Objectification in advertising and Indian cinema: The culture of sexual violence


Why “Raanjhanaa” is detrimental to Indian society

Summer saw the release of many movies, and one such film was Raanjhanaa which was released on 21st June 2013, and was declared a box office hit soon enough. We see Dhanush, who is an established actor in Tamil cinema, but only had his Bollywood debut with this film, and was appreciated for his performance. His performance was believable, albeit overrated, and considering that he is actually Tamil, he did a wonderful job playing a character that was far from his roots. In fact, it almost undid the abysmal job that Sonam Kapoor did as the lead female character.

Dhanush plays the role of the son of a Tamil priest who has an obsessive attraction towards Zoya (Sonam Kapoor) who is the daughter of a professor, both of who reside in Varanasi (Benares). He apparently falls in love with her as a child, and stays loyal till they both grow old enough. He obsessively tries to talk to her, continuously and clamantly, and even get slapped in the process. Later on in the film, when Zoya reacts unfavourably to Kundan’s love, he threatens to slit his wrists, and claims that the fact that she will cry if she really loves him. And not astonishingly, she does cry, and because of this particular reason, she does realize she loves him. Another unhealthy mindset that this film has very obviously showcased is the fact that Kundan needs to be lauded for his faith in Zoya’s love, and his stubborn demand. There was a reason why the film was a hit, and even more of a reason since Kundan was loved by so many. The whole concept of “roadside romeo”, someone who flirts by being overtly obvious about his love and publicly declaring so, even to the female’s discomfort, has been too popular since a long time now.

Let me stop here to talk about the reality that is “eve-teasing” in India. Eve-teasing is defined as a euphemism for the act of harassing a woman publicly, and the actions range from catcalling to outright groping. Apparently, Indians (and Bangladeshis and Nepalis), do not use the word sexual harassment for groping, but mere “teasing”. The semantics here are as important as any, since it tells us how underrated of a problem people think it is. A girl being harassed in public is something that every girl realises and accepts that they might have to deal with. Not just this, India has been popularised as being a country with sexually inappropriate public in western media, and women are often advised on travel blogs to never travel in India without male company. Whether this declaration of unsafe India is reality or just a racist bias against a non-first-world, non-white nation, we cannot know for sure, but it is definitely a cause for concern. So undermining the issue that is sexual harassment in India is a mistake that we have made again and again, and it begins with calling it eve-”teasing” . Eventually, in the film, Kundan is praised for being loyal to Zoya even when he realised that she wanted his failure, and was the cause of his eventual death. Therefore, there is no doubt that Kundan is the ‘hero’ who is glorified and idealised. His death presses his heroic tragedy even more.

Such characterization and storyline has been ingrained deep into any Indian’s mindset and one does not even notice when one faces it. Jealousy and possessiveness have become emotions that are appreciated and even held against someone if one admits to not feeling them. It is almost as if exclusivity, and by that I mean absolute exclusivity, is the only criteria to get a relationship stable and healthy, which is actually the opposite of what might make a relationship work. Thus, the fact that such movies will have no effect on the audiences is nothing but misinformation. An idea that it also propagates is the idea of a woman having to refuse even during times that they want to agree. It is a very common social belief that a woman is not supposed to be the one to ask a man out, or in the latter stages of a relationship, propose for marriage. Such gender roles are being played into by such movies, and it doesn’t leave for change in society.

This phenomenon of praising love which is obsessive and stalker-like is not just limited to this particular film. It is a fairly common storyline where the male counterpart of a potential romantic venture is insistent and annoys the female counterpart. It will be to the displeasure of many that even “Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge” played into this drama; we see a young woman trying to show a man that she found his advances, present even though just for comedic importance, too insistent. Other movies that had the similar characterisation of the female not satisfied with how she was being treated and wanted to be left alone was Mohabbatein and Kal Ho Na Ho. One might argue that there wasn’t any serious harm in any of these films, unlike Raanjhanaa, but it cannot be ignored that it plays into the mentality of thinking that a woman will eventually come around. Or that it is the man’s step to try to woo a woman, and even though a woman refuses such advances, that is just what a woman is supposed to do. The audiences of the movie must be encouraged to understand to communicate well; that a no means a no. Of course, it is difficult to trace a cause and effect in such an argument. It can be made clear that movies only reflect what the audiences truly want, not the other way around. Nonetheless, it can also be admitted that regardless of which of the two processes are happening, it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed by the audiences and the filmmakers alike.

Sexual harassment is a tricky concept to evaluate, since to verify how genuine it is can take up lots of resources. Because of this, there isn’t much evidence as to how the sexual harassment incidents have progressed or declined over the years. A study by Thomson Reuters tells us that India is the fourth most dangerous nation in the world for women. This study was done keeping in mind the violence against women, but has no space to consider “light” sexual harassment. But even so, the declining conditions for women in our country is testimony enough that the media is not helping when it is stripping women even of the right to be able to say no and be understood directly. It is time that media, especially cinema, which affects Indian populations much more than it should, gets over the obsession of having female characters who give in to advances that are clearly not well-meant, and the male characters who know no better than to stop.


Bombarded with the same male-centric roles, I have almost given up hope regarding Indian cinema and its selective portrayal of only a section of the society that it attempts to understand. It is not only unfair, but also alienating, since there is no representation of women in cinema. In case there is, there is a certain characteristic to it that makes it “feminine”, and a story of a woman’s struggle and her proving her worthiness by cleaning herself of societal angst. Which is fine, but like the coming of age for movies like “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” or the sexual freedom of “Vicky Donor”, certain movies just seem odd with female leads in them. Queen defies this.

Kangana Ranaut queen bollywood movie 2014 First Look poster

Vikas Bahl wrote the script of Queen inspired from women that he knew in Delhi, women whose lives were planned out for them by their parents, and who resigned themselves to these lives. But that doesn’t seem to be what Rani, the protagonist of the film, is made of. She did fall in love with the man she is about to marry, she is not forced into marrying a stranger. It is a choice she makes herself, and when he breaks off this marriage, she is supposed to be held accountable. This is where my love for the movie begins to rise. The film does not portray Rani to be a weak woman who has no say in where her life is headed. She has made a mistake; she is not perfect. Indian audiences need to be able to get used to women who are prone to mistakes, and who make wrong decisions in their lives. Women who take decisions from their own faculty of reason, and not the helpless agreement of her parents. Rani fails in her ability to choose, and the subtle message that came across to me was the fragility of the character of the lead; and so much unlike the usual plot-device women that I am used to seeing on the screen. She needs to be held accountable for choosing a man that was clearly wrong for her, who she chose to marry in spite of his many unacceptable flaws, as we eventually find out.

Rani leaves the comfort of her home, to pursue her dream of visiting Paris on her honeymoon, another decision that she makes just because she wants to. There is no rationale behind this, she takes this decision off her own accord, and it will be a decision she will be held accountable for. The rest is a part of the movie that I am not going to spoil for people who haven’t watched it; but I will advice them to.

The music is wonderful; Amit Trivedi uses the various points of the movie to very elaborate song sequences, and yet at points where you realise the seriousness of the script, it devolves into a very minimalist vocal performance. I have to once again concur to the fact that Amit Trivedi is definitely the next major song-writer for our times, and he has yet a long way to perform. Other than this, the acting is decent, although I do think the accolades that Ranaut has received are slightly overrated; she has done a good job portraying a character that due to her acting abilities, does not seem an unusual choice. The rest of the cast is also above average, with Lisa Haydon’s performance quite weak at certain moments. For me, the best acting performance was given by Rajkummar Rao, quite simply because I truly hated him after watching the movie. He has also proved himself to be a decent actor in the movie “Kai Po Che”. I would personally love to see more of his movies, albeit in a different kind of role.

When this movie was being discussed, I was sure I wanted to review it. This was because it is the kind of movie that I would like to see more of in the coming years. Yes, it was not perfect. It was a funny, dramatic film, but in a way that had some element of ridiculous fantasy involved. But it is definitely a turner in terms of how female characters are viewed. Whether it is Rani and her subtle acceptance of her mistakes, her desire to do what she wanted without regards to the consequence, her travelling with a majority of men and not having romantic feelings of any of them (while also proving herself to be a wonderful friend) or her sexual brazenness at kissing a complete stranger without any idea for future commitments, is something that Indian audiences will come to appreciate after some time. And that is a time that I am looking forward to with great patience.

The Default

I have been asked why I take so much offence at everything more times than I can count on my fingers. Close friends have asked me this, and it is a question that has, in its own nature, made me feel quite uncomfortable, and I have had to ask myself whether I have had the justification to raise questions regarding thoughts that deeply unsettle me. One instance of this question came up when I was slightly critical of a play that I saw being performed in college, and my friend asked me why I couldn’t just leave the sexism aside and just enjoy the comedy. I will come to this later.

I also recently came across this video. Although this video has very low production value and is quite poorly made, what came across to me was the exceptional presence of women on the screen. I am hoping people reading (and watching) this will feel similarly. This parody trailer made me realize that the overbearing presence of women on screen like this is not what audiences may be used to, even if the audience is a feminist who tries as hard as she can to not attribute characteristics to either gender. Every time we see more than a few women on screen talking, it is different and gives it a feel of a romantic-comedy (‘chick-flicks’), while this is seldom noted when the same thing happens with men. It is normal to watch men interacting on screen, but not women. No wonder so many movies fail the Bechdel test.

This is not to say that the Bechdel test is a test to disregard a film, but it is evidence to a much more compelling problem in media today. This is true especially for Indian cinema, where there is glaring difference between how actors of gender are treated. The female characters are commonly bland, uni-dimensional and mere plot devices, if not dancers in an ‘item-song’. Most movies have a male lead who is the driver of the story, and the female character is a device used to pleasure the audience gaze. The dancers (mostly major actresses of these times) use sexual suggestions to grab the attention of the audiences, and one may argue that this is just a healthy sexual expression, something that women have lacked in India for a long time now. But there are two responses to this:

  1. This healthy sexual expression is only done by these ‘item-song’ dancers; the leading women characters are still virtuous, virginal and coy. This tells us that even if there are women expressing their sexual interest, it is still not a desirable quality in a woman that you are supposed to admire. These women are nice and wise, albeit with some quirks. This is much unlike the leading men who have had areas of grey, and not just black and white. There is a dearth of what I call ‘imperfect women’ in the cinema today. For example, it is common to see a male pursue a female romantically in movies, but that kind of forthcoming nature is rarely seen from women.
  2. When an actress that I suppose is a decent actress does a role that has no value as such, it makes me want to take her less seriously, something that I don’t like doing, but is a personal preference. Amazing actresses have had still to do songs that appeal to nothing but the audience gaze. The song “Ram chahe Leela”, “Chikni Chameli”, “Shelia ki jawani” and many others solve no purpose other than for the movie and the song to sell. These are definitely things that the audiences prefer to watch, but this in itself should be a concern since there are talented actors (both male and female) who have to resort to bland musical performances to earn popularity. I would repeat again that this would not be a problem had there also been other kind of movies running mainstream. My only concern is, after all, a lack of variety.

Exceptions do exist. I suppose Queen handled the idea of a female lead extremely well. But, Indian cinema is based on the idea of escapism. India is dirty; show the audiences beautiful beaches which are spotless. Sex is a taboo to be talked of; show scantily clad women and resort to voyeurism. That said, the movies which do have female leads, them being female is a major selling point of the film, as if being female is a shift from the normal. Why is this so troublesome to me? I also watched this video a while back, too. The video is not flawless, the study more so, but it does reveal to us a worrying thought. That people will start to believe what media will tell them. It made me extremely sad to watch the video where kids as young as in the video, were falling trap to standards of “goodness” and “badness” in particular races. This is true for gender as well. For example, if a child sees that being virtuous and rejecting every notion of sexual interest by the innate nature of it is what a woman is supposed to do, that is what he/she is going to learn. Young girls will learn to inculcate these qualities, and boys will look for them in girls. Another example would be the lack of variety in superheroes. Most superheroes are male, and the female ones are generally an extension of the already existing. The female heroes that come to me from the top of my head are Catwoman and Wonderwoman. These women share the characteristics of being wise, intelligent and composed, while the male superheroes have a variety of characteristics, even being goofy. These are then the characteristics I assign myself, even though it is actually perfectly acceptable to be goofy and silly. This lack of variety is extremely evident in Indian cinema as I already mentioned.

You can look at the clothing sections for children, and the girls’ clothing is predominantly pink, red and purple, and the boys’ clothing is blue, green and yellow. There is a major difference not just in terms of clothing, but also in terms of toys. Building sets, car sets, train sets, even Legos are still marketed as boys’ toys, and dolls, baking ovens are still girls’ toys. And then we wonder why there are still less women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Gender behavior will guide us about what traits are admirable and what aren’t. I have anecdotal evidence too. A girl, someone who is intelligent and academically potent, told me that she did not believe that “girls were dumb” until she was narrated an incident by a male friend about a girl who did not know simple mobile phone operations. Or that when a male friend ordered green apple vodka, everyone else said it was a “girl’s drink”. Which brings me to my most important evidence; the play that I watched in college.

The play was a musical one, riddled with the idea of a guy in college trying to find a girlfriend for himself. It included the supposition that the Teaching Assistants pay more attention to the female students during lab hours, and not enough to the male students. A line that also stayed with me was when a male TA asked a female student why she had put curly braces (in a piece of code), she replies with a cloying, “But curly braces are so cute!” The stereotype blew me away; and to people in denial, I’d ask if there was any chance a line like that would have been given to a male student. Eventually, the said TA did find a girl to go out with (one of the students he was partial with), and when he asks her to be his girlfriend explicitly, she rejects him (which has since been perceived to be such a bad thing). This does also fit in well with the entire idea of males being “friend-zoned” by girls, as if sex and a romantic relationship was an entitlement.

I will not go into the details but the end of the play saw the line (in Hindi), “Girls are like jeans, and friends are like underwear. Even if the jeans come off, the underwear will save you from embarrassment.” The play made me angry; mostly because it made me feel alienated. There were several girls in the audience, and there was nothing in the play that I could relate to. They even claimed by the line subtly that girls and friends have to be mutually exclusive groups; a notion that made me feel even worse because I would like to think I have the ability to be a decent friend.

I have been told I was reading too much into the play when I confronted a few people with my thoughts, and I cannot deny this. I am truly reading into the play, but I do not regret it. I would have not have a gender related problem with it had it only been about relationships and sex, even so from the male’s perspective, since then the issue would not be about gender stereotypes. But that is not currently the case. The main issue here is that there is a severe lack of voice from the side of the women, and I wish I had the creative excellence to do something about it. But I know that even if I could, it would barely be popular simply because it is not something the audience is used to seeing. If there would be a female student pining for a male in just the same way as the play showed, there would be no question of how accepted that kind of behavior will be. The solution can only come from people making these plays, to try and bring a uni-sexual voice into the entire conception.

Wo-man has always been an extension of man. To be a man is the default, to be a woman is a defect. Hence when a woman is asking for equal representation in arts and media, it is asking for something that doesn’t exist by default, something that needs to consciously be provided. To finally clarify my position further, I would quote Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex:

“In the midst of an abstract discussion, it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know my only defense is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true’ thereby removing my subjective self from the discussion. It would be out of question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary since you are man,’ for it is understood as a fact that being a man is no peculiarity. “

The only way to battle this is to create a medium where it is not necessary to ‘leave your brains aside’ to enjoy a show, and to be critical is not undesirable, but a habitual reaction.