“This is a work of fiction and doesn’t stereotype women as witches.” -- A disclaimer that Ekta Kapoor and Vishal Bharadwaj, producers of the latest horror flick Ek Thi Dayan (Once there was a Witch), sought to add in an attempt to douse the controversy that broke just prior to the film’s release. The National Commission for Women (NCW) in India had hauled up Kapoor for its alleged derogatory depiction of women and propagating superstitions about witches.
Chakraverti’s and NCW’s concerns are valid and in a movie-mad country like India, there can be no denying that the subliminal messages that filmmakers embed, in the name of entertainment, tend to have a huge impact on audiences. In recent times, criticism against Bollywood’s portrayal of women has just got louder. The spotlight has been thrown on dance numbers – or “item numbers” in Bollywood lingo – and their emphasis on titillation. As Vivekananda Ahuja, producer, Caliber Films, points out: “A majority of the films that we make in our country have a skewed portrayal of women. If you take a closer look, you realize that they only reinforce the already distorted mindsets about women that already exist in society. A filmmaker who is making a movie primarily to entertain audiences may not want to take the onus of changing mindsets. But he/she will definitely have to take the responsibility for the messages that they are putting out through their films.” Avers Siddhartha Jain, Producer, IRock Films, “One needs to be aware, sensitive and responsible as a filmmaker.”
Many among the film industry believe that for a film to succeed they need to have the mandatory item number, to be able to draw crowds into a theatre. Says Jain: “I’m not for or against item numbers in general. Item songs can be an entertaining way to promote a film. I think the issue is not the item song per se but rather the vulgarity in these songs. The Censor Board should play a part in setting limits, if required. Though, censorship itself is an ongoing debate.”
Ultimately, it boils down to whether filmmakers are willing to go that extra mile to tell an entertaining story without resorting to clichéd stereotypes – the very same that the producers of Ek Thi Dayan try to disclaim. Responsibility would mean that filmmakers would explore new ways of entertaining audiences rather than adhere to age-old formulaic titillation. Or else, it will just be a case of mouthing meaningless disclaimers even as the film propagates that the only way to kill a witch is by cutting her braid!