Banning Bollywood item numbers is no solution

January 2, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)

The gang rape and death of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi last month has made many Indians take a hard look at how they behave as a society.

What is the Bollywood film industry’s role in creating or perpetuating that behaviour, particularly the callous treatment of women at the hands of men? Some argue that the film industry’s portrayal of women is derogatory, particularly in “item numbers” — songs with sexual overtones in movies, often inserted with no relevance to the plot.

But asking for a ban on item numbers and demanding that Bollywood tone it down are unreasonable. Doing so will not just take away creative freedom, it also fails to depict reality.

Many of my colleagues say Bollywood is not a mirror to Indian society and its mindset. The image of drunk men dancing around a scantily clad woman in India is hard to conjure up, let alone politicians doing so. But it does happen.

And it’s not an isolated case in rural India. For centuries, zamindars or wealthy landowners have attended mujras. And one of my colleagues admitted to having visited a dance bar (which are banned) in Mumbai, where hundreds of men drink beer as they ogle gyrating women and toss rupee notes at them.

Should movies not portray the sexual objectification of women just because it happens in real life? They should portray it. It is art, however high or low you deem it. If we wanted to ban everything offensive or that might lead to a criminal act, we would have to ban murder scenes and plots that involve murder. We have also tried to ban smoking scenes in movies, but bans like that leave a vacuum. Any attempt to ban art is censorship, which can lead to precedents for banning just about anything. [Editor's note: some would argue that we're there already.]

Some argue that if an uneducated slum-dweller sees a Bollywood hero “winning” the affections of a woman despite making lewd advances, he is more likely to imitate that in real life. But then the solution would be to educate audiences and change their mindset. It may take a generation to do so, but blaming the product is not going to take us anywhere. A film is the director’s baby, and he has the creative right to tell his story the way he wants.

Let’s keep Bollywood out of the debate.

As humorist Ramesh Srivats tweeted — “So, we’ve moved from blaming the victim to blaming Bollywood movies & rap singers. Good progress. Hopefully, sometime, we’ll start blaming the rapist.”

(You can follow Anurag on Twitter at @anuragkotoky )

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