By Kate Nutting:
Movies play a very important role in our lives.
They raise awareness, they provide comedy and entertainment, and they have helped many new teenage relationships get off the ground.
Films are supposed to be representative of their audience and provide them with a framework for navigating life.
If you take one look at a Bollywood film however, you will quickly realise that this is not the case for many reasons.
Most Bollywood movies neglect to realistically represent women, in the way that they dress, live, date, speak and look.
The Bollywood film industry is heavily influenced by Western culture and is dominated by male directors, who seem to find it difficult to adequately portray the Indian woman.
The women in these films are often blatantly objectified and extremely westernised.
For decades now, India has had a well-documented love affair with fair skin, and this shines through in the films.
The fascination is said to be the result of caste and culture, exacerbated by modernisation and the entertainment and advertising industries.
Since 1978, numerous skin whitening products have been released; so many so that in 2013 it was estimated that the skin whitening cream industry was worth over $432 million.
India’s fascination with fair skin is depicted in virtually every Bollywood movie, with Gauri Chakraborty, associate professor at Amity University, even going as far as saying that if a fair skinned girl walked into a film studio, she would instantly be given a job.
The problem with featuring fair-skinned women in films is not skin deep however, it is a deep rooted problem caused by the patriarchal make up of society and Bollywood’s desire to imitate Western movies.
“There is a huge gap in who we are and the change, and the representation” says Mrs Chakraborty.
“Since Bollywood is still dominated by males, there is still a patriarchal approach to represent even the emancipated woman”
Mrs Chakraborty desperately wants to see more females enter the industry, to produce a more realistic portrayal of Indian women in a way that does not blatantly objectify them.
“When you present women, they come out as bodies…The cameras zoom on the breast, the groin area, or the lips, or the eyes in extreme close ups.” she says.
“There are women around working, and there are women around like that [not working], so why should the women on the screens be the ones who want to fall in love, whose eyes twinkle when they see men”.
Another problem that she sees in the portrayal of women is the way in which Bollywood actresses are directed to behave in an un-Indian, Western way, speaking in what she describes as a crass manner and wearing skimpy clothes.
She believes that such behaivour is in direct contrast to the Indian culture and is causing many young people to just simply adopt it, rather than find their own blend of the two cultures.
It has only been in the last ten years that westernisation has completely infiltrated India.
In these ten years, the complexion, body structure and dress of women in films has changed dramatically, with women now portrayed as being very westernised.
Kareena Kapoor is a successful Bollywood actress, particularly known for starting the size zero trend back in 2008.
Last year she was voted the fifth best Bollywood actress in the country.
While Kareena is Indian, Gauri Chakraborty has an issue with her being cast as a typical girl in Bollywood films, due to her appearance and westernised character.
“See if Kareena sits here right now, she will belong to your side and not mine. She comes from Pakistan genetically and they are so fair that you can see their blood veins.” says Mrs Chakraborty.
She believes that the problem with this is that Kareena therefore represents the South, while Bollywood films traditionally represent North Indians, as South India has its own equally successful film industry.
Kareena’s appearance is therefore not representative of North Indian women, particularly not of the lower class who she says are particularly ‘dusky’.
Because of this, the women watching Bollywood films generally cannot relate to her and struggle with their own body issues as a result of not fitting the mould promoted by directors.
Take Aishwarya Rai for example.
She was one of the first actresses to make the shift from beauty pageantry into acting.
Aishwarya is known and worshipped for her ‘very fair’ complexion, green-blue eyes and slim body shape, an appearance that is unique in India.
She is regularly named the most beautiful person in the world as her appearance is described as being very close to that of the western ideal of beauty.
India’s adoration of Aishwarya’s appearance epitomises the dramatic shift in body standards in the cities.
Gone are the days whereby thin equalled poverty; today, size zero women like Kareena and Aishwarya are held up as sanctified examples of beauty, largely thanks to inundation of Western media and the perpetuation of these standards by Bollywood films.
While Kareena and Aishwarya are very beautiful women, genetically, they are not at all representative of how women in India generally look.
They are the less than 1% and their appearances are virtually unachievable.
Because of this, it is not surprising at all that eating disorder rates within urban India are climbing.
According to psychiatrist, Dr Rajesh Sajar, Western culture has revolutionised India’s concept of beauty.
India’s new found body ideal holds Kareena and Aishwarya up as role models, effectively denouncing anybody who is not six foot tall, size zero and pale.
Dr Sajar blames the ubiquity of the internet and television today for the rising rates of young women hating their bodies.
Just this month, Brisbane model Sophie Taylor was splashed across the pages of Vogue India, a publication traditionally enshrined by young women as a bible for beauty standards.
Her appearance in the magazine once again raises issues about the Indian media not being representative of its people, especially given that her height, low weight and skin tone is most likely not at all characteristic of the majority of Vogue’s readers.
While Mrs Chakraborty says that she is unaffected by the mixed messages she sees depicted, she says that today’s youth are easily confused by the representation of India that they see in the media.
Because of this, many young people are continually striving for a westernised ideal of life.
Bollywood films bombard viewers with ideas of how they should dress, date, act, speak, eat and so on; ideas that are vastly different to the ones in which their parents preach.
Mrs Chakraborty says that she regularly comes across young women speaking with a foreign accent, despite having no contact with anyone outside their home state, simply because the foreign actresses cast in films do.
She believes that this kind of skewed representation of women is a major issue, one that she believes is having a dramatic impact on urban women.
“If I were to take you for a walk through this college right now, you would notice that a lot of girls dress up in a way in which they see their identity or they feel that if they are dressed in this fashion, they will be considered more desirable, more attractive and catch more attention from their peers. For those who have very strong sense of values from their family and from their image of society, this impact is far lesser. One also sees those women, but in a class of sixty, if there are 50% women, you would see only 10% who know who they are. The rest are looking for ideas, they are looking for references in public life whom they can emulate and strangely enough, a lot of these elders are from cinema.”
“Strangely, when I ask the boys if they agree with the representation of women now, 70% of them said yes, it’s okay, there is nothing wrong with it”, but when I asked the women, usually I got a different answer and about 50% of them said “no, there is something amiss, it doesn’t represent who we are, we are changing”.”
The study in which she is referring to is one that she conducted in 2013 of 15-30 year olds.
In this study, it was found that only 26% of females felt that women were portrayed appropriately in films, meaning that 74% of them did not agree with how they were depicted.
These are quite shocking statistics given that cinema is supposed to be representative of society, and is usually the framework by which youths determine and define gender expectations and rights.
You would have to wonder how a country could ever completely move past gender inequality while films are still defining how women should look and portraying them as little more than sexual objects.
These westernised, out of touch films are completely changing how Indian cities operate and shaking up the way in which young people live their lives.
Courting traditions are being thrown into disarray with girls harbouring secret boyfriends, eating disorder rates are on the rise, and day to day, sarees are being replaced by skinny jeans.
What India needs to see is films that represent its whole population, films that depict the merging of the two cultures appropriately, and wholesomely and adequately portray women,
Westernisation is in the process of changing India forever, and therefore films need to become handbooks for society on how to navigate these new changes and embrace India’s new collaborative culture.