Can Placard Activism Better The Status Of Women?

by Malini Awasthi - Apr 18, 2018 10:52 AM +05:30 IST
Can Placard Activism Better The Status Of Women?Hindi cinema actors who participated in placard activism in the aftermath of the Kathua rape case
  • The placard activism of Bollywood around Kathua rape case is not driven by principles, but by convenience.

The sordid affair of the alleged brutal rape and murder of an 8-year-old-girl in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), has once again brought the media’s attention towards crimes against women. Going by the chargesheet filed by the Crime Branch of J&K Police, the savagery of the act against a little girl is indescribably shocking. The sense of discomfort seeps in at the realisation that the transgression occurred in a society we live in.

In the Kathua rape case, we have seen big Bollywood names entering the fray holding placards, calling for justice. Their plea for justice, however, seemed to be more directed towards associating the ghastly crime with a particular religion. In the plea, ‘Hindu’-stan and ‘Devi’-sthan are emphasised for obvious reasons. However, many from the same fraternity are first in line to appeal for revoking any references to any religion when terrorist attacks occur. Curiously, for this campaign, they have all also used the name Hindustan and not India or Bharat. This could also not have been an innocent coincidence.

As the elite of the nation, they could have played a role in furthering serious self-reflection. However, obvious political compulsions took precedence. Even in this, there is complete lack of self-awareness. Change is sought from every other domain, while Bollywood, a huge influence on culture, continues to perpetuate women’s objectification. Placard activism rules on the one hand, even as racy lyrics call for women to be treated as a “tandoori moorgi” (tandoori chicken) to be swallowed with alcohol or when women are compared to a “vegetable” to be distributed among all.

In the 1990s, Indian cinema was replete with voyeuristic images of rape and subjugation of women, portraying them as weak and docile, always in need of a saviour. Now, the substance has not changed but form has. The “item number” phenomenon has become the norm to ensure overflowing cash registers at the cost of showcasing women as sex objects, meant to be ogled at and stalked.

Within the film industry, the talk of sexual exploitation has been rampant. Yet, the abuse goes unreported, unchallenged and unabated. When Hollywood was going through a phase of deep churning, many big names from the industry came out in the open with their horrific stories of sexual abuse at the hands of high and mighty of the movie world. A lot of us were hoping for a similar churning to take place within the Indian film industry.

Despite talk of sexual harassment by several big names, nobody really came out holding placards asking for reforms within the industry itself. The recent case of a Telugu actress stripping to get her voice heard against sexual exploitation has exposed the extent of normalisation of sexual misconduct prevalent in the movie business. Yet, not a single industry member came out in her support against the ban Movie Artistes’ Association (MAA) imposed on her. The ban was lifted only after intervention of the National Human Rights Commission and not placard-holding movie stars.

Closer home, one of Bollywood’s own firebrand actors and a part of placard holders had opened up about taking forward the #MeToo campaign, inspired from Hollywood, in the Indian movie industry. She had said:

I don’t see that happening immediately given the culture of naming and shaming in our country. But when it happens, as it is happening in Hollywood right now, the entire power structure will change. People, who you see making feminist films and claiming to be progressive etc, they will all come tumbling down.
We will lose a lot of heroes and several people will lose their lives’ work, their legacies. I think that’s what people will attack - they can’t attack them monetarily so they will go after the legacies.

However, she refused to name and shame anyone, since she feared for her job security. She told in an interview:

If you give me pension for life, take care of my safety, my family, ensure I’ll continue to get work in films and TV or whatever I want to do, my career will grow unabated as it is right now after I name and shame somebody, sure I will. Not just me, million others will do that. But who will do it?

Clearly, when her job is at stake, the actor has chosen to give precedence to her career over victims of sexual abuse. But she has come out with the placard since there is no repercussion but only glory to be derived from it. So, it is not a matter of principle but one of convenience. They, who cannot even name known sexual harassers in their own profession find it easy to point fingers at a whole religion. At this point, it would also be pertinent to note that none of her colleagues who are part of the placard activism, or any Bollywood bigwig, has come out in support of the said actor, encouraging her to come out with the names of sexual exploiters in the industry.

No doubt, for many, the act of protest in Kathua rape cases seems disingenuous and motivated, when the same actors from the movie industry have no qualms in posting pictures of support of a known girlfriend-beater or dancing to item songs that debars women from any agency and leaves them at the mercy of men’s desire.

By inflaming passions and raising a communal pitch, the protests have taken a political turn. The fact that the Kathua case has not moved in the realm of judgement from the realm of investigation is important. The accused have already been ‘pronounced guilty’ and an entire religion has been besmirched based on a chargesheet. In the end, it is not even the community but justice itself that is bound to suffer.

Blaming the system, politicians and even a religion, may seem an easy solution but it will hardly translate into change at the ground. Unless, we strive for change within our homes, neighbourhood, communities and workspaces, the situation will not improve. Bollywood can start by looking within. The movie industry, too, is an integral component of the society. It gives as much as it receives. Therefore, it cannot shrug off its responsibility by marching or tweeting as an act of moral redemption. It has to address the ingrained misogyny and objectification of women in the film industry, which is deeply reflected in the art produced for mass consumption.

Malini Awasthi is a Professor in Indology at the Benares Hindu University (BHU) and an internationally acclaimed folk singer. She is also a Padma Shree awardee.

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