Last week I found myself in the ladies compartment of the commuter rail from the outskirts of the city to the northern suburbs. Like cargo trains carrying colorful mixed fruits, this section transported women in technicolor saris back to the city. Every few minutes another train would pass us and men in the other compartments would peer into our car, glimpsing briefly at other men’s wives, girlfriends and daughters. The women around me perched their feet on empty seats, leaned their heads against rattling window bars and closed their eyes slowly, weary from a long day. I wanted to know where their feet stood in their household, what put the wrinkles and tiredness into their beautiful faces, and when they slowly closed their eyes, how they saw themselves, their role in Indian society. I felt, sitting in the ladies section of the commuter rail, that these women were segregated from the men, not so much out of respect, but that they were precious cargo, needed to be handled with care. For who else would feed, care for and comfort the husbands and sons, whizzing past on an opposite train? I have only been here a few weeks and yet I am already frustrated by the role of women in India. It seems that women here are still everything that the Bollywood classic Mother India set up for them; they are mothers and wives, caring for all of Indian society, holding India up on their colorfully clothed backs. Yes, much has changed. I would be naive to not recognize this. But the very large remnant of traditional female roles in India that I see reflected in the precious cargo of the women’s section of the train is reflected also in the production and viewership of Hindi television and film.
I spent this past week meeting with directors and editors in the film and television industry here in Mumbai. One such editor I met with was Pranav Dhiwar, editor of the Bollywood hit Dabangg. As I mentioned in my previous post, he told me about how all of India loves to see Salman Khan’s shirt come off(I might add that his shirt comes off only after destroying his opponents and partially destroying some sort of structure or village). I discussed, not only with Pranav, but with Manish Jha and Hemal Kothari, two other industry professionals I met with, how Bollywood films are driven by “heroes” or male superstars. Not only does the plot of most films follow the hero, but directors get funding only once they have found their heroes. All three agreed on why Bollywood films always center around men, rarely around women: as Bollywood films are a form of escapism for Indians, they present characters who are all that the ordinary Indian man cannot be; they are hyperreal and hypermasculine, offering a vicarious existence to the masses of male workers living throughout India. It is escapist fare for normal men who don’t look like their Gold’s Gym membership card is their most prized possession. After working for hours, Pranav tells me, people do not want to see a story about women’s everyday existence. This comment is not a sexist one, but is rather just an honest observation regarding film viewership of Bollywood films. That is why a film like Matrubhoomi, directed by Manish Jha(a phenomenal film about female infanticide and a woman who is forced into polyandry that I would highly recommend) was an international critical success, but not a huge blockbuster in India. What all of this indicates is that the escapism offered by Bollywood films is gendered. Bollywood films are produced, not as an escape for Indians, but as an escape for Indian men. This is not to say that women do not enjoy films like Dabangg. They do. In fact Jyoti, the keeper of the guesthouse where I am staying, has the theme song from Dabangg as her new ringtone. But she is not the intended audience for the film, nor does she match the intensity of Yogesh or Mukesh, two Indian men, in her fandom for the film.
The female realm is largely absent in Indian films. Even the love stories, which in Hollywood films usually center around the woman’s perspective, are here focused on the man. Take Veer Zaara, a romantic epic with Shahrukh Khan, the king of Bollywood. This films focuses on the man’s plight in jail, sacrificing himself for the woman he loves. Or Guzaarish, a recent film, which again focuses on the plight of the male protagonist, even as he falls in love with the supposed “most beautiful woman in the world,” Aishwarya Rai. This is not to say that there are not strong female characters in Bollywood films. Both of these films in fact have two strong lawyers. Even the ‘70s classic Sholay features a strong female role that diverges from the archetypes of Bollywood films: sexually loose rebel, chaste bride, and loving mother. Nonetheless, these women are always secondary characters. Pranav, responding to my queries of why there are not more films centering around a female protagonist, noted how there is no precedent for heroines in Indian film. While the U.S. has a popular cultural history of female superheroes in comic books, like Batwoman and Superwoman, India has no such precedent. I suppose that is why a film like Dabangg can be made, but a Charlie’s Angels would never find funding in India.
So where does the female realm appear in Indian media? The answer is in television. A few days ago I went to the set of Gulaal, an Indian serial television show about a young woman who has a talent for finding water in the desert and the various dramas that happen with her family. Shanhnawaz, one of the directors of the show, spoke with me and explained that the majority of Indian television shows are about families and take place in the home. While Hollywood cinema places the world of women in melodrama, women’s films and chick flicks, Bollywood puts it on television. The TV shows revolve around women in the home; the worries of mothers and daughters fill the screen in contrast to the hypermasculinity of the Khan men on screen, killing bad guys with one hand, romancing their future wives with the other. The gendering of television as female is clear even inside the guesthouse where I am staying. Of all the various channels on television playing many different Hindi films, Jyoti chooses to flip to a soap opera revolving around a teenage wife whose marriage has been arranged to a much older man. Yet when Yogesh comes into the guesthouse and sees the Dabangg DVD lying on the coffee table, he blurts out what a great film it is and how it is his favorite, as if he were ready to sit down and watch it there and then. While I think television is a great medium and a very strong force in popular culture, it is, in my opinion, still regarded as secondary to film. As such, the fact that films revolve around men and television around women is a reflection of a culture that still is very patriarchal.
On the set of Gulaal, which was filled with at least fifty crew members running around, I saw only three other women: two were cast members, and the other woman was the script supervisor. I tell Shahnawaz how I think it is funny how they are making a television show about women, for women, and yet almost the entire crew is male. He laughs and agrees; it is funny. He tells me how most women in television tend to be behind the scenes: art direction, costume design, etc. I ask Safeena Husain, the founder of the organization that is hosting me here and the director of Educate Girls Globally, if she agrees that there is a lack of women in film and television production in Mumbai. Yes, she says, she can count the number of famous female directors on one hand. Yet to count the number of male industry professionals and directors I can now name in this industry I would need the arms of Vishnu or Kali.