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Breaking the Stereotypes: The Misrepresentation of Women in South Asian Cinema

01 Mar 2023,1:01 PM



Bollywood movies glorify men's strength, power, and position in society. The cinema shows women as objects of the male gaze, victims of violence, objectification subjects, and under patriarchal power. The stereotyping of Asian women is a common trait of Bollywood films that informs the development of film themes and storylines. However, stereotyping is a reflection of the actual occurrences within society. Stereotypical ideologies have remained a constant factor that informs the role of women in society, and the films support the tendency of males to downplay the actual abilities of women in society. The Bollywood cinema has thus made it appear that South Asian women have no use or position of power or the ability to contribute meaningful thoughts or services to society as indicated by the female characters in the randomly selected films Vidhaata (1982), Baazigar (1993), Veer Zaara (2004), and Dangal (2016).

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The male gaze is a trait that Bollywood films have never changed much in the fifty years under review because the films still show women as objects of sexual pleasure for the heterosexual male viewer. That is, the woman, her body, and everything about her appearance for the satisfaction of the male who marries, abducts, sees, or watches her in the films, and there is an expectation that the male viewer with interest in women will have similar reactions to the female characters as represented (Mandal, 2020, p. 4). The male gaze has never changed in Indian films where the females are present in the plots to provide sexual pleasure to the males who are the heroes. For instance, in Vidhaata (1982), Durga, a slum girl, exists to develop the plot and character of Kunal, the protagonist. The appearance of Durga is that of a beautiful girl whose role in the film is to show the tender side of Kunal, nothing more. Durga's role is to show how the beauty of women is a source of motives for men to act, rather than showing that women too can be present in society as a matter of right to participate in its developments. Unfortunately, the only idea that the male audience may take out of the film's plot about women is that women are beautiful, and their beauty is the only thing they have to offer. However, the depiction of South Asian women in this light is negative and wrong.

A male gaze is a strong tool that patriarchal societies rely on to make female members of society appear powerless, as the slow camera pans in the film show. The camera pans that take a lot of time and focus on women's physical appearances are a language of the moving image that has existed in Bollywood films. Its message is that women's beauty, as is the case with that of Durga, is an adequate area of focus. Instead of giving women roles that depict their abilities to lead the same way the male characters do, the women have no say about issues affecting them. Durga has no right to choose who marries her (Rai, 1982). Her mother, too, has to abide by the men's orders to go to Goa for their safety. The male gaze ideation of Durga's image gains power and wins when Durga’s only chance of marrying Kunal is her beauty and not riches.

The trivialization of women, their bodies, and their abilities in Bollywood societies easily make women victims of violence because the men direct their anger toward women who are neither allowed to speak nor have the power to support themselves against any attack. Violence is also a problem for female characters in Indian films, which has been problematic over the years. In the 1993 film Baazigar, Seema, Priya, and Chopra's mother, are victims of violence of varying degrees because they are women. Seema and Priya are Ajay's easy targets to get even with Chopra for killing his parents (Jain & Jain, 1993). The deceit Ajay plots and carries out on the young women succeeds because the female characters have no power to find out the truth about the nature of the person dealing with them. Seema writes a suicide note as Ajay directs her and almost commits suicide. Her vulnerability is a platform for Ajay to accomplish his revenge against Chopra. At the same time, Ajay's mother is a target that Chopra uses to harm his opponent. There is nothing much in this film that shows that women have the power of any kind. In the end, the male characters take the glory of the outcomes as women's position in the processes and outcomes of the war indicate nothing of use.

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The objectification of the female body also exists in Bollywood films and serves to equate the female body, including sexual functions and appearance, with the worth of women. However, the sexual objectification of female characters is non-changing, a fact that the randomly selected films indicate. In the film Veer Zaara (2004), Saamiya, Veer's lawyer, faces challenges in dealing with his defense case because most of the people she meets doubt her abilities as a woman to defend a client in court (Chopra & Chopra, 2004). Women in society are seen as objects of sex and cannot do the things men do to survive. However, Sameer disapproves of the notion. She successfully defends her client. This film contradicts the earlier notions that women were useful for no purpose other than sexually objectified roles. The struggle for social and economic equality between men and women in South Asia thus seems to begin to change and allow women to pursue their work objectives.

The development of women's position in society away from the objectification of their bodies is evident in Dangal (2016). Here, Geeta and her sister try to prove to their father and society that women, too, can wrestle. Geeta has several attempts and wins and soon becomes the envy of many people in her society. The film gained popularity and fame for the "breaking of norms" where women are seen as people with no power. However, Dangal supports that women's bodies have other uses than making children and caring for families. Nonetheless, the depiction of Geeta in the film indicates how much the South Asian communities do not allow women to experience life beyond their appearances.

The Bollywood imagination of the woman and her body has never changed since the films gained popularity. The films show that women are the weaker gender who cannot achieve or do the things that men do to survive in society. Their role is limited to giving birth, being subjects of violence, and failing to question their victimization. Their bodies are sexually objectified and expressed as a source of entertainment for the men.

The selected films show that the role of South Asian women in society is non-heroic, and their bodies are properties of the men who can decide for them who marry people the men's choices are to be praised for their beauty and nothing more. The thesis that women are objects of the male gaze, victims of violence, objectification subjects, and under the patriarchal power is sensible to the extent that the randomly selected films between 982 and 2016 run the same themes. The films may convince the audience that South Asian women are second-class citizens, powerless, clueless about life, and important to the extent that they are objects of sex and male satisfaction of sexual desires.

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Chopra, Y., & Chopra, A. (2004, November 12). Veer-Zaara. [Video]. YouTube.

Jain, G., & Jain, C. (1993, November 12). Baazigaar [Video]. YouTube.

Khan, A., Rao, K., & Kapur., R. S. (2016, December 23). Dingaal [Video]. YouTube.

Mandal’s, S. V. P. K. (2020). The Politics of'Gaze'in Shyam Benegal's film Nishant (Doctoral dissertation, Government of India Best College 2016-17, University of Mumbai).

Rai., G. (1982, December 3). Vidhaata [Video]. YouTube.



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