In Hobart, Australia, 32-year-old Sandesh Baliga recently escaped a jail term after his lawyer successfully argued that his harassment of women with unwanted advances and texts was ‘quite normal behaviour’ for Indian men, as the Bollywood film industry perpetuates the idea that if pursued hard enough, a woman will eventually give in to a man’s advances.
As a result, he was unable to appreciate the seriousness of his behaviour.
Although this is quite a controversial assertion, given Bollywood’s influence on Indian culture, it does have some weight. At any South Asian wedding, you will see women wearing garments modelled after those worn by Bollywood celebrities in films or at public events, and guests partying to the soundtracks of current blockbusters. The Indian fashion industry capitalises on Bollywood’s power to influence consumers by launching their clothes and jewellery through the movies, and using Bollywood A-listers to endorse their brands.
If Bollywood has the power to influence day-to-day life in such a way, one has to question the effects (if any) that Bollywood tropes have on men’s behaviour towards women, in a country where Eve Teasing is prevalent and shocking incidents of rape and sexual assault are frequently hitting the headlines.
Rachel Dwyer, a professor in Indian cinema at SOAS, University of London, points out that the “often relentless” nature of the Bollywood leading man’s pursuit can be seen through decades of examples, which she examines in her book; Bollywood’s India. As early as the 1960s, heartthrobs such as Shammi Kapoor “would flirt and dance in front of the heroine, who initially rejected him but was won over when she found out his real worth”.
The Bollywood Hero’s peacocking is still a common trope in Indian cinema but the line between wooing and stalking is becoming increasingly blurred. In 2013, Dhanush starred as Kundan in ‘Raanjhanaa’ (Beloved One.) Kundan stalks the object of his affections, Zoya Haider and even slits his wrists when she rejects him. After breaking up her wedding and causing the death of her fiancé, he eventually dies whilst still pursuing her, saying he will be reborn to love Zoya. Despite his harassment and destruction of Zoya’s life, Kundan is not the villain. He is the film’s Hero.
Dwyer remarks that “While Hindi cinema is not realistic, some may see this behavior, which is admired by viewers, as acceptable, and follow it in real life where practices such as ‘Eve-teasing’ [sexual harassment] are widespread.”
Film maker Anand L Rai, who directed Raanjhanaa, was keen to defend his work, saying his movie did not justify stalking as “it showed the hero trying to persuade his childhood love with genuine emotions.”
However, he does acknowledge Bollywood’s influence on Indian culture and agrees that directors and producers must exercise caution. “There are some boys who do get influenced by Bollywood. But they shouldn’t take it seriously, as it’s just a part of storytelling. It is also important for writers and directors to apply self-censorship when depicting one-sided love.”
But should Bollywood writers and directors apply self-censorship, or should the onus quite rightly be on men to stop perpetrating these crimes? A combination of the two is perhaps the right answer. Whilst Bollywood’s influence on every day life and its potential as an agent of positive social change cannot be denied, greater efforts need to be made to stamp out Eve Teasing by educating men that this sort of conduct is completely unacceptable.
Indian women are already making it clear to would-be harassers that their unwanted attention will not be tolerated or excused, with the emergence of a recent trend to name-and-shame sex offenders, using the power of smartphones and social media. Earlier this week, a young woman used her smartphone to film a video and publicly shame a man sitting behind her on an IndiGo flight, who had repeatedly tried to grope her between the seats. The video, posted to Youtube, went viral, adding to growing anger and disgust over the prevalence of public sexual harassment in India.
Since the rape and fatal assault of a 23-year-old female in Delhi in 2012, the Indian government has tightened laws for crimes against women and introduced tougher penalties, but many Indian women say they don’t feel any safer, according to a survey conducted by the Hindustan Times.
Of the 2,257 13-55 year-old women surveyed, 91% said the city hadn’t become any safer for them since 2012, and a shocking 97% said they had faced some form of sexual harassment.