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Growing Up With Bollywood

poster for the bollywood film, 'badhai ho', where four people are trying to listen to s pregnant woman's belly

I grew up during the 80s and 90s and that meant that I had access to very limited TV programs. My TV-viewing life began with only one national TV channel – Doordarshan or DD, and later DD 2. There are so many options today and I don’t know what to settle on and therefore, “channel-surfing” is my best friend, mostly when I see an ad beginning to play on the current channel I am watching. The beauty of the remote control and choices! Of course, now that there are the options of Netflix, and Prime Video, I can skip an ad altogether. Back then, while growing up, I did not have much of a choice so I ended up watching all the ads between the shows. These were ads about hair oils that showed that ‘beautiful and desirable’ women had to have long hair, or the ‘good woman’ had to be an intelligent/wise cook so that when her son, husband or family members returned home she provided them with healthy and tasty food. The ads on washing powders were on quite similar lines too. Not that they have changed entirely, but there are some breaths of fresh air, remember the Havell’s ads? Here’s one – The Coffee Maker to jog your memory.

While growing up, for a long time I too bought into these notions of beauty, and of the good girl/woman. Most of the movies that I watched on TV were on Sundays and showed ‘evil mothers-in-law’ or ‘vamps’ played by Lalita Pawar, Shashikala, Bindu, and Helen to name a few. They added to my notions of who the undesirable and ‘bad women’ were. Those who were conniving, hypocritical, dressed ‘provocatively’, smoked, drank, were courtesans, bar dancers etc. They were always a member of some ‘notorious gang’, the love interest of the drug-lord, or entertained the ‘negative’ characters in the movies, and were portrayed as sexual beings – because they would willingly or openly sit closer to the male characters on screen (Hina Kausar as the courtesan in the song Dil to Deten Nahi, in Kaalia, 1981), or after engaging in sex with their lover would rollover and light a cigarette (Sunita played by Parveen Babi in the movie, Shaan, 1980).

Enter the ‘good woman’, often the female protagonist, the wronged widow, dedicated mother etc. – the one who you can take home to your family, and want to marry – the complete opposite. She is demure, mostly ‘fully-clothed’, abhors ‘bad behaviour’, and is very shy about expressing her sexual desires etc. Similarly, for the ‘evil’ mothers/daughters-in-law who were portrayed as wicked and uncaring because they were either ‘selfish’, opinionated, wanted to spend time with their friends instead of taking care of the family, or were too focussed on running their business – translated: if you are independent, have agency, express your opinions and so on, you are selfish, and not a ‘good woman’ thus, not desirable or ‘marriage-material’. This also meant that you had to be ‘tamed’, made into that ‘good, desirable, demure, ‘sati-savitri’ who knew her place: at the feet of her husband of course! You can imagine what that did to me while growing up and seeing any girl talking to a boy, or even glance at one, or later when friends asked me to go for drinks with them, or a night-out in the town! Thankfully, some of those perceptions have changed and it’s in the past, but it was not easy.

These notions also added to the shame and guilt about my body – how to dress ‘decently’, attracting too much or the ‘wrong-kind’ of attention, sexual harassment, abuse and/ or violence being my fault for dressing a certain way, being ‘too open’ etc. I not only took the burden of self-blame of course, but I also viewed other women/girls in the same light! Add to these, the fears/ concerns of what my parents, grandparents and concerned relatives used to ask, “What will the neighbours think?” This was a concern if or when I stayed out late, returned home with boys, or wore ‘short’ clothes. I would get to hear this all the more after I began shedding my inhibitions and began going out with friends, stayed out late, and/or dressed ‘inappropriately’. It took me some time to realise that the neighbours and their relatives perhaps didn’t care much, but were living under the same fears as I was socialised into, or even maybe just busy living their own lives. Yes, there were occasional curious, and accusatory glances from a few neighbours, but by this time my skin was growing thick, and I was learning to ignore them or glance back with a ‘none-of-your-business’ look.

Interestingly, the film stereotypes were also true for the ‘villains’ often played by Amrish Puri, Prem Chopra, Amjad Khan etc. They were portrayed as openly sexual – visiting bars, enjoying mujras, drinking themselves silly among other things and then running drug cartels on the side.

Clearly, people who expressed any kind of sexual desires openly were seen as vamps and villains, and the ones who were the ‘good’ people did not express non-love related sexual desires, and followed a natural progression to marriage and raising a happy family – that lived happily ever after!

Retrospectively, I also noticed a critical thread in all of these movies: they were primarily heteronormative and anyone deviating from these norms were mostly either not represented, or shown as characters that were ‘funny’ or ‘ridiculous’ – effeminate characteristics in male-bodied actors, or men with ‘feminine’ make-up – lipstick, ear rings, eye-shadow etc.

Movies today seem to have taken a turn with some of these representations, especially those of the villains, vamps, ‘heroes’, and ‘heroines’. Characters nowadays seem to have more layers than one; circumstances seem to influence their actions which means that they can have flashes of ‘goodness’ instead of being linearly ‘negative’ since birth. Which means, that nice people can also become nasty and vice-versa (closer to real-life, I’d say!) and there are possibilities of people having non-heterosexual identities, and/or relationships on screen (Margarita with a Straw), and couples with children who are in their late 20’s to early 30’s having sexual desires and engaging in sex (Badhaai Ho). But that does not necessarily mean that the male protagonist is not stalking, or harassing the female protagonist to ‘woo’ them even today (lyrics to the song ‘Tu mere agal bagal hai’ from Phata Poster Nikla Hero, 2013).

It is not easy to say whether pop culture is responsible for shaping us, our notions, and/or perceptions, or if it is merely representative. I do remember watching some of these movies, ads etc, while growing up and not entirely relating to them. However, there were a few movies, books, magazines which reinforced stereotypes be they about gender and/or sexuality, and I found comfort in them because they made me feel like I belonged, while others encouraged me to challenge some of these norms, and stereotypes. Is it possible that if there is only one kind of narrative in pop culture that it will tend to frame our notions, perceptions, and mindsets? I believe that while pop culture will continue to exist in the mainstream, it also provides us the scope to create alternative narratives and/ or counter-narratives that question, challenge and unpack the existing stereotypes and norms, muddy the waters, and re-imagine other possibilities of being that don’t limit people to boxes.

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