The South Asia Channel

The Bollywood Effect: Women and Film in South Asia

Despite cultural differences, the countries of South Asia share a strong connection through trade, history, and, of course, Indian film. Bollywood is no stranger to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Posters of Indian actors adorn streets from Kabul to Karachi, and bootleg movies are widely available. But Indian cinema is a male-dominated industry, meaning the portrayal of ...

STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images
STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Despite cultural differences, the countries of South Asia share a strong connection through trade, history, and, of course, Indian film. Bollywood is no stranger to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Posters of Indian actors adorn streets from Kabul to Karachi, and bootleg movies are widely available.

But Indian cinema is a male-dominated industry, meaning the portrayal of women in films is a reflection of the woman’s role in Indian society from a man’s viewpoint. These films mold opinions, and often encourage the poor treatment of women. Often, Bollywood productions focus on the plight of wealthy women, whose treatment at the hands of the men in their lives is offset by their comfortable lifestyles. At the same time, though, most of them omit the difficulties that women of lower socio-economic backgrounds face on a daily basis, such as the harassment on buses and streets that showed itself at its worst in the recent mob rape of two young women. While Bollywood seems to have no problem showing men how women should be treated, it has so far shied away from investigating the repercussions of this behavior.

As a woman of Afghan descent, I watched from a young age as heroines suffered at the hands of the patriarchal society. Even the "good" or "virtuous" women, the traditional housewives, were second-class citizens. The good woman would argue with her husband begging him not to force their daughter to marry a man she didn’t love, but he would tell his wife to stay out of matters that didn’t concern her. His word was final.

The "bad women," the courtesans that entertained members of the high society, would dance the night away and recite poetry only to be sold to the highest bidder at the end of the night. Sought after for their beauty; they are shown to intoxicate men with their skills, dancing in such a way that would only be seen in such settings. Countless movies display this, such as Umraoo Jaan, Pakeezah, Sharafat and Mughal-e-Azam. They depict men who sitting on cushions, smoking, and chewing betel leaves. The only women in their scenes were the courtesans and the madame who gives her prized possession, the courtesan, to the man offering the most money, displayed in gold coins.

The madame in these films loves her young possessions and raises them as daughters. She appears to do the girls a favor by taking them off the streets where they would otherwise beg for food and shelter. Instead, they become dancers for elite men, regaled with gifts and beautiful clothes. Most of these women were trafficked domestically as young girls and then raised to dance and entertain with a poise not found in other areas of society.

Powerful men in these films visit such establishments with little repercussion, but it is the women who are left to face the real blowback. The men still marry well, hold high ranks in society, and have their lawful wives accept the fact that they have a second life with other women. The most a woman could do was approach the courtesan dancer and ask her to stop luring her husband.

Deemed unclean, these courtesans were not even permitted to enter places of worship. In movies like Mehbooba, the townspeople react with public outcry when the dancer enters the temple to pray. Another movie, Suhaag, portrays a young girl who kills a man about to rape her. She recognizes the realities of the local judiciary procedures where, should she be found out, she would have no due process or justice, given that she was both poor and a female. She escapes her village only to be taken in by a "motherly woman" to become a dancer. Luckily for her, she does not sell her body at the end of the night. Although the main character’s story in this movie has a happy ending, women who find themselves in her situation in reality do not share her fate.

According to a New York Times blog post published last December, India has the highest number of human trafficking victims in the world. While authorities have closed hundreds of brothels where occurrences of human trafficking of underage females have been found, prostitution and trafficking continues. Because of the stigma, women who have been forced to live and work in brothels aren’t able to escape that life even if given an opportunity. Were they to return to their villages, they would most likely be rejected by their families. .

But with regard to other women’s issues, Bollywood has done a much better job of portraying reality. Prostitution and brothels are not the only way Indian women fall victim to the patriarchal society. Widows in India are ostracized and deemed financial burdens. Their presence is considered bad luck. According to tradition they have to flee to the holy city of Vrindivan where they live until they die. Several Bollywood movies, such as the 2005 film Water, portray the lives of such widows. At Vrindivan, they must live a life without pleasure of any sort in order to abide by the traditions.  This lifestyle begins with the shaving of their heads. Vrindivan is said to have about 15,000 widows that have been forced to reside there.

In India and parts of Pakistan, female feticide, the act of aborting a fetus because it’s a female, is practiced. When medical technology made it possible to determine the sex of a fetus, clinics across the country advertised their ability to perform sex-related abortions. Before the advent of such technology, female babies were often left at doorstops or murdered upon birth. A national census reveals a shocking ratio of 914 girls to 1000 boys under the age of seven. The 2004 film Mathruboomi: A Nation without Women, examines the impact of female feticide and infanticide.

Bollywood movies have shed light on the plight of Afghan and Pakistani women as well (though they continue to play to the stereotypes). The Afghan woman is often portrayed as a warrior, able to fight next to a man. On the other hand, she is still a prize to be won. In the movie Khuda Gawa, the heroine, an Afghan woman, promised her hand in marriage to the hero if he would kill her worst enemy, the man who murdered her father. She was a Buzkash, a champion of the extreme Afghan sport of buzkashi; she had power within her community. Yet, at the end, she was still weaker because she needed this man to carry out her mission, and she was willing to give herself to him should he be successful.

Veer Zaara provides a classic example of the subjugation of Pakistani women. It portrays a loud and quirky girl whose father listens to all her demands in other facets of life, yet her outgoing character cannot overpower her father’s decision to marry her off to the son of an influential figure whose election depends on the marriage. When, as a Muslim, she falls in love with a Hindu man, she is ordered not to see him again.

In Indian circles it is common to hear women saying that their daughter’s wedding costs their life’s savings. According to tradition, the bride’s family is to pay a dowry to the groom’s family. Women are often criticized, ridiculed and even beaten for not having a large enough dowry. Although India outlawed dowries in 1961, they still exist, and the exchange of the dowry is a common scene in Bollywood films. Lajja is the perfect example of a movie that portrays the pressure a family is under to pay a dowry.

Pakistan has a similar problem with the burdens of the dowry, mostly among the Urdu-speaking communities or those of Punjabi origin, who can trace their lineages back to India. Many women are left unwed simply because their parents aren’t able to afford the increasing demands from the groom’s
family. In Afghanistan, and amongst the Pashtun cultures of Pakistan, there is a reverse dowry system, or the mehr, which is to be paid to the female’s family. With it comes the cost of the wedding and all expenses thereof. Thus, females are not a financial burden in Pashtun Pakistani communities, nor throughout Afghanistan.

That doesn’t mean that females are necessarily better off. Many families negotiate their daughter’s price, giving her not to the best man, but to the one that can pay the higher price. Laila Majnu depicts the true story which later evolved into Arabic literature and then consecutively into Persian literature. It is indeed dubbed the Romeo and Juliet of the Muslim World, because it is the story of two lovers from enemy tribes, both of whom end up dead, Majnun at the hands of an enemy and Laila taking her own life. In the scene of the "Juliet’s" marriage to a King in which the vows are exchanged, the mullah asks the groom if he agrees to pay the one lakh or one hundred thousand for her, and it is agreed upon.

What is the connection between a rape victim and a woman portrayed in Bollywood films? The movies are dramatized reflections of the realities of life in South Asian societies, where the poor are second class citizens and women are what men decide them to be. More importantly, the movies can shape societies’ viewpoints, reinforcing the discrimination; over time people can and have accepted that women are inferior.

Bollywood plays an important role in shaping ideologies in India and South Asia as a whole. Lollywood, Pakistan’s movie industry, has had its ups and downs in recent years due to increasing levels of violence and militancy in the country.  It is, however, slowly recovering, and Pakistani soap operas are widely watched in the region.

For their part, Bollywood films have changed somewhat in recent years to depict the woman as more of an equal to her male counterpart and less of an object; their roles are more career-driven and less subservient. Women are standing up to society and their families where injustices such as forced marriages exist.

These trends are not enough. Bollywood can become more progressive on women’s issues by portraying lives of ordinary women living in South Asia, and the challenges they have to face on a daily basis. Behind the opulence that is often portrayed in Bollywood films, the troubling reality of Indian and Pakistani societies is that the injustices against the women of the top 1% most often do not reflect the same gender discriminations of the vast majority of women within society. After all, the wealthiest individuals are not the ones who ride the bus every day.

Humira Noorestani is a Human Rights Activist and the Founder/Director of Ariana Outreach, an NGO dedicated to building bridges between the United States and Afghanistan, primarily through connecting women of both countries.