Bollywood’s Art of Poetic Misogyny 

Umme Salma Saifee listens in to lyrics that can turn a feminist’s stomach

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

“Mere aage peechhe shikaariyon ke ghere

(There were predators all around me)

Baithe vahan saare jawaani ke lutere

(The thieves of innocence were sitting around me.)

Haari main haari pukaarke

(My voice got lost as I tried to cry for help)

Yahan vahan dekhe nihaarke

(They looked me up and down, rapaciously)

Joban pe chunri giraake chali thi

(I was hiding my bosom underneath a scarf)

Haathon mein kangna sajaake chali thi

(I had adorned my wrists with bangles)

Choodi tooti

(The bangles broke)

Choodi tooti channe ke khet mein

(The bangles broke in the gram field)”

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Painting by Raja Ravi Varma,

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

What you just read is a rendition of how a young girl got gang-raped in a field, while she was crying for help. Feeling horrified and disgusted? Well that’s not it. Guess what? It’s actually a wildly popular Bollywood song that stars heartthrob Madhuri Dixit lipsynching lyrics as she dances with her usual grace and flare. The song is from the movie Anjaam (Rahul Rawail, 1994), and is a megahit; it has 26 million views on Youtube. Nauseating lyrics by Sameer, by the way. 

India has a thriving Bollywood industry that has a legacy spanning over a century. Statista Research Department released a report in 2021 that stated that the Indian film industry made a total revenue of 183 billion INR in 2020, of which 4 billion INR was dedicated solely to music rights. The lucrative music sector has been an integral part of the film industry’s revenue-making mechanics since its inception. 

“I used to enjoy swaying to their catchy beats and singing the lyrics, because its very hard not to do that you know, but now as someone who actually thinks about it, I realize that it’s like an eye opener that why people take harassment against women so lightly,” Bishti Sen, a design student from Sophia College, says. Dhara Bhargav, a student from NIFT Delhi agrees, “When I was a kid, I accepted these lyrics as the standard form of love. I used to think if someone loves me, they should be like this but now I realize how toxic that behavior is. In today’s day if someone expresses their love to me in this way, I’d never want to be with that person.” 

 “I guess the words are very demeaning, but somewhere, you need to forgive the people who write them, they are expected to follow certain norms, because they have to earn money in this industry, right?” asks Kush Nair, an Engineering student from Kolkata, who wanted to put forward his opinions in defense of Bollywood’s misogyny.  

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Does the entertainment industry reflect the values of the society in which it is embedded? Or are the values of the society moulded by the entertainment it consumes? Answers to these twinned questions are often used as shields. “Hey, we aren’t misogynists,” Bollywood says. “Society is misogynistic and we simply reflect that society.”  And the answer to that is often: The portrayals of these mediums of entertainment massively influence a collective psyche and thus become the reason for normalizing behaviors and attitudes among people. When we look at the various studies done for women’s safety over the years, India has ranked disappointingly low in most of them. The 2020 report of the National Crime Bureau of India declared a total of 28,046 rape cases in India. Out of these, 95.6 percent of offenders were those who were known to the victim. And these statistics are only from cases that were reported. This shows how we Indians have been living in a society where men, as figures of authority, are given undue rights over women, normalizing any forms of dominance, no matter how heinous in nature.

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Painting by Raja Ravi Varma,

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma,

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

The Indian music industry utilizes its reach and easy availability to monetize from the masses. They buy into a collective bias that makes it okay to use statements like ‘Honto pe naa dil mein haa hoenga’ (No on the lips yes in the heart) [Movie: Josh, Lyricists: Nitin Raikwar], ‘Hai tujhpe right mera’ (I have a right on you) [Movie: Phata poster nikla hero, Lyricist: Irshad Kamil], ‘Tera peechha karu toh rokne ka nahi’ (don’t stop me if I follow you) [Movie: Phata Poster Nikla Hero, Lyricist: Irshad Kamil], ‘Acchi baate karli bohot ab karunga tere saath gandi baat’ (I’ve done enough nice talks with you, now I’m going to do dirty talk) [Movie: R…Rajkumar, Lyricist: Anupam Amod] in songs that then go on to become chartbusters.

In film after film, we see that women may be stalked or harassed by the ‘hero’ of the film, and this is given the name of love. In Darr: A Violent Love Story (Yash Chopra, 1993)  Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) claims: ‘Tuu haan kar ya naa kar, tu hain meri Kiran’ (Whether you say yes or no, you’re mine Kiran!). . In Mohra (Rajiv Rai, 1994) Akshay Kumar’s popular number ‘Tu cheez badi hai mastt mastt’ (You are an amazing thing,) reduces Raveena Tandon to a mere object. An analysis of the Bollywood Industry of the 1980s and 1990s stated that popular films of the Indian film industry “do more than depict violence against women; they ‘eroticize’ such violence and ask male viewers to identify with heroes who use force to gain the affection of their beloveds.”1 (DERNÉ S. Making Sex Violent: Love as Force in Recent Hindi Films. Violence Against Women. 1999)

“The Bollywood music industry is also a reflection of what is there in society. Trends that have been carried on for centuries in India got adapted into Bollywood as well,” says Dr. Vibhuti Patel, a women’s rights activist and former professor at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. “And unless we make conscious efforts, we cannot change it, because it is a history of five thousand years of control over women’s sexuality and, in fact, their whole existence.” she points out. 
“In the past also there was objectification and lyrics like kabhi kabhi mere dil mein ye khayaal aata hai, ki yeh badan ye nigaahein meri amaanat hai, (I sometimes feel that your body and your eyes are my possession), which [portrayed] women as private property, but there was a certain aesthetic appeal to those lyrics, but this kind of aggressive and sexualized image of women is now very much there,” Ms. Patel adds.

In an interview Ms. Snehal Velkar, who is a women’s rights activist at Akshara Foundation, an NGO in Mumbai, said that such sexist songs have extremely catchy music, so oftentimes their lyrics go under the radar. She also shared her experience from the various workshops that Akshara foundation organized, where women talking about sexual harassment in public places claimed that a lot of times these songs became easy references used by “eve-teasers” while catcalling. Following these conversations, the NGO decided to launch a campaign in 2016, called #GaanaRewrite — a competition that invited people to rewrite the lyrics of a multitude of Bollywood songs that they found objectionable. The campaign was promoted by a variety of media outlets like The Quint, Huffington Post, Logical Indian, The Ladies Finger, Youth Ki Awaaz, and more, and their campaign video had more than six lakh views over different social media platforms. The competition gained considerable traction and creative minds penned down their versions of these songs, showing Bollywood how they would like it to do better. Given how popular the campaign became, this year they moved a step ahead to launch #GenderRewrite, inviting people to rewrite the way women are written, not just in songs but movies and advertisements as well. “It is important that we keep talking about it. Changing the perspectives of the people is a huge responsibility and it cannot be achieved through one campaign. Spreading awareness about it just shouldn’t stop 365 days until you have internalized gender sensitivity within you and the people around you,” Ms. Velkar commented.

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Today social media proves to be a powerful tool for people to show dissent and put out their opinions. Perhaps the most shining example of this is when a song from Ishan Khatter and Ananya Pandey’s recent film stirred controversy. The movie Khaali Peeli, (Maqbool Khan, 2020) featured a song that said, ‘Tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyonce sharma jaaegi’ (Looking at your white skin, even Beyonce will blush) [Lyrics: Kumar and Raj Shekhar]. Listeners protested the racist lyrics, calling it a glorification of Bollywood’s obsession with white skin. In a statement to PTI, Khan even tried to justify the song by stating that “The word ‘goriya’ has been used in several songs in Hindi films. The idea was never to bring down or tag the colour aspect to Beyonce… For us, it was about this guy, who is street smart and is trying to impress his girl and in that process he says, the way you are performing even Beyonce will flush... The entire thing was to put Beyonce as an idol, icon…” This statement didn’t really help his case and the lyrics were changed. 

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma,

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma,

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

"As long as these songs keep doing well, they’ll keep making them. Their excuse will always be the same, if people are listening to them it means they’re being liked.” Mr. Gurbaxani stated. So, apart from playing the blame game with the industry and its music creators, we as consumers should also stop and think the next time words like ‘Body teri hotter than Chinchilla fur, Teri maa ne tujhe bada kiya kya khila kar’ (Your body is hotter than Chinchilla fur, I wonder what your mum made you eat growing up) [Song: Mercy, Lyricist: Badshah] are blaring at a party. Perhaps the next time you hear words like these, don’t sing-along, or sway to their undoubtedly catchy beats. Bollywood has a long way to go in giving up the casual sexism it has ingrained in its veins, but honestly as consumers, so do we. 

By and large, though, these songs are still being produced, sung, and performed by popular artists, streamed by millions of listeners, and incessantly blared at all kinds of gatherings. Amit Gurbaxani is a freelance music journalist and columnist at Firstpost, a contributor at India Today, and a correspondent at Billboard and MusicAlly. “Looking at it from an economic perspective, when these songs do well, the people who make them use that as a justification that the public at large doesn’t really care about the content of these lyrics. So the people involved in creating these songs, like the producers, the lyricists, and others, go ahead and make more songs like them,” he says, “That is like an encouragement for all the people involved in creating these songs…to go ahead and make more songs with these kinds of lyrics.”

He also points out how the music creators often hash out the argument that these kinds of songs are made everywhere, with the biggest example being "western hip-hop where sexist and misogynist lyrics are very common and women are referred to as bitches."

An article by safecity.in mentioned a study that analyzed 403 rap songs. The researchers found that around 37% of these songs depicted women as just objects of male desire and pleasure, 22% of the songs justified violence against women including rape and assault, and 22% of the songs perpetuated an image of misogyny. 

Jahaan se hona chahiye wahi se hai tu thick’ (You are thick where you should be) ‘Kamariya matka’ (Sway your waist), ‘Goriya’ (White girl), ‘Chikni’ (smooth-skinned), ‘butter teri kamar’ (your waist is like butter), ‘chale tu latak matak’ (you walk swaying), ‘bum tera gote khaaye’ (your bum is taking dives), ‘Chhoti dress mein bomb lagti’ (you look bomb in a small dress), ‘mai tandoori murgi hu’ (I’m a chicken from tandoor), ‘kundi mat khadkao raaja, seedha andar aao raja’(Don’t knock on the door, come right in). 

There are thousands of such examples where women are described as consumables, their bodies are commented on using crude phrases and the mere act of asking consent is dissed in the name of love and male machismo. Indians still haven’t forgotten Amitabh Bachchan’s classic, ‘Jumma chumma de de’ (On Friday, give me a kiss)  from Hum (Mukul Anand, 1991, Lyricist: Anand Bakshi), where hundreds of men jeer, leer, and cheer for the dancer, Jumma, to give Bachchan’s character a kiss. Throughout the song, she keeps saying no (Jumma chumma naa de: Jumma won’t give the kiss), and the men keep screaming at her to concede. As the song comes to an end, in what is one of the crudest and most appalling depictions of sexual male dominance on-screen, the video shows the entire crowd of men surrounding her pounce on her, and we see Amitabh Bachchan coming out with multiple lipstick stains on his face and a lasciviously satisfied expression. The song did not just violate all norms of consent. It is also portrayed this group of men ‘having fun’ with such casual acceptance that to date the song is merely remembered as an iconic highlight of Bachhan’s career.    

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Painting by Raja Ravi Varma,

Source: Wikimedia Commons