While going through my Google feed one day, I came across this article in The Indian Express about the review of the recent film, Meenakshi Sundareshwar. Because I hail from Rajasthan, I could relate to what the author was trying to say. Whenever I introduce myself as a Rajasthani, certain visuals pop up in the mind of the listener; vast stretches of sand, men wearing colourful turbans, and women in sarees with ‘matkas’ on their heads living in kutcha houses, and even though a large part of Rajasthan is similar to that, these visuals are not representative of the entire state. I too have played the role of ‘the listener’ in a lot of cases and had my fair share of stereotypes about places, people and cultures, merely based on their depiction in movies or series. If suppose, I mention Tamils; “loud exaggerated accents, dark-skinned villains, gajras, jhumkis, curd, aiyoo, and religiously inclined vegetarian folks without a sense of humour” (as pointed out by the article) is what comes to my mind. Indeed because this is how I have seen Tamils; whether it was Deepika Padukone portraying Meenama in Chennai Express or Shiv Subramaniam acting as Alia’s father in Two States.
However, what is the big deal about Bollywood stereotyping practically everything? The current value of the film industry is approximately ₹183 billion which explains the number of people who are influenced by the content of Bollywood films. Thus, Hindi cinema shapes the perception of a vast majority of Indians and for a lot of us, what we see in movies ends up being how we think things are. Moreover, the problem is not just limited to forming perceptions about different places; in fact, this is not even the tip of the iceberg. The real problem comes into picture when these perceptions start fuelling stereotypes that already exist in society. For example, women in Bollywood have always been portrayed as ‘damsels in distress’ whose apparent role is to have a love-hate relationship with the protagonist, and all her life problems get solved post their union. The little to no screen time given to female actresses in Hindi cinema except for brief appearances in a song, here and there, is a metaphor of the way women are positioned in the real society. The film Ranjhanaa went overboard with the idea of Sonam Kapoor’s character in the film agreeing to meet the protagonist, her stalker, because he was ‘consistent’ in his ways and there was no love involved. The cliché storyline wherein the protagonist does everything to get the attention of the girl while the girl constantly ignores him but eventually gives in (because he is the protagonist) drives home the idea that girls actually want to say 'yes' but due to her sanskari (traditional) values, she refrains from it. This portrayal absolutely undermines the concept of consent wherein the 'no' is lost in translation.
Unfortunately, the generalisations don’t stop here. Not just promoting sexist stereotypes, there are multiple instances (even in recent times) where Bollywood has promoted body shaming. The female actresses, with their perfect figure, end up setting unrealistic expectations about looks and body amongst the general population. Further, Bollywood seems to fuel these misconceptions of beauty when they appoint people who look a little different than the idealistic standards of beauty as the ‘side characters’ in films. These characters are seldom portrayed to have any loving relationships. This ends up communicating the idea that if you do not have a perfect body or glowing skin, you would have a hard time finding partners. Even Bollywood songs are heavily inclined towards appreciating the beauty of a ‘gora’ or ‘gori,’ which literally translates to white in English. “Goriya Chura Na Mera Jiya” (O White Woman don't steal my heart), “Chura Ke Dil Mera Goriya Chali” (The White Woman has stolen my heart) are just a few cases of such lyrics. Such stereotypes transcend onto races and religions as well. Whether it was 2000’s Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani or 2008’s Chandni Chowk To China, the weird obsession to make an mainland Indian actor have the ‘East Asian look’ by taping their eyes to slant them is the ugly truth of an industry consumed by over a billion people. Even people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, especially homosexual men, are portrayed as having feminine features. Most movies stereotypically mock the way they walk and dress which was pretty evident in movies like Student Of The Year and Dostana.
While it might not be a big deal for many, it does hurt a community at large, and makes their attempts at fighting stigmas in society prove futile. There is no denying that Bollywood is evolving. The increasing number of heavyweight female characters who come in all sizes, shapes and color, sparks hope for a fairer, aware and more appropriate Bollywood culture in the future. However, Bollywood still has an immense population of stereotypes buried in its backyard, more so because it is the easiest route to singling out a community (generally minorities) or driving home the ideas that the majority in a country identifies with.
Before parting ways, here is another article which I found while researching for my piece. It is hilarious but sadly true; and yes, I am still a Rajasthani, but I do not carry ‘matkas!’
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