by Mahesh Dattani
A group of ‘well known film and theatre personalities’ voiced their protest over the rape of a young woman in Delhi with a silent march on Saturday. Not on the day of the brutal attack on her but on the day of her death. Perhaps when the news first came out of the rape, no one, not even the film and theatre people, knew how deeply this would affect the entire nation. After all, rape is an everyday occurrence in our country.
I am just wondering — if the girl hadn’t died, would there be no protest march by ‘well known film and theatre personalities’? No deluge of tweets by directors and actors big and small? Of course, this is a free country and they have every right to protest or mourn as the next person. And so they do, when the timing is right.
Of course, the timing is never right for a protest march by the same people about the way women are treated and shown in their own work on celluloid.
We talk about public or police apathy towards crimes against women but nothing comes close to the antipathy shown to women by Bollywood. Germaine Greer has said that men hate women. Maybe this is true. But even truer is the fact that Bollywood loathes women. Bollywood is a monster that has gone horribly wrong. It always was a monster but now that it is all grown up, its capacity to do harm is even greater. The ched-chad of Radha Krishna were perfectly balanced on the edge of playfulness and repartee between the genders. No misogyny there. Bollywood gave it a more risqué tone with jhumkas, nathnis and aanchals being lost. A bit one-sided but it could pass as fun and games. With choli ke peeche kya hain, the beast had tasted blood. And when Munni became badnaam, so did thousands of girls named Munni who were then subject to humiliation in public simply because they were unfortunate enough to have the same name. Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment? Certainly not to the poor girls named Munni.
Where did this antipathy come from? The well-worn argument is that films depict what already exists in society. Maybe so, but Bollywood’s depiction of women is as close to reality as romancing in the Swiss Alps or villains with a glass eye. But why this hatred towards a potentially large section of its paying audience? Maybe it is simply the nature of the beast.
But how did this artistic medium become such a beast? Perhaps it has to do with being treated as a beast. It has a history of abuse. Film and theatre were considered lowly arts by a society that valued prudery and discretion in matters of sex. So women were always reluctant to appear on stage or on screen. It was never considered the right place for a woman to be in. So Bollywood took a pledge that it will never show women for the public eye. What they chose to show was an artificial construct of a woman. First a man, dressed as a woman. Then women dressed up to look like the men who dressed as women. All that mattered was the obvious – the breasts, the voice, the gait. All merely suggestions of feminine biology but never, never anything beyond that. So the object was created first. But they soon discovered a gold mine. Male loins were actually responding to these objects. So real women, with all the complexity that that entailed, were not needed!
Women who came to Bollywood were soon to realize that there was no place for real feeling. All that was required of them were a few bits and pieces of themselves. The pretty bits only of course, not the yucky parts like periods or pregnancy or worse, feelings of self-respect. So they chose to hide all the ‘unwanted’ parts of womanhood away when they came on the sets. Very soon they forgot they ever had them. All was well with the fake world. They were arm candy, item girls, objects to be loved, raped, avenged.
So today, when we see people from the world of Bollywood showing sensitivity to a cause, we are skeptical. Do they really mean it?
When they joined Bollywood they too took a pledge. That they will treat all women as objects. Women take the pledge too. They took an oath that a woman will be a breast or a waist or silken strands of hair or a perfectly waxed leg, and they vowed never, never to be a complete woman. And when that breast is too withered to be fancied as an object, they are under oath to put it to good use as a mother figure, but never a real mother. In return they are offered a lifetime addiction to fame. The first fix is for free. Then they are left to their own devices - a sex scandal or a worthy cause perhaps.
Bollywood will say its unfair to draw any line from the men who ogle their chikni chamelis to the monsters who brutalised a young woman with an iron rod but the men on that bus believed in the same lies. Except that what they got in return was not fame but fifteen minutes of power. More lies.
Mahesh Dattani is a Sahitya Akademi award winning playwright and director and the author of many acclaimed plays including Final Solutions, Dance Like a Man and Tara. He directed the films Mango Souffle and Morning Raga.