As a pop-culture aficionado, I have always been intrigued by how popular media (movies, music, books) influences the way we think and act. Some of this influence is, of course, perfunctory like the “Friend” cap from “Maine Pyar Kiya” or the Amitabh-hair-cut or the Rajani goggles-move. But much of it is insidious and covert, affecting the way we reason about our world and our perceptions of that which is morally justifiable and that which is not.
Hence it is no surprise, that given the tragic incidents in New Delhi and the national conversation triggered over sexual violence in its wake, that Indian popular culture, frequently given the catch-all-label Bollywood, would be the second most popular target of blame (The first being of course the government, an even bigger catch-all-label than Bollywood).
“It’s the exposure”, some say “Semi-clad women cavorting sensuously—no wonder the beast is let loose.” I hear this frequently, from doddering aunties to right-wing traditionalists to shockingly, even some dyed-in-the-wool feminists. This of course is a perpetuation of one of the biggest lies about forcible sexual assault, namely that rape is caused by horny men driven to a state of out-of-control lust by either sensual images on screen or by the clothes of the victim. The hypothesis that porn (and by extension the unclothed/semi-clothed human form or the depiction of sensual acts) leads to rape has been disproved by several studies like this.
Because rape or sexual violence in general is a crime of control, of the strong (the mob, the group, the conquering army, the man with the iron rod or great physical might) over the weak (the young woman vulnerable on the street, the three-month-old-baby, the blind girl in an institution, the seventy-two-year old barely able to walk, the new arrival in a prison) ["The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men." (Pulp Fiction)]. What the perpetrator is getting off on is not the sex, though perhaps he also thinks he is, but the exhibition of his absolute God-like power over someone, whose defining choice, the choice with whom to have sex, has been taken from her. Clothes and cleavage have little to do here.
Many would argue that I am oversimplifying their argument. It’s not the skin on display that’s objectionable, but the imperialo-exploitative context of the “item-song” where the female Chikni-Chameli body is shown to be entertaining the salivating patriarchy. As a matter of fact, the very word “item” is the problem, in the world of commercial entertainment, a woman is not a human being, but a prop. This then is what, they say, leads to rape and sexual crimes, this objectification. While this may be part of the problem, I feel it is too subtle a concept, too academic for those lumpen elements who actually commit these acts to grasp, even at a subconscious level. Or should I say, there is a message which is even more overt, the 800 lb gorilla in the room, a message that truly resonates with a substantial section of the Indian population.
That being the narrative of heroism which embodies within it the total subjugation of women, in which her free-will is not to respected, in which her “No” can always be turned into “Yes” , in which she is to be tamed like Alexander did Bucephalus. More than the rape-scene-as-titillation, fortunately not as popular as it once was, which at least ends with the villain being thrashed or the “Tu Cheez badi hai mast mast” objectification, which at least shows the woman as a consensual partner (some may say the consensuality is a facade but even then), this takes criminal behavior and stamps it with a “That’s the way true men do it” seal of approval. I am not saying that this narrative by itself creates rapists. After all Dussashana did not watch movies. The desire to control exists within, it is a basic human condition. However what the filmi narrative does is that it makes this heroic.
Exhibit A. Aamir Khan in Dil. The song “Khambe Jaisi Khadi Hai”.[Video] The Madhuri Dixit character in the movie rejects Aamir Khan’s advances. To which he says “Hum ne khayee hai kasam, todenge iski guroor hum” (I have taken a vow to break her pride) and then proceeds to do exactly that, with unsolicited physical contact and verbal harassment, in the process of winning her love. What makes this pass for romance, as opposed to the glorification of pure neanderthal behavior, is Aamir Khan’s handsome mug. Replace him with the face on the street, and what you have is a story from the crime blotter.
Exhibit B. Hit song from the Hindi heartland. [Video] The lady is not willing. But the gent cares not. He declares that it does not matter if she pelts him with a barrage of shoes or shouts at him in the middle of the road, she will be his. And follows it up with musical molestation. Machismo has been established. The girl has been subdued.
Exhibit C. This time from the South. [Video]. Asin is a rich girl (as evidenced from the car she pops out of). She is also Westernized (as evidenced from her clothes). She gets molested. Hero, lower middle class (because the association with the target audience must be made) comes in. He scares the molester away. Going by the English subtitles, this is what he tells her: “Live life of a chaste woman. Show your beauty only to your husband. If you keep showing it to the public, everyone will be interested to sleep with you. If you come out wearing a sari, people will treat you like Goddess Laxmi. Now get lost”. Though I have not seen the rest of the movie, I am assuming that Asin undergoes a transformation after this brilliant monologue. While definitely different from the Chiltua Ki Didi narrative, it is about as regressive and as dangerous, using as it does the hero’s voice to legitimize the actions of the molester by making the victim responsible for the crime. For the street sexual harasser, this is the perfect justification for his exercise of control—“She made me do it” and its variation “I want to teach her a lesson”.
Now that we have established that there are elements of popular culture, very popular elements, that allow evil men to lionize their actions, the question is what can we do about it. The practical answer is “very little”. Censorship and banning, a staple solution for those easily outraged, is neither morally justifiable nor is it, and this is perhaps even more important, practically feasible. How do you control the content of Bhojpuri songs? How do you retroactively censor movies made decades ago? How do you wipe out decades of messaging? How do you control videos on Youtube? The short answer: you cannot.
The only way the malaise of sexual violence can be handled, in a way whose effect can be seen on the streets, is at the enforcement-side. That is in terms of higher conviction rates, the creation of an environment where complaints may be freely registered and a faster legal system that ensures that justice is dispensed speedily. Exerting social-media pressure to prevent a Bhangra-rapper, whose break-out song is a pastiche of misogynistic rhetoric culled from the songs of other rappers, from performing at one event might bring about some schadenfreude, but in the larger context will remain an exercise in futility. There will always be more from where that came from. So where do you start censoring? And, even more importantly, where do you stop?