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Issue 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

Geetanjali Chanda

It is common to witness individuals who are vocal about the misogyny that is prevalent within Bollywood music, to be seen tapping their toes to the same problematic lyrics on a dance floor. Is it ever okay to listen to music that is degrading to a particular gender? And if we do, does that make us less of a feminist? Are we truly #SmashingThePatriarchy?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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