Epic Drama and Epic Confusion, Courtesy of Bollywood by Vibha Shetiya

VibaI love Bollywood. The colors, the over-the-top drama, the singing and dancing, the suspension of reality for three hours…I see how it can provide a break from the challenges of everyday life for over 700 million Indians living below the poverty line (and then some). But Bollywood movies also have a frightening side to them. On one hand they transport the viewer to la-la land; on the other, this very fantasy world has the power to set social norms. And yes, it becomes confusing – no kissing, no nudity, yet vulgarity is on full display when camera angles capture the fully dressed heroine’s chest heaving to pulsating music, while she is soaked to the skin in pouring rain, dressed in white, mind you. Sometimes there is no need for the rains. Katrina Kaif’s Chikni Chameli “item” number will attest to this.

But let us move away from the “purely entertaining” angle and return to the idea that Bollywood not only reinforces cultural stereotypes but also has the potential to influence behavior that governs everyday attitudes.

I recently (re)watched Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (And the Truelove Will Carry Away the Bride) with an American friend. DDLJ (1995) as it is fondly called is one of India’s all-time beloved movies. So much so that soon after taking office in 2014, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi declared it a show-case of Indian tradition. I can see how it touches a patriotic chord: the story centers on an Indian family living in Britain, but still “Indian at heart.” Well, the father decides that his daughters born and raised in London are Indian at heart. Of course things go terribly wrong when the older girl, Simran, falls in love with someone dad doesn’t approve of. Raj is Indian, but not a bona fide one in that he has adapted to “the shameless and derelict ways of Westerners.” The family packs their bags and moves back to India where Simran is to be immediately married off to the father’s jigri dost’s (dear friend’s) son, Kuljit. Now as one can imagine, when the film in question is a Bollywood one, this is not drama enough. There’s plenty more to come. But I’ll leave it to you to decide how much drama is drama enough…

I am more interested in discussing the stereotypical “from reel life to real life” elements. Goofball Raj is a curious character. He means no harm when he is playfully touching Simran against her wishes, trying to sit on her lap while attempting to get a peek of the book she’s reading – this is their very first meeting, in case you were wondering. She is annoyed, of course, but is eventually presented as the difficult one when she continues rejecting Raj’s advances even as he attempts to save her from the Italian police who demand to see her missing passport. The climax of the movie occurs when Simran terrified that she and Raj might have had sex while she was drunk (wouldn’t that amount to rape on his part?) is put to ease by Raj – “I know what that means to a Hindustani girl, and I would never, ever tamper with that” (okay, I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist, pun intended).

There are two things going on here – one, molestation in the form of Raj’s constantly invading Simran’s personal space is supposedly funny and cute, and two, amid issues of patriarchal intervention, cultural displacement and mixed messaging, it is Simran’s virginity that is of prime concern. Mass confusion all around. I am having a hard time deciding what the audience is to get out of this. That despite his total disregard for her privacy, he is the honorable one since he doesn’t rape her? Or the fact that the onus lies on the woman to see to it that her izzat or honor remains untarnished? The role of “playfulness” on the part of a “loveable” man in a country where molestation is euphemistically termed “eve-teasing” is not just misleading, but dangerous to say the least. As dangerous as the idea that rape is a blot on the victim’s – and by extension her family or even community’s – izzat.

So then, is the underlying message of the film the advice Simran’s mother’s gives her: “It’s okay [for women] to dream, my dear, just don’t expect the dreams to come true” (thereby eliciting an appropriate “eew” from my friend)? Or is it the martyr Raj’s words towards the end of the film when, upon realizing that her father would never agree to their alliance, he tells Simran – “Listen to your father, Simran. You should marry Kuljit. Elders always know what is right.” Maybe. But it would have been nice to hear what Simran had to say. Or perhaps it is the message that stalking a woman is okay since it proves the hero’s “undying love” for the heroine.

As I mentioned at the beginning – these movies can be fun to watch, no doubt. But it is important to realize that they are to be ingested with spoonfuls of salt as unrealistic flights of fancy. When they are taken – not to mention consciously promoted – as representative of “Indian values,” and the line between fact and fiction blurred, even erased, it is time for us to sit up and question the dangers of such entertainment forms. Moreover, those of us who have the luxury to venture away from basic concerns such as food, clothing and shelter, must endeavor to inculcate an environment of questioning and challenging not just that which appears complicated and anathema to Indian values, but also that which often comes as second nature to us – statements such as “Boys will always be boys…” given with a playfully exasperated sigh.

Little wonder then that young men themselves seem to be confused when women are beginning to summon up the courage to slap them with sexual harassment suits after a jolly good time of “just joking around.”


Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She will be teaching a class on eastern religion at University of New Mexico this coming fall.

Categories: Consent, Feminism, Film, General

Tags: , ,

19 replies

  1. Interesting article, thank you. Back when I was younger, I was a big fan of both Bollywood and Hollywood, but nowadays, I have neither time nor desire for either of them, and your article reminds me why. ;) However, very important we stay aware of these influences on others! Hook ’em horns. :) (I am an old alumni.)


    • Thank you, Karen (my fellow ex-Horns:). When I used to live in India, I wasn’t into Bollywood, but living in America has perhaps made me more “nostalgic”? I think, though, mostly it is the social aspect – I always watch them with friends and we laugh and cry together. Oh, the drama!


  2. Thank you for this exploration of the cultural context of Bollywood, which I knew very little about. You are right – the mass media holds such power to either change or reinforce cultural norms and we need to be aware of what messages movies, television, social media, etc are sending and work to change them when they promote the subjugation of and violence against women. A wonderful post that I hope is widely read!


  3. This reminds me of Mexican telenovelas. A number of Hispanic women are converting to Islam to escape the sexualization of women in many Latin American cultures. Apparently, that alone will not help. Sadly, nearly everywhere what sells? Sexualization of women and violence–often against women as well.


    • Thank you for bringing this to my notice, Juliana (re: Hispanic women converting to Islam to escape sexualization). As you point out – will that put an end to it? Sadly not. While writing this piece, my mind drifted to the old James Bond movies.


  4. The only Bollywood movie I’ve seen is Bride and Prejudice, i.e., Pride and Prejudice. It was a lot of fun, but Bollywood just isn’t something I appreciate. Thanks for writing this perceptive blog. I learned a lot.


    • Bride and Prejudice was indeed colorful and Bollywood-esque, Barbara. However – and many people are unaware of this – it is not a Bollywood movie. It was made by Gurinder Chadha, an Indian woman raised and living in Britain, which explains why most of her films deal with Indians living in the British diaspora. (She also directed hits like Bend It Like Beckham and Bhaji on the Beach) I haven’t watched Bride and Prejudice, but her films while often following the imagery and style of Bollywood try to address the failings of Bollywood, perhaps explaining why her movies are often women-centric.


      • When I had the borrowed DVD, I watched all the extras, including the feature about the director. But I had no idea until this very minute that it’s only a Bollywoodesque movie.

        Are you familiar with the TV series Smash, which was about efforts to make a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe? One of the male characters was Indian, and late in the first season they did a Bollywoodesque dance number (in a restaurant!) that was a lot of fun to watch. But it was only a big musical number with no particular message.


      • No, I’m not, Barbara, but I’ll definitely have to check it out now! Thanks.


  5. Interesting insight into bollywood movies. I grew up watching them in Senegal (Bollywood was the sole movie industry offering before French and American movies took over.) The rhythmic music, bright clothing, general demeanor and even some of the cultural mores were very similar to ours. I was more into the darker themes ones with the hero and his evil twin, the overacting tortured greats such as Amithab bacham and Darmendra…
    Meanwhile, I am sure I completely overlooked the various cultural/gender issues that permeate them, such as the ones you mention.
    Looking forward to watching another bollywood movie with those issues in mind.


    • It is only when I got older that I too began watching them with a critical eye, Po. Also, I knew Bollywood movies were popular in many parts of the world, but I did not know that included Senegal!


      • Òh, so much so that there were Senegalese bands that played Indian music. One of our main stars, Thione Seck, has a singing style that is inspired by Bollywood, and he even made a full album with Indian musicians.
        Here is about another Indian influenced album he made:

        “For Thione Seck, the blend of Arabic, Indian, and African music on display here is a natural outgrowth of his own art. Seck, a griot of the Wolof people, grew up watching Indian Bollywood films in the theaters of Dakar. He was also raised a Mouride, a follower of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a Muslim mystic and Senegalese national hero. While trusted with the duty of transmitting Wolof heritage and wisdom to new generations, the exposure that Seck had to multicultural influences in Senegal was percolating throughout his music. Thione Seck practiced Indian singing and he listened to Arabic prayers; all the while, he was a member of the Star Band of Dakar, Orchestre Baobab, and Raam Dann, experimenting with Senegalese music.

        Orientation is the project that takes Seck’s music further than it has ever gone before. The album had its origins in the early 1990s, when Seck envisioned music that would involve contributions from Senegalese, Indian, and Arabic musicians.
        In the end, over forty musicians worked to bring Seck’s project to fruition. The results are exciting, the songs supple and intoxicating. To say that repeated listening is required sounds clichéd, and yet hearing these cultures mesh is mesmerizing and demands the time. The Egyptian percussion on “Manmignoul (Ode to the colour black)” drives the song; Seck’s voice floats over the rhythmic ocean gracefully, joined by an Arabic violin solo. Some of the best moments are the Indian-inspired ones. The drone that sets the stage for “Ballago” segues into gorgeous orchestration. The Bollywood influence is also apparent on the male/female duet of “Assalo (Candle games),” which is hypnotic, as dense as the smoke of incense. “Djirim (Orphan)” is a gorgeous song, underpinned by woodwinds and marimbas, cinematic in telling the tale of the motherless child treated cruelly by his stepmother.”



      • Thank you, Po. I just read his interview, and will soon be listening to his music!


  6. Great post! I have long been fascinated by the splendor, dance sequences, and the paradoxes which reside in Bollywood films.

    Another interesting facet is how in the last 5 years, Bollywood films have started to incorporate a lot more elements of “Western” cinema with storylines of premarital sex/pregnancies, drug use, and even recently a zombie movie called “Go, Goa, Gone.”


  7. Great post. Unfortunately, the problems you highlight pervade all of the media, far beyond Bollywood. From here in Nepal I see that the cable channels (Zee TV with its Desperate Housewives, Two and a Half Men, and other crapification serials from the USA, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, HBO, Cinemax, Star Movies, etc) targeting the middle and upper-middle classes – all run marketing which is so gender biased it is immediately obvious how entrenched this problem really is.

    A minority of ads promote a liberative image of women, but the vast majority depict women and girls as male-adjunct servants, to be lollified with trinkets when they are not slaving away cleaning and cooking and child-rearing. Men, on the other hand, are portrayed as patriarchal lords of power. Ageism is also right behind, in portraying elders as feeble no-minds, rather than the generation that overthrew colonialism!

    It would be great if awards could be developed to present to the ad agencies and product sponsors who promote the wholesome portraits, and others to shame the promoters of the feudal medieval, with full press releases for media blitz, etc.

    Where are women’s activist groups that are focused particularly on media, film, and public representations of women?

    On the up-side, we have good news of such effective coalition building among women caste-oppression activists: http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/meet-the-women-trying-to-take-down-indias-caste-apartheid-and-finding-hope-in-black-lives-matter-20151023


    • I totally agree. All the current US commercials target women for home appliances like vacuum cleaners and dishwasher detergents. I mean, that is sort of “expected” in a country like India. But in America, I am often surprised at how subtle the messages can be, which to my mind, can be more dangerous. Also, thank you for the link! There is always hope for a better tomorrow.


  8. Vibha, I enjoyed reading your article. The themes your mentioned really are carried over in every movie. Not to mention the demonization of the ‘Modern girl’


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: