Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Innocent until proved guilty?”

Posted on February 1, 2013


It’s easy to blame cinema as the reason we behave this way and that, but doesn’t some of the responsibility lie with us?

A few days ago, in panel discussion about the objectification of women, I found myself in the somewhat unenviable position of having to defend our cinema against charges like… well, you all know what the charges are. One of the panellists trotted out the point that item numbers are used to objectify women, and worse, they are a spangle-studded gun held against the heads of aspiring starlets, with the warning that if they don’t do these numbers then the trigger will be pulled on their career. And I said that while the objectification part may be true, most item numbers these days feature top-rung heroines who already have the careers most people can only dream of. And if they’re doing these numbers, it’s for money (acting is a profession, after all), extra visibility between releases, and perhaps even as an expression of their sexuality. These girls work hard on their bodies, and they starve themselves to size-zero figures – and who’s to deny them the opportunity to flaunt the, um, fruits of their penances?

Everything needs to be looked at in context – whether an item number or something worse, like the depiction of rape. There’s a difference between the gang rape in Bandit Queen and the rape of Shilpa Shirodkar’s character in Bhrashtachar. The former drives home the nature of the crimes that turned a fairly unremarkable woman into a dreaded dacoit, and the point isn’t carnality so much as brutality. The landscape is harsh and ugly, and the lighting is merciless, and Shekhar Kapur, the director, makes us feel many emotions here – rage, helplessness, awkwardness (which may cause some of us to look away from the screen) – but we are never turned on. We are never asked to leer at the act, which is what (shockingly) Ramesh Sippy seemed to be doing in the latter film, with its lush lighting and snaking camerawork, which seemed to be performing its own act of rape. There was a sickening element of voyeurism here. You may argue that here too we are being asked to witness the helplessness of a woman, but it doesn’t feel right. It feels gratuitous.

Then there’s the contention that the songs in our films are all about the hero forcing the reluctant heroine into his arms, and the two offenders routinely cited are the Jumma chumma number from Hum (which a sociologist called a “gang rape”), and Koi haseena jab rooth jaati hai from Sholay. In the former, Amitabh Bachchan and a horde of lusty drunks beseech Kimi Katkar for a kiss, and in the latter, Dharmendra badgers an irate Hema Malini until her anger evaporates. There are countless other songs that cross the border into the troublesome territory of eve teasing, but these numbers – again – must be seen in context. In Jumma chumma, Kimi Katkar is a willing participant in the revelry. She even asks what she’ll get in return for her kiss. Now where all this falls on the taste barometer is a different issue, and the song is a cacophonous assault on the ears – but the content has to do with mutual teasing between lovers, nothing less, nothing more.

Do sexually provocative films encourage unacceptable behaviour on the streets? I don’t have an answer, other than to wonder if the geysers of blood in a Quentin Tarantino movie inspire copycat criminal acts. (The director lost his cool recently when asked, by Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy, about the violent content he unabashedly purveys. His subsequent rant is as entertaining a monologue as you’ll find in his films.) And why is it that everyone is happy to blame cinema but not the people who are influenced in disturbing ways? I refer to the mothers on television, who allow their little girls to participate in dance-themed reality shows, executing dance numbers like Jumma chumma. It’s horrible seeing prepubescent girls baring their midriffs and thrusting their barely bloomed bodies into cameras, beyond which the mothers stand applauding. Forget the objectification of women, this is the objectification of children. One can only hope that these parents are a minority.

The objectification of women, the viewing of women as “sex objects,” has been a part of society long before cinema came into existence. This is not to defend crude content – far from it! – but simply to make the case that the ways in which we behave are a result of a complex set of variables, of which the movies we watch and the music we hear and the books we read are just a few. So many millions watch movies, and yet, we are stumped by the actions of a few. If films opt for a blanket ban on sex scenes, what’s to stop people from seeking pornographic content available so freely on the web? Can we not trust audiences to make the distinction between aggressive flirtation and outright harassment? How does something on screen insinuate itself in a viewer’s mind at a behavioural level? In other words, what we need to determine the effects of cinema on society aren’t speculations but studies.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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