Do Indian films promote sexual violence and harassment?

In Movie Reviews on January 10, 2013 at 12:57 pm


I think this is a chicken or egg conundrum. Did the sociopath mimic the movie or vice versa?

India being the land of Kama Sutra, is yet to come to terms in bringing the bedroom to the living room of an eager audience. We are not talking pornography here, but depiction of intimacy through gender equality. Strong and liberated characterization through emancipation of womenkind.

Was Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra a depiction of intimacy through gender inequality? I do not think so, but a misogynistic and patriarchal society may beg to differ! The west knows India by what we export: Yoga, Ravi Shankar and Kama Sutra. Hence my question on an important ancient text.

The depiction of sexual intimacy on the silver screen has remained a clandestine activity shrouded in the cover of a private darkness for the movie going audience. The depiction of sexual intimacy when it comes out of that shroud and into the open bright glare of daylight, apparently assaults us with violence in the form of degrading behavior. Vatsyayana experts can shed some light on this stupid behavior.

The Indian censor board does not allow for movie scenes depicting frontal nudity or lip locks. Such intimate scenes get the censor board’s axe. Suppression of such public display of intimacy in the past, has given rise to an unusual exposition of bestiality – rape.

The movies of old, “titillated” the audience with rape scenes. In other words, the only way a director could slip in intimacy was through violation of human dignity.

Over time, the censor boards became liberal and have allowed for a little more public display of intimacy. I believe the number of silver screen rapes have seen a steady decline. Rape is the worst form of intimacy depiction, there being other minor forms detailed later. Society’s deviant mores are reflected well on the widescreen.

Honor Porn

A Tamil movie Paruthiveeran won a few prestigious National Film Awards a few years ago.  A bucolic sweep of cinematography transports the audience to an arid hamlet in Madurai.  In a climactic scene, a gang-rape victim lies dying in the arms of her lover, pleading for death. Presumably to die with honor in her lover’s hands instead of continuing to live as an ignominious rape-survivor.  Her lover obliges, and murders her in public view.  An enraged public, unaware of her gang-rape, assumes what it sees, stones her lover to death thinking him to be a violent madman.

A troubling climax.  A rape-victim choosing to die than to live.  Honorable death over a dishonorable life as a rape survivor.  The movie plays out society’s dharma of honor.  The criminals walk away.  Honor porn is bloody, but a tribal justice is served.  Tribal justice strikes a raw nerve and a deeper chord than a fast-track court in Delhi can.  The rapists walk free, yet again.  In cinema as in real-life.

Two lives taken, criminals walk free, but honor, apparently restored to an original virtuous state.

Rajnikant, a super hero of the Tamil film industry, is purported to have said to the director of this film, Ameer This is not a movie, this is poetry. I could not have agreed more, it was a well crafted movie, the year was 2007 and rapes, we assumed, only happened on the silver screen or to other people’s daughters. Honor killing, it was called. But there is no honor in killing. The perpetrator is a murderer and anybody who laps it up as a good deed, is enjoying honor porn. It maybe that once society changes it’s attitude, the movies will reflect that. But they can also do us a favor and put the focus on the criminal and tell us crime does not pay. This is the only way a chicken-or-egg conundrum can be hacked into a beneficial reality.

Psychologist Neha Patel, while agreeing with the general perception that television and films do influence people, said that a vivid display of the consequences of rape can help in reducing such crime.

We have seen how ads send out subtle messages. When films show rape scenes, they often focus on the suffering of the girl instead of showing the consequences borne by the man

Justice in Jest

There is a woman in the tamil cinema that consistently exacts justice from men who have wronged her. You may think that she would make a perfect role-model to be emulated in real life.

Unfortunately she is a comedienne. Her name is Kovai Sarala. Much beloved to her fans. But justice is confused with revenge. She seeks to avenge more than she seeks justice. But even when she exacts justice through revenge, it creates an unresolved anxiety if the element of humor does not transport it. Justice is unreal in the real world, hence is portrayed as comedy on the silver screen.

Cinema offers in comic relief, what real life fails to eke out in tragedy.

Another way of looking at it is to say that protesting is futile. Or better yet, only the funny do it. That is truly sad.
Apart from the heinous screening of honor porn, we should also note the following in a negative light:

  1. The hero harasses his love interest till she succumbs to his romantic songs and charms. She is more often than not, depicted as a push-over. Musical harassment bears rich rewards! Did not mean to ruin the party for Chulbul Pandey with this animated gif image, but you get the gist of how Bollywood does it!  Women activists are seeing red in this one-sided full-thrust romance, that men in the audience, have come to accept as mildly cute. Their frustration is over the wrong message being delivered: A “No!” from her, actually means a “Yes!” on the big screen
  2. chulbulStrong scripts for women are rarely written. But this is a universal problem. Hollywood suffers as much as Bollywood. Not many women in the entertainment industry where it matters. Not many women scriptwriters or songwriters. We are stuck to the mostly same women singers for life.
  3. There is a common belief that non-conformist and liberal girls on the movie screen may not be received well in B-category smaller towns. This is slowly changing as there is a huge migrant population from the villages, aspiring to a big city life.
  4. Raunchy dance numbers called “item numbers” are the rage of Bollywood movies. Heroines achieve ethereal status, by gyrating to the heavy beats of dance numbers that are themselves loaded with suggestive sexual innuendos. Thrusting the pelvis in an artful or aesthetic dance form is the basic structure of an “item number”. While the heroine is as scantily clad as possible, the hero himself is depicted as a well groomed gentleman. Thus the women are objectified as mere vamps. The incessant chatter about the “Top 10”, list the best of such item numbers in the public media. The constant playing of these catchy dance numbers have made such “item numbers” acceptable as the new normal in Indian cinema.
  5. As the censor board limits depiction of sexual intimacy beyond a point, the song lyrics have advanced to the other extreme of sexual expression. Many lyrics are penned with double entendre in mind. Of late, the songs have become even more direct and troublesome in their depiction of women. A recent flare-up occurred when the lyrics of a Punjabi rapper, Yo! Yo! Honey Singh’s lyrics, crossed over into a non-vanilla treatment of women. What did he do? and did the timing prove disastrous?
  6. In an Indian society where the choice of movie to be watched is usually determined by the male, does a movie depicting a liberated woman stand to succeed at the box-office? The answer is an expected and emphatic “No!”. Such films if any, are received well by an accepting audience in the big cities and metropolis theaters, but fail to woo the audiences of the B-Category towns or the C-Category villages of India.

Some bright spots on an evolving plot line:

  • In a recent Aamir Khan production called Talaash, the scriptwriter was a woman – Reema Kagti. She scripted a wonderful role for the protagonist’s wife. Though not truly liberated, she goes through a character change, much before the protagonist goes through a self-revelation. Such films with strong female characters are few and far in between.
  • Aamir Khan is an actor with an activist’s agenda and succeeds in his comercial ventures. His activist agenda based serial on the small-screen was well received. He had a very popular theme once regarding the girl child and the problem of female infanticide in India: With the recent national debate over misogyny and patriarchy, there are bound to be new Bollywood films that will tacke the problem on mainstream comercial movies.

Hope does come in strange packages! When the Bollywood stars came out to protest the unsafe environment for women during the recent Delhi gang-rape outcry, many of their adoring fans criticized their vile objectification of women on-screen. There is hope that moving forward, such a public debate might make it’s mark felt on-screen.

So, was adding the song Shiela ki Jawani (a popular item number), to the end of my podcast, defeating the purpose of the blog?

I wanted a 5 second intro to the audio and was mesmerized by a soulful rendition of this popular item number by the band Rave. I let the entire piece play out.

I like to leave it that way for two reasons: I am not preaching complete abstinence for the movie industry, just an introspection and possible corrections to hard-wired notions of honor, shame and masculine entitlements.

The blues version here, *slows* down a 78 rpm high-octane number to a 33 1/3 rpm introspection. Introspection is good.


  1. PRI’s Marco Werman talks to Dr. Uma Vangal, Professor, LV Prasad Film Academy, Chennai
  2. PRI – The girl ratio problem of India
  3. Portrayals of Sexual Violence in Popular Hindi Films, 1997–99
  4. Rape, Violence and Movies: India needs more responsible cinema
  5. Chemical castration is a weak deterrent to rape
  6. Wanton soup for the Indian Rapist
  7. Talaash – an advanced storyline
  8. Aamir Khan and the girl child – Take 1


This blog was positioned prominently at The World’s (BBC, PRI, WGBH) #worldgender site. Thanks to the fabulous PRI Social Media team that did that!

Peter Vas ‏@peter_vas
@ArunRath @MarcoWerman @nitabhalla @trust_law @pritheworld thank you guys for the coverage! @pritheworld

PRI’s The World ‏@pritheworld
@peter_vas Thank you for that insightful post and for those related links! #worldgender




The New Delhi Gang-Rape and Other Gender Issues
chemcast hijra indianfilms
Wanton Soup for the Indian Rapist Chemical Castration The Hiijras of India


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