While many remarkable women-centric Indian films have been made over the years, in general we have not moved very far from the millennia-old constructs created by our patriarchal society.
“A female child may prove an even better offspring than a male one. For she may grow up wise and virtuous. She will honour her mother-in-law and be faithful to her husband (patibrata). The boy she may bear may do good deeds.” — Buddha consoling Prasenjit on the birth of a daughter in the Samyutta Nikaya.
While The Indian Constitution grants equal rights to women, and India has some of the most progressive laws in the world, gender inequality shows up visibly in many ways. The skewed sex ratio in population indicates 70 million missing women; 2 million fewer girls are born every year, killed in the womb.
A major cause for this is the prevalence of a pernicious dowry system (though illegal), especially in the North and West of India, where many years’ income gets spent on a daughter’s wedding. Asset ownership and ownership of businesses are less than 10 per cent by women, and while the number of graduates is 50 per cent women, most women do not work (only 27 per cent do), or if they do, it is in traditional jobs.
Role of Cinema and Television
Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. Though films reflect society around them, they have the unique power to change society as well. Besides the portrayal of women in main roles influencing us, there is invidious subliminal conditioning that takes place by seeing women playing subsidiary roles on screen which may be even more instrumental in shaping our thoughts.
Indian cinema is in a unique position to help bring about change in the culture of the nation. The film industry in India is the largest in the world with an estimated 1,000 films produced every year in dozens of languages, and an international viewership of about 3.9 billion, which is more than the viewership of Hollywood. Films are the primary source of entertainment for Indians, and the cultural constructs created by them strongly influence the thinking of men, of women, and most importantly, of the new generation.
However, less than 4 per cent of the Indians regularly go to the movies. Most films are watched on television. Television serials also influence behaviour substantially. A future market could be through the phone. There are nearly a quarter of a billion mobile phone users today.
Portrayal of women in films
World over in movies, female characters are underrepresented as protagonists, major characters, and speaking characters.
The women present on screen are often depicted in stereotypical and now hypersexualised ways, and are seldom shown as leaders. In a US study, the number of films with female protagonists was about 11 per cent. In an important study on popular global films by the US-based Geena Davis Institute in 2014, while half of South Korean films featured a female lead or co-lead, as did 40 per cent of the films analyzed from China, Japan and Australia.
No Indian movie had a female lead or co-lead in the sample set. Looking at the women in leading roles in Indian cinema, while many remarkable women-centric films have been made over the years, some of the recent ones being Queen, Mary Kom, and Mardaani, in general we have not moved very far from the millennia-old constructs created by our patriarchal society. Women are generally peripheral to the story and are portrayed as embodying the virtues described in the following much quoted, 1,000-year-old Sanskrit shloka. In fact this could be the blueprint for how women are portrayed in the mainstream Indian film industry.
She works like a slave: She advises like a minister: She feeds you like a mother: She is skilled in bed like the divine courtesan Rambha: She is as beautiful as the goddess Lakshmi, and She forgives your transgressions like the earth. These are the six qualities of an ideal wife. — Neetisara (aphorisms)
Women in Indian films are trapped in this stereotype.
In earlier films, their role was essentially to be available as the long suffering helpmeet and caregiver to the family, with no identity or decision making powers of their own. They suffered all and sacrificed all for their families.
To that, in the past few decades, has been added a portrayal of the “heroine” as glamourous in a “movie star” way; there is a growing trend worldwide to hypersexualise women.
The Geena Davis study states that India tops the chart in showing attractive women in its movies and upto 35 per cent of these female characters are shown with some nudity. Indian films are third, behind German and Australian movies, in showing females in “sexy attire”. Women are twice as likely as men to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, and five times as likely to be referenced as attractive. In India, “Item numbers” are now de riguer.
Women are typically shown as non-working in films. What is also interesting is that of those shown holding a job in films, 22 per cent were women while the actual ratio in the sample countries was 40 per cent. We are at the bottom of the table again with ratios of 15 per cent in film and 27 per cent in real life.
The employed women are seldom shown in positions of power, or in STEM jobs like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Women represent less than 15 per cent of business executives, political figures, or science, technology, engineering, and/or math (STEM) employees.
Stereotyping also stifles women in prestigious professional posts. Male characters outnumber female characters as attorneys and judges (13 to 1), professors (16 to 1), and doctors (5 to 1).
Presence in Films
The study reveals that females comprised 33 per cent of all characters in 2011, up from 28 per cent in 2002. In India we are at about 25 per cent, amongst the lowest in the world.
Even when women are there, they are shown as preoccupied with the male characters. Women are portrayed on the sidelines, essentially discussing men. However, in real life, there is a world of women interacting with women which the men making the films do not know about; very few of the producers, writers and directors are women.
An interesting international measure of this is the very basic Bechdel Test; a movie clears the test if it satisfies three conditions (See comic trip):
1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.
On a website evaluating 4,500 international films, only 58 per cent of the films passed the test. Interestingly, a study in 2014 found that the films that passed the test had about a 37 per cent higher return on investment (ROI) in the United States, compared to films that did not pass the test. This holds true for movies internationally as well. After all, the viewers are equally women.
What is portrayed in films can also significantly affect societal mores and thought processes.
A particularly Indian trend which essentially began in 1994 with Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, is to show unimaginably lavish weddings—further reinforcing the cultural construct requiring the bride’s father to spend enormously on weddings. This age-old Indian pressure on expensive weddings accompanied by large dowries, has unfortunately led to the rampant female foeticide prevalent in India today, estimated at two milllion selective sex abortions per year.
Movies are also made addressing gender issues which act as a force for the positive. Sometimes, unforeseen problems can occur though; after movies showing acid attacks were made, the number of acid attacks actually increased.
Women’s participation in Indian Cinema
Women are far fewer in numbers behind the screen. Though India had some of the earliest woman producers like Devika Rani and Jaddan Bai, and we have successful directors like Farah Khan today, India has only 9 per cent female directors, 12 per cent female writers, and 15 per cent female producers. These are less than global averages, except for directors; where the global average is 7 per cent.
A low number of women decision makers translates into lower number of women on screen, as it has been measured that movies with female writers or directors have significantly more women on screen. Also in production companies, women typically hire more women, as is true in other industries.
What can be Done
Twenty years ago, 189 governments adopted the Beijing Platform for Action, the international road-map for gender equality, which called on media to avoid stereotypical and degrading depictions of women. Movies have a powerful influence on shaping the perceptions of large audiences, become important agents of change for gender equality. With influence comes responsibility.
While movies are made on a commercial basis, and moviemakers are likely to take decisions based on profitability, with sensitisation, many small changes can be made, especially in the subliminal messages given out. Various film organizations of producers, directors, writers etc, and also individuals should be engaged. Research should be shared.
Film executives should be called upon to have a heightened sensitivity to gender imbalance and stereotyping on-screen. They should be encouraged to make films with more conscious thought. Some changes might be
a. Make movies with strong female protagonists
b. Films should have studied subliminal messages—an avoidance of negative images, and perhaps positive subliminal conditioning with portrayal of women with the characteristics as delineated below, to help build up perceptions of gender equality:
- She should be respected for herself and not for any role she is attributed.
- She should have her own identity and make her own decisions.
- She should be shown exercising her rights, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of family or public good.
- She should be working in various professions. In particular she should be shown in nontraditional jobs and senior and other levels—as taxi drivers, bus conductors and security guards, or in STEM jobs.
- Men should be shown sharing her household and caregiver jobs.
- She should be shown as mobile and free to move around, especially in public spaces.
- She should be in control over her own body, in terms of what she wants to wear or do.
- Desexualize female roles in programming and movies.
- Increase the number and job diversity of females in children’s programming.
Besides, some other ways to bring about change by the government could be:
- Brand ambassadors could be created in the film industry to encourage these objectives.
- One obvious remedy to gender disparity on-screen is to hire more female film-makers. When films featured a woman director or writer, the number of female characters on-screen increased significantly. Employment of more women in decision making positions would automatically help in making both the industry and films more women-friendly. The government could set up reporting norms for the number of women employed in various roles in the balance sheets of the companies making films.
- Skill training programmes and institutes could be created for women in various jobs in the film industries to facilitate larger employment.
- The government could encourage institutions such as the NFDC to finance more women-centric films, or set up new institutions.
- Companies could be encouraged to use their CSR budgets to finance films which promote gender empowerment.
- Awards should be instituted for contribution to gender perception.
- This engagement should not only be with the Hindi film industry, but also regional industries.