In a letter denying permission to screen the award-winning film Lipstick Under My Burkha in India earlier this year, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) wrote that the film was a “lady-oriented film... with a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society”.
The letter sent to the filmmakers sparked outrage. Eventually, the Bombay high court overruled the CBFC.
One reason why the CBFC—also known as the censor board—found it so difficult to stomach a ‘lady-oriented film’ is that there have been so few of them in India.
And what we know anecdotally has now been backed by evidence in a recently published research paper by a team of researchers from IBM Research, India; Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi; and Delhi Technological University (DTU). The findings were first reported by the website Quartz.
The researchers analysed trailers of 880 films released between 2008 and 2017 which were sourced from official sites and YouTube, and movie plots of 4,000 films going back to the 1970s, sourced from Wikipedia. Their key finding—women don’t get much importance in Bollywood films but the bias against women seems to be declining.
The late 1990s were the worst period for women actors in Bollywood, the data seems to suggest. The share of women-centric films and female mentions in plots dipped to their lowest levels in this period.
Over the past decade, the share of female-centric films has gone up. Yet, the proportion of women-centric films continues to be in low teens. And in an average movie trailer, male actors tend to have twice as much screen time as female actors.
Not surprisingly, gender stereotyping extends to the kind of roles male and female actors enact and the occupations they are shown to be engaged in.
Male actors also tend to find more versatile roles compared to women throughout their careers.
As an earlier Plain Facts column had pointed out, it is increasingly difficult for women to get key roles beyond a certain age.
Women are typically relegated to mother, sister and other character roles as they grow older.
“Perhaps the most discriminatory part of casting practices is that heroines have to retire into ‘character roles’, while the heroes can march into their fifties as ‘young’ heroes,” said Shohini Ghosh, professor, mass communication research centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.
Chandraprakash Dwivedi, who has directed critically acclaimed films and TV serials such as Pinjar and Chanakya, blames the market for this bias.
“There is pressure on films to be commercially successful. Several critically acclaimed films fail to make an impact at the box office. In the end, it depends on the fan following the actor commands, and in Bollywood, it is the male actors who enjoy that level of popularity,” he said.
But Bollywood is not alone in discriminating against women, even though the level of discrimination may be higher in Bollywood compared to others. A 2016 analysis by Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels found that men get to mouth most dialogues in Hollywood films as well.
Even when it comes to apparently female-centric films, such as the Disney princess movies, male actors tend to have a majority of the dialogues, research by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer show.
The prominence of male actors and the perpetuation of stereotypes may sometimes just result from carelessness, Eisenhauer told the Washington Post.
“When you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man,” said Eisenhauer to the Post. “Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture.”
Patriarchy certainly knows no borders.