IN Australia, a 32-year-old Indian security guard has escaped a jail term after his attorney argued his harassment of women with unwanted texts, messages and personal advances was a by-product of his film fanaticism. What for some might be seen as stalking was, for Bollywood aficionados it was argued, â€œquite normal behaviourâ€ as the movies encourage the idea that a woman will eventually fall in love with a man if he pursues her hard enough.
Quite a contention, yet it holds cultural weight. Rachel Dwyer, a professor in Indian cinema at SOAS, University of London, points out that the â€œoften relentlessâ€ nature of the Bollywood leading manâ€™s pursuit can be tracked through decades of examples, which she examines in her book Bollywoodâ€™s India. In the 60s, for example, screen heroes such as Shammi Kapoor, a pretty-boy famous for his cheeky on-screen persona, â€œwould flirt and dance in front of the heroine, who initially rejected him but was won over when she found out his real worthâ€.
Yet this peacocking has recently morphed into something sinister â€“ and, moreover, still in the mainstream. In Yash Chopraâ€™s Darr: A Violent Love Story (1993), Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) is obsessed with Kiran (Juhi Chawla), who is engaged to Sunil, a navy officer. Rahul carves her name on his chest with a knife, decorates his room with her photos and discusses her with his dead mother. He eventually kidnaps her to force her into marriage but is killed by Sunil.
It was a film made before Khan mutated into the megastar that he is today, a time when he was better known for playing villainous roles. Yet his audiences championed his characterâ€™s cause. They shouted their support for him in the fight scenes, and fast-tracked the actor into the A-list.
Over the past 20 years, the deranged and thwarted Bollywood stalker has evolved from nominal villain to an outright hero. In 2013â€™s Raanjhanaa (Beloved), our leading man, Kundan, stalks the object of his affections, Zoya, cutting his wrists when rejected, then breaking up her wedding. Her fiance is beaten to death, and Kundan himself eventually dies in pursuit of Zoya, saying he will be born again to fall in love with her.
Such behaviour does inevitably affect an audienceâ€™s assumptions about how to conduct themselves in similar situations. â€œWhile Hindi cinema is not realistic,â€ says Dwyer, â€œsome may see this behaviour, which is admired by viewers, as acceptable, and follow it in real life where practices such as â€˜Eve-teasingâ€™ [sexual harassment] are widespread.â€
Kanika Gahlaut, a journalist in Delhi, sees the relentless-lover theme played out even in supposedly progressive contemporary movies such as Happy Ending. â€œI enjoyed it,â€ says Gahlaut, but it did â€œtry to suggest that good girls donâ€™t like sex, and that men have to push for itâ€. Happy Ending portrayed the love-lives of hip, freewheeling urbanites, but still put the sexual onus entirely on the man, who must win over a deeply reluctant female. â€œItâ€™s as if mainstream Bollywood is still having a hard time believing a normal, good girl canâ€™t be spontaneous in bed, like a normal good girl. Itâ€™s a dangerous message to send out because it seems to suggest that when girls say no, they mean yes.â€
But the relationship between cinema and society is symbiotic; to some extent, the arrogant Bollywood hero is, say both women, simply a reflection of Indian men at large. Says Gahlaut: â€œThey have an unusually high sense of entitlement; a sense that they are a star in the relationship, even if itâ€™s a misplaced sense, and feel a woman is to look after their mental, emotional, physical needs.â€
Hence the endemic gender bias of all Bollywood. This is a genre ruled by men. â€œ[Bollywood movies] always star Shah Rukh Khan or Saif Ali Khan or Aamir Khan,â€ says Gahlaut. â€œThere are female stars who are popular, but I donâ€™t think the female star drives the movie.â€ Nor, of course, do they produce them, like their on-screen beaux. â€œItâ€™s a male-dominated industry,â€ says Gahlaut, before she corrects herself. â€œItâ€™s a male-dominated everything in this country.â€ – The Guardian