Imagine this. Mister A’s family thinks he is a salesman. Actually he is a superspy who spends his day advising world leaders and saving his country from famine, flood and foes. Mrs A, meanwhile, spends her days scrubbing her nails and the kitchen floor while she waits for her lord and master to come home. It’s only when she’s abducted by extra-terrestrial forces and has to be rescued by her husband, that she realizes she’s married to James Bond reincarnated. Actually you don’t need to struggle too much to imagine all this. Because this could be the storyline of any mainstream Hollywood film.
Bollywood is a little different in that there the wife/girlfriend would sing and dance while she waited for her man to come home; why, she’d even change her clothes twenty times over.
For those who are tired of watching films where women play little or no part in the development of the plot, there’s help on the way. Maybe it’s even the beginning of the end of movie misogyny. Or at least a stab at it.
Back in 1985, a character in a comic strip by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel said she only saw films that featured at least two women who talked to each other about something besides a man. This gave rise to a ‘Bechdel test’ to gauge how women are portrayed in films. The test asked three simple questions to help assess the significance of the women in a film, and their value to the narrative: did the film feature at least two female characters with distinctive names (and not just as Ma, Didi or Bhabhi); did these two characters talk to each other; and did they talk about anything other than a man?
On the face of it, the ‘Bechdel test’ seems silly; it is almost unthinkable that any movie will not contain this simple scenario. But the fact is, most mainstream films do not; not even big blockbusters like The Godfather or, closer home, Sholay, aka “the greatest Hindi film of all times”. Strangely enough, nor do the Harry Potter films. Either there are fewer than two named female characters in the films, or there are two or more women but they don’t talk to each other. Even chick flicks sometimes fail the test. Because while they are peopled by plenty of women, those characters are invariably given lines only about men. Bridget Jones Diary passes the test, but only just about, since almost all the featured conversations are about men.
Worryingly, it’s not just the old films which are sexist. A study of the mainstream Hollywood films made in 2012 discovered that women had only 28.4 per cent of the speaking roles. The bias was worse behind the scenes, where only 16.7 per cent of the directors, writers and producers of the 100 top-grossing films of the year were female.
Well, four cinema halls in Sweden have tired of the gender bias, and decided to raise their audiences’ awareness about the practice. They have started out by giving every film they screen the Bechdel test, and awarding it with an ‘A’ if it passes.
To be fair, the Bechdel test is not fool-proof. The recent Gravity, which sees Sandra Bullock playing her strongest character so far, would certainly fail the test, though no one can accuse the film of being ‘female-unfriendly’. But I wonder how the Sonakshi Sinha-starrers would fare.