As a daughter of Indian parents and as a British Asian who has lived in the UK for over four decades, I have always been proud of my Indian heritage, having been brought up in India. The India’s Daughter documentary by Leslee Udwin shown on BBC4 on 4 March 2015 about the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi has crushed my enthusiasm for Indian identity and culture that I was proud to claim along with my British sensibilities.
Udwin’s brave and shocking documentary has rightly evoked much discussion and the image of one of the rapists, Mukesh, sits firmly etched in my mind. Perhaps it happened in one of those moments of silence in the documentary, between the harrowing accounts, in which the camera lingered on the remorseless face of the culprit Mukesh for a second or two longer, allowing the audience to have a good look at the man, an ordinary man, an Everyman, encountered on the crowded busy streets of India, overlooked by those with ‘tourist’ relationship with the place. What was shocking was not the opinion of the less educated but those apparently ‘educated’ interviewees who appeared to be proudly flaunting their most unpleasant views to a woman journalist.
My experience of having lived and worked in India (Kolkata) for three years and also as a regular and often solo female traveller has been mostly positive and even carefree. I took taxis home late atnight without a second thought. Mukesh’s comments about how a ‘woman should not be wearing certain type of clothes’ invites thoughts on the concept of a modern Indian woman and perceptions associated with her.
If Jyoti had been wearing sari, for example, would she have been spared? But then again what of all those traditionally dressed Indian women who get raped in villages whose stories never get told? Many middleclass Indian women with male friends and modern clothing enjoy the privilege of a car and driver and of never having to encounter the gruelling and outdated Indian public transport system. However Jyoti, not similarly privileged, boarded the bus with a male friend on that fateful night in December 2012.
Those who have gone for an evening walk in the Lodhi gardens in Delhi are likely to have come across eunuchs and policemen, notorious for harassing the courting couples for money, as they seek some surreptitious romance on the green lawns, in the fading evening heat, in a country where courting is not a part of the culture.
The image of a young Indian man and a young Indian woman together who are not related can invite strong reactions in a Bollywood-worshipping society. Not surprisingly Jyoti’s male friend was notfeatured in Udwin’s documentary and one cannot help but be curious to hear his harrowing account as he must have been taunted and jeered at by the six inebriated men demanding to know about his female companion when he boarded that bus after a night out at the cinema.
Young Jyoti and her male friend together represent the modernity of new India, the images of which are not uncommon in countless Bollywood movies seen by many every week. And yet that same image presented in the dark interior of a public bus as opposed to a cinema, invited very different reactions from the six men, goading them to engage in a heinous act of revenge and cruelty, scarring Jyoti and her friend’s families’ lives and tarnishing the credibility of the “Incredible Indiaaah” slogan forever.
Bollywood plays an important part in shaping cultural values as it is a deeply embedded part of Indian lives. Its version of modernity is dictated by commercial values and almost invariably the images of modernity’ showcase a song and dance routine of a scantily clad heroine gyrating sexily in the midst of a gang of leering men.
It is not unusual to see the male ‘hero’ of the film joining in the crowd, adding another dimension to the story. These dance numbers receive millions of hits on YouTube. The imagery of a scantily clad single woman surrounded by a gang of men has become normalised and the sexy moves are earnestly copied by the daughters of British Asian parents at Bollywood dance classes so that ‘Bollywood’ can be reproduced at family gatherings.
In a recent interview on a TV channel B4U, a well-known Indian playback singer raised concerns about the way in which women are portrayed in Bollywood cinema and the kind of messages it sends out to the public at large. In the bygone days of ‘Indian’ cinema, song and dance were geared towards selling romance whilst in Bollywood films of today ‘item’ numbers appeared to geared towards selling sex. Thankfully the ‘customary’ rape scenes portrayed in bygone Indian cinema have long gonereplaced by ‘item’ numbers.
The deep-rooted disdain against women suggested in Udwin’s powerful documentary cannot be changed by legislation only or demonstrations.Bollywood cinema has played its part in bringing about social change in the past and its time it broke its silence and threw its hat in the ring, using its enormous power to bring about change in public attitudes towards women.