we might not be able to say that Bollywood creates misogyny, it’s clear that it does glorify, normalize, and profit from it. Women are treated like objects to be coveted and conquered, while the offender gets away as a benevolent hero. Narratives like this minimize the importance of consent and a woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy, trivializing the dangers women face from a misogynistic society.
The industry absolves itself from responsibility by dismissing movies like Kabir Singh as mere reflections of society. But the success of movies like these presents an opportunity to ask: what does this say about fans who celebrate criminals as heroes? About filmmakers who insist on continually selling violence as love? About a society that accepts and upholds standards that deprive half the population of freedom, humanity and respect?
Sohini Kumar is a writer and editor with a background in English literature. She’s interested in exploring the cross-sections between stories, identity and culture. In her free time, she writes her own stories she hopes to publish. She also collects books, photographs them, blogs about them, and occasionally reads them.