It is integral for the proper functioning of a society to have previously established rules, regulations and a clear social hierarchy. It is important because where there is opposition; there is a struggle for power, thus inequalities arise. That’s just how the way of the world works. From a more sociological viewpoint, it’s functionalism.
From a functionalist point of view, everything has a reason and a function within society. This in terms means that society is a system of connected parts that work together in order to create equilibrium. This means that we need people in all different social hierarchies in order to maintain the social order of things. Basically, we need inequality amongst our society for it to remain balanced.
Let’s take the world of Bollywood as an example. When you think about it, most of the themes that are focused on in mainstream Indian cinemas are on romantic love. There are always underlining and overt inequalities that are shown that unfold throughout the plotline, in the forms of economic, political and gender inequalities. Women’s portrayal within the Indian cinema is shown very poorly, and quite often just a subplot, or even a mere “showpiece” character. They are often subjected to crude and oppressive behavior on the part of the men. Not only does it play a part in establishing inequalities, but their religion and economic status do as well.
Gender distinctions and inequalities are based on the purpose to belittle the women further from the men through the class systems that have already been established within the Indian society. If we were to evaluate the scene from the movie Bandit Queen, whereas a young girl, Phoolan Devi, is sold by her father. They were already impoverished, and as her parents believed that there was no other option for them to survive had they not taken that decision. Thus, she is forced into a life that was chosen on behalf of her, which is a clear disregard of her rights.
On the other hand, the movie Devdas shows Paro’s purity and worth being criticized by Devdas’s family due to the social status of her family compared to theirs. In that scene, we could see the overt discrimination being carried out not just by Devdas’s father but also his mother. It is almost troubling to see that women are at times the ones who could be each other’s worst enemies. This scene not only shows that women are as cruel to each other based on the same ideals that have also been installed into our psyches based on the premise of economic and social statuses.
If we were to focus restrictively on the aspect of inequalities in respect of religious backgrounds then it clear that religion plays a major factor in the defining of the status of individuals, mainly women in the movies. For example, as seen throughout the film in Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi is constantly being ostracized and at the same time violated by the men in the society, due to the fact that she is a low caste woman who is living away from her husband. In their minds, she should be subjected to the cruel actions, because of her identity and her actions. She is constantly seen as an object to acquire and manipulate thus stripping away all her rights.
Contrary to this, in Devdas, Paro after being married into royalty, she does gain status and respect, but she is forced into the confinements of being the traditional mother, wife, and daughter-in-law. Both women characters are opposites but, in every aspect, share this mutual idea that they are in fact in a constant state of oppression by the men in the society. Although in Paro’s situation, her religious subjection is not as blatant as Phoolan Devi, she must fulfill the dutiful role of the Devi Parvati to her husband. Therefore, generating the traditional religious ideals of how women should act.
If we were to go through the catalogs of all the mainstream Bollywood films, we would see that there are far fewer movies that are concentrated on female leads that show them in a positive manner. Even in present-day, in blockbuster movies such as Dhoom, Dabangg, Singham and etc, the women are always secondary or tertiary characters that have no significance to the plotline. This is an apparent problem in most of the films that have graced the silver screen. In many movies, the female characters are just there to be pretty and dance in a few songs. The film Simmba gained commercial success and the promotion for it was extravagant. The leading lady, Sara Ali Khan, was highlighted everywhere in the media for her part in the film, except the film itself. The female characters were given no great importance to the storyline.
However, this is not the case for many recent films, where the women are at the center, such as Dear Zindagi, Queen, Chhapaak and Veere di Wedding just to name a few. Although, these women do not embody the characteristics that are celebrated, in fact, they are always belittled due to those characteristics that are cheered upon for men who have them.
Bollywood is growing. There is a progression towards stories that showcase women in powerful and uplifting roles. English Vinglish, for example, the main character, previously seen as the traditional wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister, who does not have any ambitions, desires of her own, or even an identity. In the movie, we see her growth in character and finding an identity; a woman with dreams and a need for respect. The Indian cinema is gearing towards a more developing narrative for the female characters.
The whole idea that there is a need for an “item song” to be present in a movie for its success is beyond comprehension. The women are there to please the men. It can be seen as degrading, yes. But I feel like there is a little victory in there. Which basically comes back to the way society. Everyone has a purpose. But we need to use it to turn it into power rather than a weakness. Which is what is seen with most of these songs nowadays. You need that extra character, “flavor” to add to your film in order for it to soar all the achievements. But again, they are there to be the shiny little things to distract the audience from the horrible “cul de sac” plotline.
The role of women in Bollywood films is based on the institutionalized ideas of how women are beneath in all aspects of society in comparison to men. Another factor, that should be taken into consideration is the fact that there are hierarchies amongst women as well and that has to do with their socio-economic and caste.
Although, there are several instances within the Indian cinema nowadays that showcase women in powerful roles they are still at the end of the day pushed to one side of the film or the films are categorized as art films that do not get much attention from the mainstream population. But hopefully getting a few progressive female and males voices will show a gradual change.