Shubhra Gupta : New Delhi, Sun Jan 06 2013,

A few days back, someone I thought I knew well cornered me with a volley of verbal abuse.

A few days back, someone I thought I knew well cornered me with a volley of verbal abuse. Out came the hallowed twinning of mother and sister, used over and over again. After the initial paralysing shock, I got thinking. It doesn’t matter how urbane or how educated or how “sensitive” the incensed person may be. The way to have a satisfactory blow out for an angry male is to go down the route where unspeakable things are done to ma and behen. And in some parts of India, to beti, too.

That is a true example of rage-via-misogyny. Sometimes I wonder if there is any other kind. The dictionary tells us misogyny is hatred, or dislike of women. The person who had placed me at the receiving end of his bile would have been horrified if I had accused him of being a misogynist. And he wasn’t. Not primarily. He was just being angry. He was just using words to express that anger. And that’s the tragedy: to use words derogatory to women, as abuse, not realising what you are doing. Or realising but not caring.

It’s everywhere. In casual conversation, in cool rapper riffs, in smart slang. And, of course, in the movies. I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me: look at Bollywood, the way they objectify women, those ghastly item numbers, those disgusting anti-women jokes, that’s true misogyny. And I always tell those accusers, who all glare at me as if I’m personally responsible for what they are being subjected to (I’m not, I’m not, I watch them films, same as you), that yes, of course, Bollywood is full of misogyny. It’s full of sick, lewd jokes. It’s full of the sort of male gaze that starts four inches below your chin and stops at your navel.

And then I tell them this: that Bollywood doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It is made up of people who are drawn from the same gene pool as you and me. The people who make the films, the people who act in them, are not so very different from us, the people who watch. Movies reflect life. And then life reflects movies. And it’s all a never-ending, vicious circle. So when Shammi Kapoor shakes his hair into his eyes, and stalks Saira or Sharmila, breaking into a song, he is just acting out a gender role, which has had approval and approbation for centuries. Men are the hunters and gatherers. Women should just lie down and arrange their hair to be dragged easier into the cave.

The guy who’s watching is, in his head, no less than Shammi. Nor Rajesh. Nor SRK, Salman, Aamir. Or Emraan. There’s that woman on the road. She is alone (even amongst a bevy of sahelis, a heroine will be alone, because the camera knows her, the one who will be the target of the hero’s “interest”). She is vulnerable. She can’t really tell the annoying fellow to take a hike, because who knows what will happen. He may become even more persistent. He may not stop at “being cute”. He may turn first borderline offensive. Then a boor: did she just say no to me? Then a rapist: how dare she say no to me? I’ll show her.

What most mainstream Hindi cinema has exhibited over the years, in the way it portrays “modern” relationships, from Shammi to Ranbir, is an arc of prescribed male-female responses. He chases, she runs away. He chases harder. She plays hard to get. He pants. She comes to a standstill. Game over. From being “that” girl, she becomes part of the holy trinity of ma-behen-biwi.

With an honourable exception or two, this is how it has always played out. Raj Kapoor got his leading ladies to wear diaphanous white, because it wets best. When Madhuri asks us what lies beneath her choli, we know it’s not her heart that’s looming across the screen in 40D. Over the years the leeway filmmakers have arrogated to themselves to become lewder, has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ll never forget that moment in a film in which Paresh Rawal’s character looks at a shivering girl in a corner, whom he is about to rape, and leers “chal, chal jaldi kapde utaar”. And how a whole wave of laughter rolled out from a section of the audience.

What the older cabaret artists did, inviting the male gaze to linger over forbidden territory thereby legitimising it, is now the role of the severely under-clothed item girl. If there’s no double meaning to your dialogue, where’s the fun? Do you seriously expect us to laugh at your “veg” jokes? Of course, she means yes, when she is saying no. What kind of man are you? “Jo dikhta hai, woh bikta hai”.

This year’s most fearless heroine (Zoya in Ishaqzaade) who is shown toting a gun and speaking for herself, suffers the most regressive fate: sex is used by the hero for subjugation, not sublimation. If that is not misogyny, I don’t know what is.