It is over a year since Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez were killed in Mumbai by eve-teasers for trying to protect their girlfriends. Their loved ones are still waiting for justice though charges have finally been filed. Never before in the history of independent India have the young faced so many challenges as they grapple with a society that has somehow refused to evolve with them to accept gender equality and freedom of choice. How different are we from countries where young girls like Malala Yousufzai are shot for wanting to study? How are we different from countries where the young are deprived of basic freedoms, when a former chief minister, Om Prakash Chautala, suggests that the growing incidence of gender violence in Haryana can be controlled only by child marriage (an offence under Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006)? Or when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claims that gender violence is on the rise because “men and women interact with each other more freely now”?
In our country, gender crimes and even the need to choose love over tradition are all blamed on stimuli as diverse as chowmein and jeans to mobile phones, television and films.
Though cinema and television programming are part of our individual right to consume entertainment, are they in any way fighting stereotypes or augmenting them? Recently in Cocktail a progressive young filmmaker like Homi Adajania directed a story that seems to have been lifted from the diary of Hindu Janajagrana Vedike activists who recently raided a resort in Padil, and beat girls for partying. Deepika Padukone’s Veronica is beaten in the film too. Not physically but by a stereotypical stigmatisation for dressing in skimpy clothes, going to pubs and conducting relationships outside the framework of social acceptability. This was moral policing packaged in rainbow froth and that the film worked says a lot about who we are as a society. Be it Fashion or Heroine or Corporate, independent career women are depicted as weak spirits who cannot handle success or failure. Laaga Chunri Mein Daag offered prostitution as a justifiable career for a woman who was educated but desperate for work. When was the last time you saw a woman as a hero barring an occasional English Vinglish and a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara where the heroine is equal and fearless in her choices?
The late Yash Chopra recently said that the regressive and negative portrayal of women in Indian television disturbed him but even Indian cinema is not known to portray women without prejudice. Westernised and educated women were in the ’70s depicted as vamps or home-breakers. Eve-teasing in ‘romantic’ songs is not unusual and strange that in a country where we want women to stay at home, cover up, not fall in love or have a drink in the bar, we have no issues watching them itemised in songs like Sheela Ki Jawani or Halkat Jawani. Even off screen, one of the biggest heart throbs of Hindi cinema is known for indiscreetly roughing up his girlfriends. A Kannada superhero arrested last year for battering his wife had no dearth of fan support. Cuss words against women in songs, scenes that dehumanise and reduce them to a titillating fantasy fuel gender crimes against women though the problem is much deeper.
If we leave cinema, our politicians, law makers and the moral sainiks out of the equation, we still have ourselves to blame for what we see around us. We have to answer why when a young girl is molested in full public view in Guwahati, no one intervenes; why no one came forward to help Keenan and Reuben; why we choose to contribute to a stagnation with our silence when we can be part of a shift that begins with us.
(Reema Moudgil is the author of Perfect Eight, editor of unboxedwriters.com and an RJ)