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Gender bias in film, theatre

FILMS and theatre are supposed to simulate real life situations and enact the potential social life on screen and stage. In the subcontinent, we have a rich tradition of mobile stage theatres.

These theatres, in the absence of modern day cable television and films, were a great source of entertainment. We then see a phase of silent movies where life was emulated in the form of motion pictures. But the real revolution came when the walky talky took over and, with the passage of time; India became a centre of film making.

Now every year in India hundreds of movies are produced, which are shown in thousands of cinemas to millions of people in and outside the country. A large number of people in India and Pakistan watch these movies on CDs. In Pakistan, the film industry is relatively not very active but theatre is doing relatively well especially in big cities like Karachi and Lahore.

The popularity of film and theatre in the subcontinent suggests a vital role they play in the construction of social realities such as gender. Gender, unlike sex, is a social construct that varies from context to context and is learnt by the masses through various social institutions. These institutions include family, places of learning, centres of religious congregation, judiciary, etc. A more powerful source of gender construction is the media. Here I shall focus on the role of films and theatre in the process of gender construction with special reference to the use of language in the subcontinent.

Before we look at the triangular relationship of language, gender and films and theatre, it is important to understand that language is not a neutral and passive tool of communication. It is also important to realise that the reflection of outer happenings is not the only function of language. Language is in fact involved in the construction of social reality and it also plays an important part in perpetuating the stereotypes prevalent in a society.

A number of gender-related stereotypes have been constructed, popularised, advocated, legitimised, and perpetuated by films and theatre and since they are very popular media, their impact travels fast. In the movies of the sixties we see a submissive prototype of women whose docility is their virtue. On the other hand, men are presented as strong, brave, and patronising.

The so-called active role for women can be found in ‘dances’ where women are portrayed as sex symbols. Indian films are different from western cinema in terms of the number of songs and dances. The dances, on most occasions, have nothing to do with the context of the story line. They are there to meet commercial needs as it is believed that the main attraction for the masses that come to the cinemas are provocative dances with scant clothing and ‘creative’ camera angles.

Another ingredient to enhance the desired impact of a dance is inevitable rain that creates the requisite environment. Here, women are presented as objects of display. In a number of film scenes, women dance to entertain men. The dances have become such an integral part of films that huge funds are invested in the setting and costumes prepared for the dances. The vulgarity of theses dances is more obvious in the cheap theatre where the masses come for entertainment.

The choice and use of words in movies underwent a tremendous change over a period of time. In the early fifties and sixties we see the use of formal language which was literary in nature. This Hindi/Urdu language used in movies was highly persianised. The female characters had to strictly behave according to the prevalent cultural norms. The heroines in the movies were required to speak in a soft, low melancholic tone with a tinge of coyness. The language became simpler and more direct with the passage of time.

The flavour of Persian diminished and English words became common in the dialogues. If we look at the titles of some contemporary Indian movies we see a blend of English and Hindi words. The image of the heroine changed from a coy woman to an outgoing girl. But in both these roles exploitation of a different nature was evident. The heroines of present day films are Phoolan Devi, Miss Hong Kong, Miss Colombo, Jano Kapatti, and others. This is another kind of misrepresentation of women.

Some songs employ dual meanings and manifest obscenity. This is very common in the stage plays where dialogues cross the limits of decency and women are put in an embarrassing position. The female characters are often presented as dumb and are made the butt of jokes. The language of theatre plays is usually so obscene that they can hardly make for family entertainment.

Most of the stereotypes about women, for instance, are: women are weak, cowardly, dependent, emotional, dumb, capricious, talkative, etc. These are perpetuated and promoted by film and theatre. Conversely, some positive stereotypes about men are depicted in these movies. For instance, men are strong, brave, independent, stable, and smart. All this is done in such a playful and subtle manner that the audience takes them as reality. A large number of people who watch these movies in cinema or on CDs are influenced by them in an unconscious way.

Who is responsible for the misrepresentation of women in films and theatre? They may include film financiers, directors, story writers, dialogue writers, and song writers. The majority of them are men. Men try to represent women with their own biases and desires. Consequently it is not an honest representation. Some female directors tried to bring some changes but others opted to move with the tide.

Is it possible to bring a change in terms of themes, language, and representation of women? The answer is a definite yes but for that a more creative approach is required. We do find some good movies that tackled some social issues by using the crutches of songs and dances and misrepresentation of women. For this change we need a more educated, talented, and creative group of people.

We also need more women in the fields of scriptwriting, song-writing and direction. It is time that films and media were used to challenge some of the taboos of this society instead of strengthening and perpetuating them.
Source: Dawn
Date:6/30/2008

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