I was brought up to believe that the world is by and large a fair place, but that you have to watch out for yourself. I was taught to believe in the system and be prepared for the worst case scenario, always. Despite the recent and 'sudden' national awakening about the lack of safety of women in India, I firmly believe that our women are doing a great job, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with men in every field.
And in spite of being groped along the way, they are achievers in their own right. Having the odds stacked against them in a patriarchal male-dominated society makes them more resilient and stronger. Imagine the scenario if it really were a level playing field?
An Indian woman is subconsciously more alert and aware of any imminent danger in the form of a male predator. She knows where to go, when to go, and when not to go. She places unreasonable restrictions on herself to protect herself. It's like living in the jungle. Or the wild, wild West. Even after all the possible precautions, things can and do go horribly wrong. But they say it is a fair world. She can seek redressal from the law. It's a different matter that the law takes its own time, and she may never get justice in her lifetime.
From the time she is a little girl, she has to watch out for herself - from the men in the family to over-friendly teachers, bus conductors or any other man she may encounter. She is told not to be too friendly with boys her age, and to concentrate on her studies instead. In school, she is encouraged to study humanities (science and commerce are for boys, she is told). College for her is an extension of school. The same set of social rules apply here too.
Soon it's time to get married. She is lucky if she has a say in the matter. The rest of her life is spent obeying the wishes of her husband and later her son. A small percentage of exceptions in urban areas notwithstanding, this is the lot of the nearly 40 crore women in India. And yet women go on to become doctors, lawyers, policewomen and even CEOs of companies!
Bollywood reflects the position of women in India rather accurately. Again, a few exceptions apart, women are portrayed as helpless beings whose only contribution to the plot of the film is as the love interest of the hero, or as the mother or sister of one of the principle male characters. Rarely does she pursue a career, preferring instead to take care of her house, her children and her man. She usually sings and dances, sometimes suggestively. The latter though is probably a departure from what women actually do in reality. But who cares? It panders to the fantasies of men. And it is for them that these films are largely made (again a few exceptions notwithstanding).
Enter the item number. More titillation, more objectification. Wrong? Perhaps not. The hoots and whistles clearly show that the audience - male of course - likes these pelvic thrusts and heaving bosoms. Films after all are meant to entertain. If this is what works, then why not? But the question to ask is, must films validate such blatant (even though in demand) objectification of women? Must films put a stamp of approval on such portrayals?
It is heartening to see films that are challenging this trend and are portraying women as more than just arm candy or a mere prop. These films are still far and few in between and are almost nullified when one sees the sheer number of films depicting women in 'traditional' roles. Because of the nature of these 'traditional' parts, it is perhaps easier for women to get an entry in the industry as compared to men. A girl needs to be camera-friendly, that's about it. Given the scope of her role, that is usually enough qualification.
And like in any industry where the decision-making power rests with one individual, there exists a casting couch or a situation that can be exploited. There are also people (both men and women) who are happy to make that couch useful and oblige the decision-maker if it furthers their agenda.
Having said that, I believe there is always a choice. I am yet to hear of someone who was 'forced' on to the couch by the person in command (or 'villain' in the scenario). If someone wishes to use their sexuality to advance in their career, it's their prerogative, right?
Have I encountered the casting couch? No. In the early years I was perhaps too naïve to pick up on the subtle hints that may have been dropped. Later, I suppose I came across as someone who couldn't be propositioned, or perhaps the kind of people I worked with didn't believe in the casting couch. It could also have to do with the fact that I wasn't positioning myself as a traditional heroine, a replaceable commodity or a pretty face, whose character was best described as that of being 'opposite' the hero. Yet, there is always a choice, if you want to look for it.
(Gul Panag is an actor)