The global film industry is one of the most influential fields. This form of media has the power to influence our perception of the world. It is said that films are a manifestation of the society they are created in. The popular film industry in India is Bollywood. So what does it say about society when discrimination is something that is widespread in this very industry?
For decades, the film industries around the world have promoted inequity among its workers. As always, women have been treated as inferior to men. Hollywood is one industry where this problem still persists. However, one can’t say the situation has not improved, even if it’s just by a bit. Most of the progress resulted from the women in the US deciding that they have had enough. They stood up for themselves and exposed their predators. From the Golden Globes of 2018 to the #MeToo Movement, improvement is in work. While there is still a long way to go, at least the first few steps have been taken.
On the other side of the world, the condition is still as bleak as ever. Bollywood, another extremely powerful industry, remains backward in its image. There is a very wide difference in the perception of male and female roles. Women have recently begun to speak against this. In the wake of actress Dia Mirza’s discussion about the “rampant sexism” in the industry, it has become important to analyse the many ways in which Bollywood has encouraged the subservient portrayal of many groups, including women, both in films and in their making.
One of the main setback of Bollywood is in the way they view and handle women. The casting couch controversy that came to light a few years ago highlights this problem. In an industry where men are celebrated and women are not, it does not even occur to directors to treat them equally. Actresses who receive lead roles that benefit their careers are made to feel as though they are being done a favour. Some directors or other men in power even ask for something in return, often in the form of sexual acts. As most of the women in this position are young and not very powerful, they do not even have an option to refuse. They live the rest of their lives in fear and shame. Sexual harassment is commonplace nowadays, which is truly terrifying.
There are very few actresses as compared to actors, and the latter are definitely more widely known. Even behind the camera, the same issue persists. Most of the crew is made up of men, and women only exist in stereotyped ‘feminine’ jobs such as hair, makeup and costume. As Dia Mirza says, this is not even a conscious decision during the hiring process. It is this “unconscious sexism” that is dangerous.
Another issue of contention that lingers is the wage gap. It is shocking that actresses are paid less than 50% of what their male counterparts do. And this is not just in the low budget films, even the box office hits use the same strategy. In an industry such as Bollywood that makes millions every year, this is not only terrible but also shameful. The reason offered explains that it is the hero who is responsible for making the film a hit. This is true, since actors are much more worshipped than actresses. Even movies that are meant to have a woman in the lead are praised for the hero. This is no legitimate response for the appalling pay gap and widespread discrimination against women.
Another way in which Bollywood discriminates against its actors is by virtue of the colour of their skin. The irony is that India, a land of a myriad of colours, was oppressed by the British for the skin-tone of the people Yet, almost 75 years after Independence, we continue to do the same to our own people. This demonstrates just how far we have come.
The ideal of “fair is beautiful’ continues to permeate the industry. It is not just women who are affected, men too face this form of racism. Films propagate that the fair are pure, righteous and devout, while the are dark-skinned are sinful and dishonourable. The peculiarity of this whole situation is the way in which Bollywood films claim to understand a person’s entire character simply by looking at the colour of their skin; colour that one is born with. Skin colour is not something that God uses to differentiate the nature of the humans on Earth. It is simply a matter of the genetic lottery.
South Indian films could claim to be better in this respect, since they tend to cast both fair and dark-skinned men in lead roles. However, both Bollywood and South Indian films rarely cast a dark-skinned actress. Fair heroines receive projects every year. Dusky heroines would be lucky to receive a few. And not just the casting process, the movies too broadcast such racist ideas. All this highlights the age-old colourism practiced in Bollywood. While several actresses have spoken out against it, nothing has been improved. Dark-skinned heroines continue to be made to feel inferior and ugly because of something that should never have been a criterion for beauty in the first place.
One aspect of discrimination that is not as widely recognized yet a problem is ageism. Of course, this is only an issue for women. Actors can star in films no matter how old they are. If you look at the blockbuster hits of the last few years, there have been several movies released starring actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar. All of them have a mean age of 55 years. Then look at the actresses they are paired with. There seems to be a trend, wherein the actors remain the same and keep getting older. Meanwhile, the actresses seem to be getting younger. This is because those actresses who have reached the age of, say, 40, get less and less roles every year. They are replaced by new talent as young as 20 years.
The problem does not become apparent till we realise that 20year old actresses are being paired with actors in their 50s. That is, twice to three times their age. And then we realise that the actresses from the 90s or before are not seen very often nowadays. This is because of the issue of ageism. Not just ageism, but sexist ageism. Actors can continue to play roles no matter their age- a prime example would be Amitabh Bachchan, 78 years old. Actresses such as Hema Malini or Madhuri Dixit, on the other hand, despite being younger than him still, receive less roles. They do appear in films, but it has been a long time since they were the leads.
Female Portrayal in Films
A separate problem is the way in which movies depict women. A woman who has a job, likes drinking every now and then and dislikes wearing traditional clothes, the audience automatically knows, could not be the lead. While there is nothing wrong with being a homemaker or wearing salwar kameezes, it is very wrong to suggest that those women who don’t are not “proper” women. Bollywood movies perpetrate these stereotypes, and the public does not seem to even notice.
Another trend in blockbuster movies is the way in which the heroine’s role is simply as a prop for the hero. She has no other purpose than as a romantic interest, and in many cases could have been left out of the movie entirely without it making a difference.
It is true that progress is being made in Bollywood and other film industries, but this advancement is so slow that it is barely noticeable. The recent influx of films that portray women as strong, independent and able to survive on their own have gone a long way towards changing the perception of society. Several actresses are now speaking up against the sexism in Bollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. Following the West, several reforms are being made already.
However, it is not enough. Improvement needs to be faster. It is 2021, and these outdated ideals cannot be propagated anymore. As said above, films are a reflection of the community. The state of Bollywood films does not paint the society in a very positive light. Like Dia Mirza said, “rampant sexism” is something that needs to be eliminated. Progression is needed in all aspects and is something we need to work towards to ensure that discrimination and bias on any basis no longer fester in this industry.