The other day I saw Kareena Kapoor on television speaking on an ad for women’s safety. A few months back she declared that she felt unsafe going out in Mumbai after 6 PM. Priyanka Chopra, the other big Bollywood diva of our age, is a long-term batter for the rights of the objectified woman and the despised girl child.
And yet these two women show no reluctance in shedding their clothes and doing item numbers. Indeed, at least in Priyanka’s case she seems to have forged a mini-career out of dancing half-naked in front of leering, inebriated men. I don’t think there is any doubt in the fact that an item song objectifies women; can you honestly see ‘Munni Badnaam Hui‘ or ‘Chikni Chameli‘, hear and understand the lyrics, and still argue that there’s nothing wrong with them? If you still need convincing, what do you think the word ‘item’ means?
If we look at where all these songs are set, it’s clear whom they’re targeting. None of the item songs happen in middle-class, educated neighbourhoods. They happen in a small-town atmosphere, typically outside an arrack shop, with both the ‘item’ and its ‘admirers’ dressed in clothing typical of the labourer class. Even the dance movements and words are tailored to appeal to the sensibilities of men who are particularly prone to viewing women as objects: the rickshaw pullers, the auto drivers, the construction workers. Most of the educated class is (hopefully) smart enough to see that when Katrina Kaif dances to a raunchy number in front of a bunch of guys, she’s only pretending, but what about the daily wage worker?
Or when Priyanka Chopra says she wishes women in India to be seen as equals, does she only mean ‘her’ kind of women?
Is it far-fetched to suggest that item songs are reinforcing the misogynistic beliefs of Indian men? And more importantly, what is it doing to young Indian women across the country? For good or bad, most of our children pick their role models from the screen these days. Will a girl of nine growing up today who thinks the world of Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra be mature enough to spot the differences between their real and reel lives? And if she’s not, are her parents at hand to point it out to her? Can you really blame her if she grows up with a tiny doubt in her mind that maybe, just maybe, a woman’s primary role is that of an object to be used for man’s pleasure?
The other side of the argument, of course, is that movies are all pretension. What a character plays on the screen doesn’t have to have any relevance to who the actor is as a person. But the point here is that of theme. All pieces of art deliver messages by stealth. A mystery novel’s theme is that of justice. A science fiction novel typically carries a word of warning against the relentless march of technology. A thriller celebrates the strength of one man’s will against the odds. A literary novel brings to light the nobility of man.
The message of an item number – whether you admit it or not – is that of turning a woman into a sex object.
Whether Bollywood should become more responsible is not my concern. But are they even aware of it? Are these women who speak for women’s issues in their free time aware that their day jobs are eroding all the good they’re doing and then some? Or do they compartmentalize their minds like so many of us do and justify it under the age-old maxim of the free market: ‘If there is a demand for it, fulfill it.’
Forget them. What can we do to shield ourselves and our families from this relentless theme of women submission in our movies? I think the only way is to encourage open dialogue. Instead of changing the channel when an item number is on, perhaps a better idea is to let it play, and then ask the kids what they thought of it. That way we’re at least letting them know the subject is open for discussion.
Do these questions worry you, or am I just being paranoid? How do you ensure that your (kids’) value systems are not influenced negatively by popular media?
Image Courtesy: Fillum