Written by Rachana Nair

If you weren’t living under a rock, the Bollywood aficionados among you have read about Deepika Padukone’s recent outburst on Twitter. She accused TOI of publishing photos of her cleavage and showing utter lack of respect for women. She went on to declare that TOI does not know the first thing about women empowerment. TOIs reply is best left out of this discussion because it simply confirmed their utter crassness and they deserve every brickbat thrown in their direction. There is no debate on whether TOI was wrong – simply stated, it has consistently stepped out of line by objectifying actresses in its tabloid publications and invaded their personal space.  But when Deepika accused TOI of hurting women’s empowerment and not understanding the first thing about respecting women – it rang a hollow hypocritical bell.

TOI is not the only media that perpetrates the crime of presenting women as sex objects to be leered, lusted and desired. When Bollywood jumped into the bandwagon to congratulate Deepika on her courage to call out TOI, I gagged at the hypocrisy of this particular medium and its puerile camp affiliation. Bollywood’s visceral reaction to TOI is laughable in the face of its pathetic treatment of women both on screen and off. Deepika’s fraternity of Bollywood operators, very famously and quite profitably, is one of the worst perpetrators of disrespect and disempowerment of women. Bollywood not only makes little to no effort to empower women but also actively puts women characters in sexually objectified roles.

Media influences and is influenced by populist views of the society – be it movies, television, tabloids, or newspapers etc. Bollywood and its vassals cannot pick and choose to be indignant about sexualizing women when it suits them – especially when none of them have made any noise against the use of women as titillating sex object, even when such a presence does nothing to edify the story line. Deepika and Bollywood can assert that this is “reel” and should be viewed as such. They refuse to be the bearers of morality and expect consumer maturity to separate fact from fiction. When 50% of the country is below the age of 25, and with no discernible censorship at the points of distribution such as theaters, video libraries and Internet etc., how much discernment do we expect from still maturing viewership? Ironically, it is this segment of moviegoers that garners Bollywood its biggest revenues. We are to blame as much for our voyeurism as is Bollywood for feeding that voyeurism. If the reasoning goes that anything shown in fiction should not be taken seriously but as mere entertainment – then the rules of engagement should limit the exposure to gullible young minds at the point of distribution. The logic that we can show anything in movies because it should be treated as vicarious entertainment and will never impact society at large is perfectly fine. Unfortunately, TOI uses the same line of logic when it shows salacious pictures of actresses.

Gratuitous and random placement of “item” numbers and women in salacious clothing gyrating to suggestive lyrics does a huge disservice to the cause of women empowerment. When a woman movie character willingly shows her body as a sex object for consumption of men’s eyes, body-grabs and comments, be it in bars, dance floors or public places, is it not meant to feed the lascivious interpretations and fantasies of the masses? She, the item girl, hired for the drinking party, is conscious of her immense sexual prowess, loves and encourages the attention, and even succumbs to the cat calls of drunken loutish men by showing more skin. I doubt that women in flesh trade or dancers in bars enjoy the attention or relish the catcalls. They would rather be employed in safe day jobs, which pay decent wages, than put themselves out there night after night, risking their safety, and getting endlessly teased, ogled, harassed and drooled upon by men. The nautch girl shakes her hips to hundred lecherous men to earn her nightly wages, while the Bollywood screen surreptitiously hides the specter of her bastard kid’s screams of hunger in a slum. Bollywood makes it seem like these women actually WANT and ENJOY the attention and given a choice, would gladly opt to shed their clothing to be leered by men. Is this respecting the real women of the world?

There are about 700 movies made every year in the Indian Film Industry, including Bollywood. How many women-centric movies can you count among last year’s lot? Are we short of women role models or do we not consider women’s stories worth telling? A Lunch Box can make its mark without pandering to sexual overtures while a Mary Kom very piquantly displays the plight of a woman athlete. But these movies stand in disheartening isolation among the trite fare of action heroes with arm candies. Does a woman in a Bollywood movie only exist as a sidekick, relegated to skin show and tripe characters?

Finally, Deepika grants permission to discuss the physical assets of the characters she plays on screen, and has no objection to men drooling over the titillating images of a Leela or a Lovely (HNY) item girl. She avers that it’s her job to play many characters on screen and it does not give anyone the permission to treat her with anything less than respect in real life. This is unarguable and completely non-debatable. We understand it’s your job and you do your work with sincerity. I would have to assume that you exercise the right to choose what kinds of roles you do, what types of wardrobe you wear and what kinds of camera angles you approve for release, after all you are at the top of your game and have earned the right to place your demands. If you have the choice then you have a decision to make whether to sexually charge your movie character or walk away from it to face the consequences. If you don’t have a choice in these matters, then you are in the same situation as that bar dancer who is forced to show her wares for her job. I can bet my last dollar, that feeling makes you feel less than empowered.

How you dress in real life, how you fashion your wardrobe is entirely and completely your choice. No one has the right to question you or use your choices as a marker of morality against you – the person Deepika. At the same time, do not confuse women’s empowerment with the right to choose what you wear; it is much more than that. Women’s empowerment is about granting women safety in society commonly enjoyed by men, it is about access to healthcare, it is about right to an education, it is about reproductive rights, it is about financial independence, it is about equitable pay, it is about freedom to choose a non-sexualized job, it is about not being sexually harassed at work or home, and it is about getting respect be it virtual or real representation.

This is not to say you are not right in your position that TOI used your picture without your consent. This is to say that consent granted to be nothing more than a sex-object on screen does not in any way empower women either and by doing so, you and your Bollywood compatriots disembowel women’s movement. I also wonder where your objections were when your peers were getting exposed and undressed in unsavory pictures by the very same tabloid. Until a time you make the conscious decision of removing yourself from superfluous and unnecessarily sexual representation of women in your chosen form of media, your assertions and indignation over lack of respect and women’s empowerment will ring hollow. If you wish to raise the women empowerment card against TOI – live it in every sphere of your life, both professional and personal.