Is Indian cinema sexist?

November 08, 2019

John Berger has long claimed that women are subjects that are always “looked at”: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at[1]. The depiction of women as passive subjects to a male’s gaze in cinema is structured to re-induce the male-power hierarchy[2]. The postulated “Objectification Theory”, treating women as objects of certain worth used by the male gender is intrinsically linked within the fundamentals of the Indian film industry[3]. The essay will try to analyse the various conceptions of sexism as existing in the Indian film industry, through the lenses of item numbers and as an evaluative conception of Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh and ‘Padayappa’, a 1999 Rajinikanth Blockbuster.

Item Songs:
With the advent of the Cinematograph Act, 1952[4] the presentation of certain forms of nudity, kissing and overt expression of affection was limited and disallowed. In reaction to this, Bollywood was determined in using songs as a euphemism for sexual acts. Such songs started overtly focussing on women’s objectification coupled with lyrics tending to define the women’s body and its sensuality. The Indian Cinema has often been side-lined and put in limelight for the visual representation of a particular genre of songs, commonly referred to as an ‘item song/number’. It is an embodiment of the objectification theory existing within the Indian cinema.

Item songs usually have no co-relation to the plot of the movie and often tend to highlight the prowess of the male character and sexual objectification of the female counterpart. Item songs have long remained agents of perpetuating such women in a hypersexualised manner. In India, the depiction of the navel of the women in songs have explicitly shown women as tools of sexuality in Indian Cinema[5]. Item songs in India have remained in existence throughout history though being subject to criticism. The first association to the term ‘item song’ was with the famous 1998 song Chaiya Chaiya and now relatable with latest Bollywood scores including the Trippy Trippy Song[6], Laila Mein Laila and other songs[7]. Though there is presumable anxiety against the presence of such songs in films, they very much exist within the paradigm and are used as means of providing the male observer the element of active gaze, eventually reinforcing patriarchal norms[8]. Often, the item songs do not include the typical, submissive women heroine who plays the primary character in the film but some other actress who is involved in a ‘guest role’[9].  This is often to hold the heroine within the providently patriarchal norms and hierarchy[10].

Indian Cinema:
         In the ideal circumstances relating to Indian cinema, the woman is often portrayed as a subservient part of existing patriarchal norms. Their roles usually engage with sexual exploitation, objectification and domestic violence. Indian cinema has often reduced the women as a mere counterpart supporting and adducing the roles of the male character in the film, often given mediocre roles at the excuse of the men.
Padayppa, a 1999 romance/drama comedy involving three lead cast members, Rajini, a mechanical engineer returning to his village, Neelambari(Ramya Krishnan), a US return sister who is very vocal of her choices, clothing and, Vasundhara, the typical Indian heroine who is submissive, living a chaste life, not vocal and incorrupt from western implications[11]. The movie revolves throughout the demeaning picture presented by Rajini and his validation in choosing the more chaste women over the other on grounds of morality and villainy. The movie presumably derives the conclusion that a women who exists and remains submissive to the patriarchal norms of the society[12].

Often, Indian cinema is criticised on the forefronts of existing misogyny and constant necessitation of its validation through the lead male character. In even the very start of the movie, during the introduction, the lead male character is shown to observe and commit to proving a basis for masculinity by way of picking of a snake in his bare hands and all the women around him running away seeing the snake. The scene continues wherein the western dressed Neelambari praises him about his masculinity and goes on to present a vocal representation of her desire towards him. But, he commits to describing her as a woman disturbing cultural norms and expresses his discontent in marrying her. The portrayal of the female characters in the film re-induces the aspects of patriarchy and the inexpression of views forcing them to stay limited and confined to the clutches of existing power structures[13].

Indian cinema is often riddled with problems of misogyny, voyeurism and normalisation of stalking behaviour. These problems are inherently rooted within the industry, a contemporary example can include the 2019 fame Kabir Singh, a film picturing the life of Shahid Kapoor as a sexist, misogynistic man-child trying to control the life of his girlfriend and entangled in constant objectification of women[14]. The film focussed on excessive drug addiction and using of women as a moral backlash mechanism to overcome the problems of oneself. Glorification of stalking, ignoring consent and toxic masculinity were few aspects wherein the film stood out as inherent junctures of criticism. The actor is seen almost raping a woman at knifepoint and pursuing his girlfriend through a series of emotional blackmail and upheaval. The woman lead character in this film is portrayed as a middle class, submissive and chaste woman. The movie had normalised rape culture, patriarchal norms and extreme forms of oppression.

The drawing of analogy between Padayappa and Kabir Singh highlights the comparative narrative of social acceptance and the frame within the woman lead is portrayed still remains in relation to the pre-existing paradigms of Indian cinema. The two films though with changing times has only evolved the character of the male. The woman still remains within the clutches of the sexist paradigm even after more than a twenty year fight against misogyny and sexism in the industry. The whole comparison between the two films was to reinstate and provide the lack of better portrayal of the female character even after much availability of criticism against Bollywood currently in the popular media.

Women Centric Cinema:
         With the advent of new age cinema, India has transgressed to a large extent to include movies involving women empowerment and women centric films within the popular culture. To a large extent women empowerment has been presented through cinematic lenses lately to better represent the lost genre.
Certain films including the recent release of Bigil/Whistle(2019), a Vijay Kumar film supposedly to focus on women empowerment and praise their performances as footballers. But, throughout the film, the approval of a male performer to provide as basis for further functioning of the movie remained vital[15]. In the very first matches in the movie, the women football team loses the game due to the absence of the coach, the male lead character of the film during the game.

 These films are certain examples that reinforce and present the actual position of women within the larger structure of a male chauvinistic society and films focussing on empowerment are presented through the lenses of a male lead character for better audience, falling within the earlier presented paradigms within[16].

         To conclude, the essay provides certain contemporary examples and engages with the problems inherently present in the movies. The answer remains clear that Indian cinema is sexist and misogynistic, the provided basis include the comparison of two blockbuster in twenty years of cinematic experience. The movies are representations of the society and the unending successes of such misogynistic movies has proven the very existence of sexism within the society already and furtherance of motives remains vital.

[1] Berger, J. (1972). Way of Seeing. Penguin. pp. 35
[2] Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), pp.6-18.
[3] Fredrickson, B. and Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women's Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(2), pp.173-206.
[4] The Cinematograph Act, 1952
[5] Dasgupta, P. (2019). HuffPost is now a part of Verizon Media. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Oct. 2019].
[6] Deodhar, N. (2019). Bhoomi: Trippy Trippy Song is just another Sunny Leone item number in this Sanjay Dutt-starrer- Entertainment News, Firstpost. [online] Firstpost. Available at: [Accessed 1 Nov. 2019].
[7] CORRESPONDENT, H. (2019). Malaika Arora defends her dance numbers, says ‘if anyone calls me an item, I’ll slap them’. [online] Hindustan Times. Available at: [Accessed 1 Nov. 2019].
[8] Jain, P., Roy, E., Garud, N. and Mazid, I. (2019). Sexuality and substance abuse portrayals in item songs in Bollywood movies. South Asian Popular Culture, 17(1), pp.15-29.
[9] Vaidya, R. (2019). Why we need Feminism: Analyzing the representation of Female body, Sexuality and Femininity in Bollywood Item Songs. AWS. [online]
[10] Parul Jain, Enakshi Roy, Nisha Garud & Imran Mazid (2019) Sexuality and substance abuse portrayals in item songs in Bollywood movies, South Asian Popular Culture, 17:1, 15-29, DOI: 10.1080/14746689.2019.1585605

[11] Gopinath, Swapna, and Sony Jalarajan Raj. “Gender Construct as a Narrative and Text: The Female Protagonist in New Generation Malayalam Cinema.” South Asian Popular Culture 13.1 (2015): 65–75. doi:10.1080/14746689.2014.1000648.
[12] (2019). Sexism In Cinema: A Study Of Over 4,000 Bollywood Films Shows What We’ve Known All Along. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Nov. 2019].
[14] BBC News. (2019). Why Bollywood's misogyny problem is not new. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Nov. 2019].
[15] K, J. (2019). The women: What Vijay's Bigil can learn from Ajith's Nerkonda Paarvai. [online] India Today. Available at: [Accessed 1 Nov. 2019].
[16] Bhattacharya, A. (2019). After analysing 4,000 films, researchers confirm that Bollywood movies are still crazy sexist. [online] Quartz India. Available at: [Accessed 1 Nov. 2019].

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.