It's the classic chicken or the egg debate. When it comes to portrayal of women on screen, do commercial films merely reflect prevailing attitudes or do they shape and contribute to those attitudes as well? Though the debate has gained currency in recent times, there are no easy answers.
For years, heroines twiddled their thumbs playing ‘love interests’, while heroes fought the system and beat up the bad guys. Not much has changed if you look at films such as Dabangg or Rowdy Rathore. But films such as Kahaani prove that movies with female leads can work at the box office.
“Audiences have always been ready for female-centric content if it is a great film,” said Sudhir Mishra, director of Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi and Chameli, at a panel discussion on portrayal of women in cinema. “It is the value system of the producers and distributors that such films won’t work.”
A trip to the cinema can easily be a lesson in how to objectify women: skimpy clothes, close-ups of bare midriffs and of course, ‘item numbers’. Post the December 16 Delhi gangrape, the lyrics of the Fevicol se song came under fire. Producer Ekta Kapoor defended such dance numbers at another discussion, saying that a woman dancing in sexy clothing of her own free will is a celebration of female sexuality.
Film critic and blogger Jai Arjun Singh feels such songs should be judged on a case-to-case basis. “While a song like Beedi Jalai Le, in the context of the film, could be seen as a celebration of female sexuality, the majority of them are voyeuristic and reduce a woman to a collection of her body parts,” he said.
Filmmakers argue that item numbers sell. But can films peddle damaging representations of women in the name of paisa-vasool entertainment?
“Child pornography sells. Is that a justification for creating child porn?” asks Anna MM Vetticad, author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. “It’s the job of cinema to condemn inexcusable social realities and portray reality as it ought to be — only a lazy film maker will claim that it’s impossible to do both while remaining entertaining and commercially viable,” she adds.
However, it is important to celebrate some changes for the positive as well. Though unable to entirely shrug off their unease of independent or ambitious women (think the climax of Cocktail or Fashion), recent movies have given us heroines who are vocal and free-spirited. Movies such as Aiyya frankly depict female desire. Even sexiness is no longer the preserve of the Sheilas or the Chikni Chamelis. “In Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Katrina Kaif is presented as beautiful, attractive but the camera doesn’t letch at her. It’s a product of a different sensibility, ” Singh points out.