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Women, Popular Culture and Violence: Joining the Dots

Music videos have become one of the most insidious offenders, shaping sexist attitudes towards women. NUPUR BASU explores popular culture’s role in commodifying women.

The adult content in this article has been retained advisedly. Please forward with caution.

2012 has ended on a tragic note for Indian women and Indian society.

As we grapple with the brutality of the events in recent weeks, piecing together the messaging that is going on in popular culture and its direct linkages with violence against women, can be an eye-opener.

Even as I write this piece, an FIR has been registered in Lucknow against a rapper for one of the most controversial and offensive music videos circulating on Facebook. It is  by Yo Yo Honey Singh and has garnered  27 lakh ‘Likes’. Otherwise known as the “Rape Rapper” for his song ‘Chooth’ (which now has two versions), the song is still on social network sites. Critics have dubbed the lyrics and video downright lewd, offensive and abusive to women. The lyrics and translation are given below in all their starkness.

Aaaja teri choot maroon– Come let me fuck you

Tere sar se chudney ka bhoot utaron– exorcise you of the ghost of your virginity

Choodney key baat tujhe jutey maroon– I will hit you with my shoes

 Tere mooh main apna lora dey key mooth maroon– I will put my penis in your mouth

Kar doon teri fuddi kharab– I will ruin your vagina

 Mere jaisa koi nahin mere bhudi kharab– There is no one madder than me

 Terey bad terey post– after you i am done

Bas yahin kam kaaj mera– this is my work

Kar doonga khoosh tujhe– i will make you very happy

 Luraa ley keu naach mera- dance with my penis

 “Choot”-  Vagina!

This music video plays in a country where the world now knows a woman is raped every 22 minutes. In India’s capital city, Delhi, a woman or child is raped  every 18 hours. To add insult to injury, 83 per cent of sexual assault cases are pending in court. Only a quarter of them (27 per cent) end in conviction.

In another video titled SATAN: Yo Yo Singh wields a whip lash and is trying to seduce a woman with this song.

Re monsoon ka mausam.. monsoon is here

tan man me romance hain chaya.. my mind and body is longing for romance

ab to has ke bol re chodi tere liye ek cheez hoon laya– laugh woman now because I am going to give you

dekh ke jisko jhoom paregi.. something that will make you drunk

sar pet ere khoob chadegi.. and you will beg me for it..

hath jor ke bas tu baby.. you will plead for it

mujh se bas yahin will keep asking for it

Woman’s voice singing and dancing: veed peelade sajnaya..veed peelade sajnaya: feed me your seed my darling …feed me your seed my darling.

Activists demanded a ban on the Punjabi rapper’s New Year’s Eve performance in a five star hotel in Gurgaon. And the programme was called off. But the songs continue to be on the internet.

Even as the country is reeling from shock of losing the Delhi girl and the loss of those dozens of women and minor girls who have been raped in recent times, the fact that such music videos are still playing and the singers performing in the capital city, is utterly noxious and indicative of the present malaise.

The Delhi girl’s tragic plight is only the tip of the iceberg of India’s Son- Worshipping and Hate-and-Abuse-Women philosophy.

Music videos have become one of the most insidious offenders against women influencing young men across the country and shaping their sexist attitudes towards women. Take for example Kolaveri D – the song that took the country by storm last year. It had references to a girl with a ‘dark heart’ and the official video version with millions of hits had appalling visuals of the male protagonist (played by singer Dhanush) literally manhandling and blatantly harassing passing women on the beach as well as white women tourists. And all this passes in the name of high TRP entertainment.

Bollywood has also become a major offender .Hindi cinema which even in the sixties showed women’s fight for an equality, has taken several steps back and has got more status quoist than ever before.  In the big banner Rs 100 crore films ,ubiquitously termed ‘item’ numbers have become the order of the day. The pre-releases on television shows of these films showcase these item numbers to seduce the audience into the theatres when the films release. What began with songs like Choli key peeche kya hain has got bolder and more stark. In the last few years the item numbers have got more raunchy with Munni badnaam huin, Sheila ki jawaani, jalebi bai, halkat jawani etc. Today no Bollywood film is complete without an item number. And Bollywood heroines like Kareena Kapoor and Katrina Kaif and others line up for producers to enact these songs for a huge sum. In fact it is appalling that they are not challenged under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 .

Even a director like Prakash Jha making a film on the naxalite uprising in India in ‘Chakravyuha’ has an item number. The distributor had joked to journalists at the London Film Festival in October this year,where the film premiered, that he had put pressure on Jha to include it. The eyeballs are important even if it means that the aesthetics of the film is damaged by such a decision. If a good director like Jha can succumb, then others have lost the battle even before they have gone past the screen-play.

“There is no doubt that the item songs impact on the minds of men who watch them and result in commodification of women.. It used to happen before too..Raj Kapoor’s women singing near waterfalls were also for titillation of the masses ..but there were no strong views then that were articulated on this. Popular culture is the biggest indicator of change. The whole revenue model is based on commodification. These images do not go unnoticed” said Shobha De on a programme on NDTV this week

On the same programme, however, Sharmila Tagore surprised everyone by defendingitem numbers. “Film and TV are a hyper visible medium. I don’t think there is scholarly evidence of crime after watching these item numbers… I don’t think they would see this and go and rape..Is it sexist? Why is it sexist?  I always hear of commodification, objectification ..why not Govinda when he’s selling underwear? Why only women?” Sharmila Tagore asked. The czarina of Indian soaps Ekta Kapoor tweeted in defence: ‘If people are imitating films, then all would be rapists.”!

Both Tagore and Kapoor may not have read about the impact of item numbers not only in India but also in the entire region. The shocking news item a few months back of a police station in Pakistan, where local cops rounded up some sex workers and made them dance all night in the police station to ‘munni badnam huin’ resulting in the death of one of the women, shows the influence of these dangerous trends across the sub continent.

Says Akhila Sivadas of Centre For Advocacy and Research (CFAR) : “ We may not have the clinching evidence to show the linkage between commodification of women and violence against women but there is enough evidence to reveal the deep-seated misogyny in our society and culture including popular culture . Given this evidence we could safely infer that commodification of women will only further the degradation of women as sexual subjects (and prevent their assertion as sexual beings) and lead to the kind of brutal violence that we are witnessing day in and day out.”

There is a also a difference between sensuality and crass sexuality. Although Sharmila Tagore wearing a bikini in Evening in Paris was critiqued by certain quarters at that time, there was no crassness in that. Nor was there any crassness in her sensual picturisation in the song ‘roop tera mastana, pyaar mera deewana’ in the filmAradhana with Rajesh Khanna. A country that celebrated erotica in the right spirit with ‘Kamasutra’ ,has today let sensuality and erotica degenerate into a violent and aggressive crime against old, young and minor children.

“We portray both Ram and Ravan…If they want to follow Ravan and not Ram, why blame us?” asked Bollywood’s bad boy Salmaan Khan whose latest film “Dabbang 2” predictably has another item number “Fevicol se” by Kareena Kapoor .

Arnab Goswami did some very good and hardhitting Newshours on Times Now and put the government ,the police and Indian politicians in the dock. But the malaise of the media is apparent in its own contradictions. Soon after Arnab’s programme on one of the evenings, the channel moved to its Entertainment segment with Kareena Kapoor’s ’fevicol se’ gyrations in ‘Dabbang 2’ and Sunny Leone’s future plans!  Leone who acts and produces adult films in the US, got a lot of attention in Bollywood in ‘Jism 2’..and the reams of space that the media devoted to her was indicative of how much they relished portraying the women as commodities.

Following close on Leone’s fan following is the following for Poonam Pandey , the woman who offered to strip if ‘India won the World Cup’. Pandey has made a profession of making self promoting videos scantily clad and floating stories about how she is going to be Shahrukh Khan’s next leading lady.

Experts point out that this is an age old ploy to sexualise the media and keep them from questioning the real issues that confront this country. Technology has helped further accentuate it.

The government is complicit in not only turning a blind eye to all this but in letting bodies under its control such as the Board of Control for Cricket in India  perpetuate these trends. Take for example the cheerleaders in the IPL matches when scantily clad women are paid to do a little dance every time the cricketers hit a four or a six. The commodification of women in this manner viewed by millions of eyeballs during these IPL matches send out all the wrong signals about women. A lawsuit was filed in Chennai by a lawyer against one of these and the Chennai High Court had issued a show cause notice to the organisers. But in most of these cases,they carry on as if nothing has happened.

This large scale legitimacy given to treating women as a sex object then has a pervasive impact on society. Young parents are taking their little girls, as little as four or five years old, to coach and learn item numbers from Bollywood films . They are then made to perform at family wedding ‘sangeet’ functions or drag them to innumerable tacky studio talent shows that run on different TV channels. Top Bollywood producers, actors and choreographers endorse these programmes which show girls as young as six or seven gyrating to filmi item songs.

A society that allows the objectification of young girls as sex symbols cannot express shock when minors are abused virtually on a daily basis. It is a real wonder that the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a statutory body set up in 2005, remains silent on these programmes on television despite the crime graph against children in the country climbing by 24 per cent from 2010 to 2011 . In 2011 over 7112 cases of child rape were reported across the country, up from 5484 in 2010.

The fight is going to be a long haul. “There seems to be a way in which young lumpenised men in our country feel that if a woman is out with another man, they have an equal right over her… they want to subject all of womanhood to the karva chuath culture ” Uma Chakravarty, feminist historian ,pointed out.

On a television set nearby a serial plays out on Zee TV. “Phir Suboh hogi” has a mentally ill woman pitted against another woman – both are wives of the same man – and they are fighting over a mangalsutra (the necklace worn by married women in Hindu society). Loud and dramatic music, so typical of these serials, is on in full blast as the mentally ill woman tries to playfully grab  the mangalsutra .The other woman turns on her husband and presents him with an ultimatum “Either she stays in this house or I stay…I am a woman cop and do I have to live in this house and bear this insult that your first wife is snatching my mangalsutra- I will leave”.The man pleads saying his first wife needs them as she is ill.But there is no rage worse than a jealous woman’s.

The plot is the same- two women fighting over one man. In this case one woman really does not know what she is doing as she is ill. Yet the other woman is depicted as petty and jealous.

This is a  country where the popular perception is that daughters are just passing entities that need to be packed off to another family with a customary dowry by the time they are 18-20 years old. Marriage is thus the be all and end all of their existence. These views are perpetrated day in and day out on television serials which command the maximum entertainment eyeballs. To what extent does popular culture impinge on and shape perceptions in society, media and government, has been a subject of study by several organisations but with little effect.

Meenu Anand in a paper titled “Women in Television: depictions and distortions’ discusses at length the Ekta Kapoor teleserials and their impact on popular culture. Slotting them under the category, ‘Vampish woman: a new genre’ Anand says that the “K” series by Ekta Kapoor gave “Indian television a new genre of women characters and the success of these characters calls for questioning our changing idols. Women if not shown portraying stereotyped, superhuman characters; are shown as schemers,manipulators, home-breakers or as vamps e.g. Kamolika in Kausati Zindagi Ki and Anu in Des Mein Nikala Hoga Chand, … and Kabhi Aye Naa Judaai. Kidnappings, killings, creating family dispute and marital disharmony are some of the role attributes that are essayed by such female characters in one episode after the other. Practically each of these negative characters exhibits revenge, greed, deceit and diabolical plots. These characters are often in contrast and pitted against the ideal ones.”

She also expresses concern over the “rising trend in extra marital relationships that are depicted on the small screen” which seems far divorced from the reality of the condition of most Indian women who are struggling to make ends meet.

Patriarchy, feudalism, manipulative weepy women and tough talking men who call the shots in the private and public spaces, people the different channels as serial after serial plays out to millions of viewers in the country, largely women. There are exceptions like the earlier ‘Udaan’ or the more recent ‘Radha ki betiya kar dikhayengi’and others. But they remain the exception rather than the norm.

In a country like India where roughly 10 million girls have been killed in the last 20 years through sex determination techniques , the frank display and celebration of patriarchy in popular culture can only set the clock back further for our women. Even in 2012 society still falls back on the shastras where only sons are entitled to take care of the parents and also do their last rites. Daughters, become unwanted and irrelevant , in this context.

Like tele-serials, advertising in the globalised media has also honed in firmly on women as their favourite low hanging fruit. While earlier the stereotyping would show women doing domestic chores to sell soaps and detergents, now it  has got more sophisticated. Top models and even screen divas of yesteryear  are now used to sell any and everything from chocolates (a recent ad shows actor Rekha ) – to cars, liquor, bathroom fittings. It is difficult to make out as models jell into products and products jell into models.

Financial agency and insurance advertising fall back on patriarchal notions ofkanyadaan: “Suman’s ki shaadi ke liye paise bachana hain”.Other well-heeled women are shown being wooed by diamonds by their husbands who have little time to spend with them in their busy corporate lives. What to talk of the demeaning proliferation of fairness creams which suggests that we are a nation that hate our very skin colour.

Bollywood actor Rani Mukherjee recently said in a TV interview when her film ‘Aiyya’released : “Indian mother in laws do not like dark skinned daughter in laws.” In the film ‘Aiyya’ Rani Mukherjee as the heroine falls in love with a dark skinned man. The point that Mukherjee was trying to make in the interview, would probably have been served better if the script that made the hero had fallen in love with a dusky woman.

But why are women low hanging fruit for the advertising companies to be used and stereotyped? Why have they preferred this sexist route rather than choosing to show them in more empowering roles which would appeal to intelligent urban women, who are increasingly the people who hold the purse strings and make decisions on family purchases?

The writing on the wall is clear. It is now acceptable, fashionable and legitimate to commercialise sexuality through popular culture. The result of that is for all to see. (Courtesy:

(The author is a journalist and director of the documentary – ‘No Country for Young Girls’)

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