Tokenistic Feminism in Bollywood

If you can’t stand up for the real victims and survivors, your idealistic portrayals in movies mean nothing.
feminism in bollywood

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Radhika Apte and Usha Jadhav acknowledged (finally!) the prevalence of casting couch in Bollywood in BBC’s documentary titled “Bollywood’s Dark Secrets” (April, 2018). Apte says in the documentary, “Some people are regarded as gods. They are so powerful that people just don’t think that my voice is going to matter, or people think that if I speak, probably my career is going to get ruined”. Jadhav revealed that it was common for powerful men to ask for sexual favours. She herself has been subjected to this harassment where she was asked to sleep with someone on order to get a role.

Radhika entered the picture perfect lie of Bollywood with a small role in 2005 with the feature film Vaah! Life ho toh aisi. Since then, she has worked in Marathi, Telugu, Tamil. Malayalam, Bengali and of course Hindi films. She has been widely acclaimed for her roles in movies like Parched, Manjhi, Phobia and Hunterr. Usha Jadhav has worked in feature films, short films and television. But she is most popularly known for playing the role of Yashoda in Marathi film Dhag. For this role, she received the National Award for Best Actress in 2013.

The reason I am stating the various accomplishments of these two actresses is because I know some people might discredit their casting couch experiences as untrue and a publicity stunt. But these people need to know that they are credible actresses (not that it should matter).

When Pink came out in 2016, there was suddenly a heightened awareness about sexual harassment and victim blaming around the country. Many Bollywood celebrities took to social media to appreciate the movie for addressing a topic that has mostly garnered silence from a major percentage of the entertainment industry. Amitabh Bachchan wrote a powerful open letter to his granddaughters ahead of Pink’s release. In this letter, he tells his granddaughters how the length of their skirt does not define their character and how the society doesn’t and shouldn’t dictate their behaviour. We were all touched by his words. I, personally, teared up a little when I read them. We all need such positive influences in our lives. But how much did he actually believe in these words? When Priyanka Chopra wore a knee-length dress in a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she faced severe backlash from trolls about how she had disrespected his Holiness’s (duh) presence. When Amitabh Bachchan was asked to comment on this issue, he said “I am not the PM or Priyanka Chopra. How can I answer then?’. This only goes to show that as long as taking a social or political stance is increasing their box office image and earnings, Bollywood celebs will support any cause.

When the movie Padman was in its pre-release phase, Arunachalam Muruganantham (on whom the movie is based) started raising awareness about sanitary napkins by posing with one and putting these pictures on social media handles like Instagram, Twitter, etc. Soon a phenomenon started and several other big names like Twinkle Khanna, Aamir Khan, Sonam Kapoor, etc also did the same. This was done in the name of removing the taboo that surrounds menstruation. But really, it was a promotion tactic.

Such tokenistic feminism has existed in the industry since time immemorial. The Bollywood industry has always protected its own. When Salman Khan was finally convicted in the Blackbuck poaching case on April 5, 2018 with a 5-year jail sentence, numerable celebrities took to Twitter, Instagram, etc to support Salman. Some posts were merely about how they were with him and were praying for him, while others outrightly opposed the punishment given to him. We all know why Aishwarya Rai ended her relationship with Salman Khan. They began dating in 1999 on the sets of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. It was all good and romantic in the beginning. Soon after, reports of physical and emotional abuse started hitting the tabloids. According to Aishwarya, dating Salman was the worst phase of her life. He would often become physical with her, and accuse her of having affairs with her co-stars. But Bhai is bhai. He got away with it (no backlash or even a simple support comment for Aishwarya from the entire industry).

Yes, it is important to protect our own; it gives a sense of community. But wrong is wrong. You cannot justify culpable homicide or physical abuse or sexual harassment by saying that Bollywood is not the only industry this happens in, and so there is no need to target it (Saroj Khan tweeted and later retracted this).

Celebrities are often scared to take a political stance. For them, their career and image is more important. Isn’t this why Bollywood still produces movies that glorify misogyny, objectification, homophobia and patriarchy? Movies like Grand Masti, Raanjhanaa (Pyaar kiya toh stalking kya), Mastizaade or even Judwaa are excellent examples of blatant sexism that Bollywood portrays.

It is time these celebs take a real stance for once. And if not that, at least stop pretending that they genuinely care about gender equality. Because if you can’t stand up for the real victims and survivors, your idealistic portrayals in movies mean nothing.