Do Indian cinema and television mimic life, or vice-versa?
January 3, 2018

Socio-cultural diversity is not a strongpoint of Indian films and television serials. Could this be a factor encouraging negative stereotyping of groups and communities? How can this issue be addressed? Pushpa Achanta tries to find out

Anyone unfamiliar with India who watches popular Hindi, Telugu or Tamil movies, particularly the depiction of wedding ceremonies in them, may consider them realistic. They may not realise that the productions propagate the customs of dominant religious, caste, class or societal groups. They also trigger people outside these exclusive circles, like Maniamma (name changed), to imitate the practices depicted in the movies. Maniamma, who does not even educate her daughters beyond primary school, spent Rs 6000 to photograph the engagement ceremony of one of her six girls.

Mainstream Indian feature films perpetuate many negative stereotypes. A villain, for instance, is popularly portrayed as a dark-skinned, well-built, foul-mouthed man from a low-income household without too many professional or academic qualifications. Sometimes, he has one or no parents or his father is an abusive alcoholic.
The male protagonist may share some of these characteristics, sport a stubble or a rugged look, as in movies like Madras (Tamil), Happy (Telugu) or Tezab (Hindi). But the female lead is always slim, fair and fits other traditional notions of beauty.

Sometimes, the heroine rides a motorbike like in the Tamil movie Kaadhal Kan Kattudhe, or prefers a career over marriage, children or a romantic relationship as in the Telugu feature, Godavari, or Hindi movies like Badrinath ki Dulhania or Ki and Ka. Yet, even these movies are rooted in patriarchy and that girls and women are not shown as ‘too free’. Often, the female characters are depicted as physically weak, needing the protection of the ‘hero’ and other male characters.

Screen grab from a recent Hindi television serial on a rape survivor. 

When rape or other forms of sexual assault form part of the plot, the victims/ survivors are usually blamed and portrayed as being taunted and ostracised, including by relatives and friends. An example is Kartavyam, a film loosely based on the life of Kiran Bedi. Released in the late 1980s, the lady police officer in the film encourages the rapist to marry his victim. This is apparently what some rapists offer to do to escape conviction or reduce their sentence. A case of life imitating art or vice-versa?

Not much has changed in nearly 30 years since Kartavyam on the small and large screen. In the recent Hindi television series, Kya Kusoor Hai Amla Ka, a young lady in Dharamshala is gang-raped. Only one of the three rapists (all young men from wealthy families) is remorseful while others prioritise law evasion. Although the mother of one of the rapists is ashamed of her son and concerned about the rape survivor, she is advised to remain silent.

While the role of power, money, contacts, etc favouring the rapists is shown candidly, the survivor is deceived into marrying a friend of the rapists. Incidentally, he is present at the crime scene but does not prevent the assault as he is drunk. However, it can be considered that he abetted the rape since he prevents the survivor from leaving. By backing her successful fight for justice, he escapes punishment.

In 2016, Hindi serial Shakti – Ek Ehsaas Ki depicted a transgender woman from the Kinnar Community in an extremely inaccurate manner. But in Thenavattu, a movie in Tamil, the iconic poet, performer and activist A. Revathi and a few transgender women were not negatively stereotyped.

And in Saada Haq, a Hindi television series that aired between 2013 and 2015, a young woman, Sanyukta, studies Mechanical Engineering while fighting the regressive mindset of her entrepreneur father and brother, with the help of a partly supportive mother. Her supportive but insecure boyfriend, a college classmate, marries, leaves and reunites with her after realising her worth. Overall, the relationship runs on his terms. Her friends who understand her ambitions back Sanyukta.

The story lacked significant characters from religious, racial, linguistic, or other minority groups. Typically, engineering college campuses in contemporary India are not very diverse, inclusive or progressive spaces. Tragically, students from socio-economically marginalised groups can be ostracised, and this can pressure them to commit suicide.

Socio-cultural diversity is minimal among media persons, especially those in executive positions – probably a reason why coverage of caste, gender or minorities’ issues is insufficient and sometimes insensitive. This is an unacceptable situation that must be highlighted and critiqued. Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Muthi-ur-Rehman Siddiqui, a young and committed reporter for Deccan Herald in Karnataka was unjustly incarcerated in 2012-13 for six months as a terrorism suspect.

“I was assigned the crime beat and interacted with senior police officers regularly. They disclosed I was innocent and was framed,” Siddiqui revealed at a public meeting. This was obviously a case of stereotyping, targeting members of a specific religious community.

Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution guarantees the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. But that does not imply that it is acceptable for such freedom to harm or humiliate someone. Also, the Press Council of India guidelines and the National Broadcasters Association standards guarantee to an individual’s right to privacy. They accept complaints which are investigated and offenders are penalised, though they have insufficient resources.

This is not to say that the government must regulate media content. However, there must be self-regulation and also an ombudsperson like a reader’s editor. Additionally, opposing questionable or objectionable content must be regarded a social responsibility although that can be biased.

On the other hand, there is no justification for vigilantism, including threatening or attacking journalists or their offices as the Shiv Sena did to the Marathi news channels IBN Lokmat and IBN7 in 2009. Even worse is the cowardly murder of fearless journalists like Gauri Lankesh and Ram Chander Chhatrapati (who first exposed the crimes of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh) of the Hindi eveninger Poora Sach in 2002.

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru who focuses on social development issues.)

October – December 2017