One of the first scenes in this year’s superhit film Kabir Singh shows the titular character (portrayed by Shahid Kapoor) threatening a woman at knife-point to undress, so he can have sex with her. Worse, the scene is played for laughs. It’s a classic example of the ever-present toxic masculinity in Bollywood movies, which condones gender-based violence against women.
Toxic masculinity in Bollywood films
Kabir doesn’t leave college because he sees Preeti Sikka (Kiara Advani), a girl in a junior batch and, just like that, falls in ‘love’, without having had a conversation with her. When Kabir meets her for the first time, the power differential between them is uncomfortably obvious – a senior boy, scary, aggressive, masculine; a junior girl, scared, quiet, hesitant – and, without any context or consent, kisses her on cheek in front of everyone. Kabir Singh casually slaps Pretti in a fit of rage in a later scene.
“When you are deeply in love and deeply connected to a woman (and vice versa), if you don’t have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don’t see anything there,” said director Sandeep Vanga when asked about the allegations of toxic masculinity and violent treatment of women in the film. Kabir Singh is a scene-by-scene remake of Telugu blockbuster Arjun Reddy, which starred Vijay Deverakonda in the lead role.
A 2002 study of popular Bollywood movies from the late 90s said moderate sexual violence against female characters was “depicted as fun, enjoyable, and a normal expression of romantic love”. A more recent 2017 study, which analysed toxic masculinity in Bollywood movies, found pervasive gender bias in storylines.
Films like these may soon come with their own disclaimers. A campaign urging the government to identify on-screen, gender-based violence in Indian cinema, and advise filmmakers to run disclaimers on such scenes, has gathered more than 50,000 signatures.
In September, women’s rights organisation Breakthrough set up a petition requesting the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Central Board of Film Certification to take action in identifying violent scenes and calling them out with warnings and disclaimers. The organisation also issued an open letter seeking organisational and institutional support. The petition and open letter are being conducted in collaboration with change.org and ourdemocracy.in respectively.
“I’m happy that our petition on warnings and disclaimers for on-screen gender-based violence has received an overwhelmingly positive response. We believe that our efforts at bringing about lasting behavioural change through means of popular culture and community-based actions will play a crucial role in ending gender-based violence,” Sohini Bhattacharya, President and CEO, Breakthrough, told IANS.
One infamous example of behaviour normalised in Bollywood is the phenomenon of “eve-teasing”, which essentially involves a man ignoring a woman’s rejection of his advances until she eventually relents to his pursuit of her. Blaming toxic masculinity in Bollywood movies for the rising crime against women in the country, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi urged the film fraternity last year to portray women in a better light.
“We have very important reason why men believe they can get away or they indulge in violence against women and that is films. If you look at films,which is a way to communicate messages, you will find romance almost always starts with eve-teasing. The man and friends will surround a woman, be mean to her trip her up, show her down, abuse her, touch her inappropriately and slowly she falls in love with him,” Gandhi said while speaking at Goa Fest last year.
This article is part of our series on the international 16 Days of Activism campaign with the theme “Orange the World”.