The big screen effect: How Bollywood’s influencing love, sex and relationships

One of the major mainstays of cinema around the world, and probably even more so in Bollywood, is romance. The idea of love, romance and pursuit, the idea of finding the man or woman of your dreams are a standard feature of Indian cinema.

Manas Mitul August 13, 2015 11:00:18 IST
The big screen effect: How Bollywood’s influencing love, sex and relationships

One of the major mainstays of cinema around the world, and probably even more so in Bollywood, is romance. The idea of love, romance and pursuit, and realising the dream of finding The One are a standard  feature of Indian cinema. Be it a thriller, a murder mystery or even horror, boy must meet girl in popular cinema.

But how much do those ideas feature in the lives of today's youth in an age of a variety of media? How much are the real-life ideas about love, romance, sensuality and even sex guided by what's seen on screen?

For 19-year-old Rishita, her first ever relationship was rather like a Bollywood tale.

"My first relationship was with a very close friend," she said. "It all happened in a very 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na' manner, but it didn't end well. Films can be very misleading. I had hoped I would end up with him, which, I think, could be influenced by cinema. I didn't lose a boyfriend, I lost a best friend." At present studying at NIFT, Rishita is of the belief that young love is not the stuff of emotions, but rather a matter of social expectations. "Initially, the need to be in a relationship also comes from peer pressure. Everyone's doing it, why shouldn't I?" she said.

The celluloid effect on sex

It’s not just relationships, celluloid content is also influencing how sex is practiced, says a prominent psychologist.

Dr. Harish Shetty, a practicing psychologist in Mumbai, says the amount of sensuous content all around us has affected boys and girls at a young age leading to a complex situation. The idea of love is undergoing a transformation today and one of the departures from the past is that sex is not as closely connected to love. The philosophy of 'true love waits' is no longer in vogue. "The sanctity of love is lost and the idea of 'one love' forever and hand holding has gone away. The impermanency of everything has been accepted," he says. "Gone are the days of flowers, Indian cinema is becoming more direct."

The depiction of power dynamics in sex on screen is also undergoing a sea change. "When I was 16, I knew 13-year-old friends who had lost their virginities," said Rishita. "I already feel a generation gap between my age and those a few years younger than me."

According to Dr. Shetty, "Having sex has been sanitised of all guilt and is accepted as normal. It's become like a treadmill activity." It's difficult to pinpoint causes for social phenomenon, but it seems likely that the way sexuality and sexual attraction has been depicted on screen has a part to play in this development. Sex on screen is mostly shown to titillate and more often than not, it comes with warnings and is imposed upon heroines in particular. It's only in recent times that Bollywood has presented a few heroines who are aware of their desires and act upon them.

"Movies need to be sensitive and sensible about sex. In most movies, if a girl has pre-marital sex, it is suggested that something bad will happen to her," said Tushali, a 19-year-old student of Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) in Delhi. Her point of view is a telling example of how long-standing the impact of cinema can be. The trope of a young woman having pre-marital sex and then being plunged into doom and gloom is actually a feature of vintage Bollywood. Yet, that is the impression that lingers because the older films inform so much of our thinking and popular culture.

Although Bollywood's attitude towards sex may have undergone some changes, it remains awkwardly coy and that can be frustrating for its younger audiences. Prakhar, a 19-year-old chartered accountancy student from Faridabad, points out that even the word 'sex' is hardly uttered in films. He believes cinema’s inability to show it in a progressive fashion has a major part to play in the the way sexuality is perceived.

Aditi, a 20-year-old student at LSR, says she has issues with the censor board and also with the depiction of sex on screen, which has changed over the ages. "Earlier it used to two flowers touching, today it's bed scenes. But I don't know how realistic that is. It all goes back to exaggerated perfection," she said. It doesn't strike her as odd that she expects commercial entertainment to present a realistic portrayal of romance, especially since Bollywood films rarely make any pretence of being rooted in reality.

Perhaps the reason there's an expectation of realism is that at one fundamental level, the movies do have a pulse on society: the power dynamic between sexes. "Cinema justifies the male being the dominant one in the relationship, women are shown to be submissive," Aditi pointed out. "It is present in real life but films, somehow, glamourise it. Because of that portrayal, teenage girls may think that is the only way to find pleasure and thus they would internalise subjugation."

It's worth noting what Dr. Shetty pointed out: a lot of films and sensuous content around us depict the 'woman on top', both literally as well as metaphorically. While equality on-screen may be too much to expect, the power balance appears to be getting redressed subtly but surely.

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Seeking the Bollywood love story

It's precisely because almost every film, irrespective of genre, has a romantic angle that popular cinema's engagement with sex and sexuality is an important subject. Filmi love and sexual attraction are absorbed by not just adults and teenagers, but also children since movie-going is often a family affair. “Sixth standard kids are dating these days," said Tushali. "Obviously, they don't have their own understanding of love. It comes from movies, TV shows around them. The initial understanding of love comes from movies. However, it is gradually rectified with experience."

Nineteen-year-old Rachit, an undergraduate student in Mumbai, believes cinema can affect one's notions of love. He says Bollywood has long portrayed "pehli nazar mein pyaar" ("love at first sight") and the idea that there is something called "true love" it will be found one day. "I have friends who have been looking for such love," says Rachit, "There are many, though, who believe that it's bullshit."

While preaching love at first sight is not the exclusive domain of Bollywood love stories, these are very one-dimensional depictions of love and this in turn defines romance for the audience in ways that are more about spectacle than anything else. "The idea that comes across in young guys, who think they are in love, is that they can give their 100 percent and get the girl," explained Rachit. "I'll go after the girl, propose to her in the middle of the market and impress her. That's what they think, when actually they end up harassing and embarrassing the girl."

Tushali raised a similar point. "Some guys keep pestering girls, thinking 'she will give in'. But that's not how it is," she said. "It has happened to me. A boy kept coming back at me despite my clear refusal of any such interest. I refused his advances thrice with a polite 'no' and then had to be stern the fourth time, to which he replied, 'faaltu mein latka rahi thi' ("she kept me hanging for no reason"). The guy eventually understood, but his ego got hurt."

Her view is borne out by the numerous cases of attacks on women due to being spurned, even horrifying ones like acid attacks. A majority of the 309 cases of acid attacks reported in 2014 across the country are against women and a large number of them are suspected to be the result of failed or spurned relationships. There's a sense of entitlement and ownership pushed to a criminally violent extreme in these acts and it's easy to see a reflection of that attitude towards women coming from old Bollywood rituals of courtship in which a heroine becomes a 'bad girl' if she doesn't return the hero's affections. "Heroes exhibit subtle stalking and psychopathic behaviour and it is ironic that people condemn it on the streets and applaud it in films," says Prakhar.

Aditi, a 20-year-old student at Lady Shri Ram College, said cinema gives a very "constricted view of love". Tushali pointed out that love on screen is an "exaggeration of what happens in real life" and it gives false hopes to many.

Living with stereotypes

In Indian films, women are usually portrayed as sexual objects and are still rarely anything more than a second fiddle to the hero or 'item numbers'. Homosexuality is just a trope for comic relief. Everyone agrees that Bollywood reinforces stereotypes and from the way films from the past continue to linger in popular memory, its impact shouldn't be taken lightly. "Indian cinema has sold hope and love to generations over and over. It has to come out of the closet," said Prakhar.

Yet for a country that's rapidly changing — and whose attitudes may we well be moulded by the popular films aired on television — there seems to be a curious disconnect between the old-fashioned Bollywood morals and what's happening in real life.

"Cinema is changing with us. Films are showing what young people are doing, clubbing going to pubs. The society is moving forward and so is cinema," said Rachit. Tushali observed that today, films have become much more casual and "chiller" compared to what was released a decade ago. "Movies, apart from the usual romantic themes, are being made. There are a lot of movies on themes of college life and we can connect to them," she said.

One of the dramatic changes in popular entertainment has been the rise of the heroine, and young women haven't missed this. They do, however, remain cautious about it. "Women have been portrayed as a having a docile personality over the years. That is changing," said Aditi. "Today, films in which strong-minded women take the initiative are no longer art films. Piku, Queen, Mary Kom, all had women at their centre and were loved, but what kind of impact they have, remains to be seen. You'll see a man go to the theatres and appreciate a film on women empowerment and come back home and treat his woman like shit. The influence is limited, the mindset needs to change.

Some, like Prakhar, are of the belief that these changes in Indian cinema are purely cosmetic and irrelevant because the movies don't reflect reality. "Bollywood has managed to change the script of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge with minor variations and has kept selling it to us. I don't think we are even close to engaging with modern concepts," he said.

And yet, week after week, millions of Indians flock to theatres, gaze adoringly at the love stories enacted on big screen, and let those images and soundtracks fill their dreams. At least in the world of popular Indian cinema, love does indeed make the world go round.

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