There were a few lines of dialogue in a recent Bollywood movie, Talaash, which stuck with me for days after I’d seen the film. A hooker tells the protagonist who is a cop: “Women like us live on the fringes of society. We simply don't exist. So how does it matter if we live or die? We are only a big cipher.” Or, words to that effect. The observation turns out to be even more poignant because by the end of the film we know that the prostitute’s character is a ghost. Weeks after I saw the movie, those lines returned to haunt me (no pun intended) when news about the horrific gang rape in the capital of New Delhi hit the headlines in December 2012. The story of the girl (Jyoti Pandey) who was brutally gang raped leading to her death triggered a raging debate in Indian society on issues as diverse as ineffective policing, social attitudes, status of women, the dangerously skewed sex ratio in India, patriarchy to the misogynistic lyrics of a rap-singer who lustily sang Main Hoon Balatkari (I am a Rapist). It has also led to some of the most ludicrous statements – mostly from politicians and self-proclaimed gurus – pinning blame for sexual assaults on the victims.
All of a sudden, women's issues have moved from the fringes of debate into the mainstream. And in this context, it makes immense sense to focus on the role of media and its depiction of women.
It might not be amiss to ponder how Indian cultural stereotypes have shaped our values. Ramayana and Mahabharata, two of the oldest epics placed women like Sita, Draupadi, Kunti, Sati, Savitri et al on pedestals. They are worshipped as goddesses and yet each is a victim of male aggression. Sita had to go through a trial-by-fire (agnipariksha) to prove to her God-like king and husband Rama that she was “pure” after she was abducted by the demon king Ravana. Draupadi's cheer-haran or molestation, with a hall full of powerful men looking on helplessly, is still being invoked metaphorically in modern India.
The traditional stereotyping of the abla nari (powerless woman) has continued to be regurgitated in modern Indian society. Politicians routinely hark back to the “lessons that Ramayana taught us” and wag their fingers at today’s women chastising them to “stay within the lakshman rekha (socially determined boundaries) or else…” So the blame-the-victim game that was played out aeons ago is still being propagated by our leaders, both political and societal.
The same goes for Indian cinema and television. They have flogged the traditional stereotypes of women unendingly. Bollywood’s continued objectification of women, through so-called ‘item numbers’ – or song and dance numbers that are overtly sexual – is justified as ‘meeting audience demand’. And, Indian television is obsessed with soap operas in which women play out the stereotypes of a patriarchal society – the evil mother-in-law, the conniving sister-in-law, the tortured new bride – endlessly.
But even as cinema and TV blindly follow the dictates of “popular tastes”, one TV channel, STAR World, telecast a pathbreaking program in May 2012. Satyamev Jayate (Truth Prevails) was a series of 13 episodes on burning issues such as female foeticide, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, intolerance to inter-faith marriages, and more. (www.satyamevjayate.in) Hosted by Bollywood actor, Aamir Khan, the program asked tough questions in its “quest to face the truth” and urged audiences to introspect on social norms that discriminated against women and other underprivileged sections of society. The program was a huge success – raking in viewership across the country. It turned out to be the most talked about TV program, beating popular soap operas hands down in the ratings game. It also energised governments and politicians to take action in several cases that were highlighted by the program. (See: http://ibnlive.in.com/news/satyamev-jayate-the-impact-of-aamir-khans-tv-show/257206-44-124.html/)
Satyamev Jayate demonstrated that message-driven entertainment does work – if done with sensitivity and creativity. By dealing openly with ‘issues’ that had been pushed back to the fringes of our consciousness, it was a showcase of how powerfully media could be used.
(Part II : Role of Social Media as a Catalyst of Change)