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Toxic masculinity in the Indian film industry

Indian film industry, Alia Bhatt, Bahubali, RRR, Pushpa, KGF, Bhul Bhulaiya, Suryavanshi, Gangubai Kathiawadi, Ormax Media, Film Companion, Amazon Prime Videos India  
Alia Bhatt at a Press Conference, Berlinale 2022 (Image by Elena Ternovaja on wikimedia commons)

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Toxic masculinity in the Indian film industry

In India, going to the cinema is still a family event, something people look forward to.

This resurgence of toxic masculinity in the Indian film industry needs to be stopped right in its tracks. Writes Snigdha Jain

In the last five years, the Indian film industry has observed a resurgence of the alpha-male hero. One would have imagined change to happen following the successful #MeToo movement that started in Hollywood and trickled down to India as well in 2018. On the one side, things changed, but the question arises: how much? And is that change enough? There is no denying, now that there are more movies being made telling female-centric stories and movies where women characters are explored in detail and where they are not simply an accessory to the hero. The problem comes when the budget of such movies is miniscule compared to the movies which make the maximum money at the box-office. Those female-centric films are not being released directly on streaming platforms with the justification that they won’t do well in the theatres even when there is evidence to the contrary. Gangubai Kathiawadi, a film headlined by the actress Alia Bhatt, made over 100 crores at the theatres (over 1 billion US$), which goes to show that female films are as viable and profitable as any other. But the films which have become hits in the last few years are Bahubali part 1 and 2, RRR, Pushpa, KGF, Bhul Bhulaiya 2, Suryavanshi, etc. The one thing common in all those movies is that they are all male-centric portraying a larger-than-life masculine personality where women characters have no depth at all.

The disparity is not only apparent on screen but offscreen as well. People who are making the movies are mostly men, so there is no surprise that they make films which are for men, boosting the male ego which has become threatened in this increasingly feminist world. O Womaniya! is a one of its kind report published by Ormax Media, Film Companion and Amazon Prime Videos India on women’s participation in all facets of filmmaking. It was first published in 2021, analyzing 129 films made in India in different languages and parts of the country. A new report analyzing 150 films was published recently in 2022. The findings of the report are astonishing.

According to the report, only 10% of Heads Of Department (HOD) are women on any particular movie set. There are 750 HOD positions for 150 films together, but only 75 occupied by women. Furthermore, not even one HOD position across the 34 Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi films, was held by a woman. The problem is not limited to film sets, there is a lack of representation in management positions in the media houses as well, with only 10% of senior management positions occupied by women in the top 25 media and entertainment companies in the country.

Out of the 150 movies selected by the O Womaniya! report, only 55% of the 150 films passed the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is the most rudimentary of tests performed to gauge the gender sensitivity and equality of films. Basically, it tests if any screen time is given to women characters talking to each other when they are not talking about men. It is sad to see that even in the 21st century not one of the films pass this basic test in India. Another significant finding was that the performance of theatre releases was worse on the Bechdel Test than the ones released on streaming platforms.

In India, going to the cinema is still a family event, something people look forward to. It is part of the culture. India is a society where cinema has so much power and influence; thus, the kind of content which is being seen by the masses is concerning. One needs to think what kind of impact it can have on people’s thinking. Given the economic scenario of the majority of people in India, it has to be assumed that not everybody is exposed to or consuming multinational content available on streaming platforms, making cinema still a mainstay of entertainment for the people.

Another test where the films performed poorly was the Trailer Talk Time Test, which analyses what percentage of speaking time in the main trailer of each film was given to female characters vis-a-vis male characters. The report showed that women have only 25% talk time in trailers on average.

Public perception of movies is also not far from what happens behind the camera. The Geena Davis institute on Gender and Media published a study “Investigation on the impact of gender Representation in Indian Films”. This study showed that the media shapes women’s lives significantly. Focus group participants agreed that gender roles are affected by how men and women are depicted in films. “Some viewers credit the changing depictions of women in movies with helping them see themselves in a different light.”

The study further said, “Adult focus group participants see that men are more likely than women to play the hero in films and are more often shown as professionals or in positions of power. They notice that women mostly appear in supporting roles. Participants of all ages say they like to see female characters doing many different things, including taking care of their family, respecting their elders, working in professional positions, serving the poor and needy, and treating people well in general.”

The report further quoted another study, “J. Walter Thompson’s proprietary study “The Women’s Index” which highlights the persuasive power of the moving image, not just in shaping women’s career aspirations, but their life decisions. The global study revealed that 58% of women said that strong on-screen female role models inspired them to be either more ambitious or more assertive, and more than one in ten women in India were inspired to leave an abusive relationship purely through the influence of onscreen female role models. For a country still blighted by violence against women, this serves to underline the significant and persuasive power of the moving image: it doesn’t just sell products it can change lives.”

Not all is lost. There are positive changes being made, such as more female actors getting involved in production processes and setting up their own companies. Top actresses like Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma etc. have all opened their own production houses. It is a well-known fact that the more women there are in leadership role, the more women are hired in general in all other roles as well. The sets and working environments are safer and more diverse opinions are allowed to speak when a woman is in a decision-making position. The changes are happening slowly. They need to be speeded up. This resurgence of toxic masculinity needs to be stopped right in its tracks.

Snigdha Jain is pursuing second master’s in Postcolonial Literature and Culture Studies from the University of Leeds, UK. She has a Master’s in English Literature from Mount Carmel College, India.

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