Indian film heroines create aspirational image in young women, completely at odds with their lives 

films2Oxfam India study, “The Irresistible & Oppressive Gaze”, seeks to understand the impact that mainstream Indian cinema has created on the issue of Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) in India. Analysed for their representation of women, the study seeks to correlate it with perceptions and attitudes of youth in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, aged between 13 and 30, 89 females and 82 males. The study chooses mainstream Indian films between the period 2012 and 2016 for their representation of gender roles and how that representation in turn works to perpetuate sexist notions about women, and is based on Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) in 12 villages of the five states. Excerpts:

Top grossing Hindi films such as Dangal (94%), followed by 3 Idiots (88%) and Sultan (58%) were the most watched. These films had the highest recall in all locations. Other such films mentioned were Chennai Express (2013), Kick (2014), PK (2014), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Baajrangi Bhaijan (2015). Male and female respondents of all age groups watched ‘hero’ led blockbuster films. Adolescent girls of Kanadi village in Khunti district had limited access to films. They could recall almost none of the top grossing films. Their counterparts in Huttar village had access to mobile phones and spent considerable time watching films. They were well familiar with popular films. This disparity is evident in the percentage of film preference in the table below.

A high percentage of respondents reported viewing women centric and biopic films. Of the sample of women-led, women directed films, almost everyone (96%) had seen Kahaani. The next ‘most watched’ films were Piku and Pink. Except the urban respondents from Ranchi, almost no one recalled watching Dear Zindagi (2015). No other women-led films were specifically mentioned.

Films are rarely consumed in cinema halls in the sample villages were the FGDs took place. Other than the urban population interviewed in Bhubaneswar and Ranchi, majority of the respondents reported watching films on their mobile phones. Some, mostly older and married females watched films only on TV. In the villages of Siwan, Khunti, Sakti and Muzaffarnagar districts, girls have limited access to mobile phones. Very few reported owning a device and even if they did, it was often not possible for them to download films from the mobile shops.

Boys, from the age of 14 or 15 years have full access to a mobile phone since they are often tasked to recharge the phone. Shrinking of the viewing space has rendered it ungoverned and private. Younger boys are watching films of their choice, often in groups. Young girls watch when they get a chance. They too are free from family or community restrictions on the type of film they choose to go to. There was a general consensus that newer films are unfit for family viewing. Hence even if there are recent releases being shown on TV, they are careful about watching with the rest of the family.


In 23% of films lead roles are played by female characters. In 76.7% of films women fulfill a romantic function, either as a co-lead in a romantic role (37.2%) or as a romantic interest (38.5%). Including those in lead roles, about 48% of women were found to make some contribution in moving the plot. However, in about two-thirds of films, the plot movers do so driven by revenge, retribution against violence and by playing a romantic role. Men dominate the narrative, playing the lead role in 77% of films.

In a majority of non-women led films men have a powerful opening, aided by panaromic shots, action sequence, dramatic entry etc. The main female actor is introduced to the screen much later, often as late as fifteen minutes into the narrative. Her depiction was found to be almost always accompanied with strong visuals, music and dance or set in a domestic and personalised context.

Women were found to be objectified in 88% of the films studied. All top grossers, particularly those with a strong male cast, such as 3 Idiots (2009), Dabangg 2 (2012), Student of the Year (2012), Dhoom 3 (2013), Chennai Express (2013), Krrish 3 (2013), Kick (2014), Happy New Year (2014), Sultan (2016), objectified women as per at least one or more of the indicators developed for this study.

This included sexist portrayal, women in sexually revealing clothing, gestures and actions which are akin to sexual violence, assault and harassment. Women were portrayed as naïve, fragile, unreasonable, quietly tolerant of misogyny and disrespect. They are often unable to choose or take the right decision. Almost all such films, uphold notions of the conventionally good woman.

In 67% of the films women wore clothing meant to exaggerate their sexuality. These clothes were either scanty or worn in a manner that was suggestive of disheveled helplessness or seduction. They were clothed in ways that are unreal – such as the oft used two-piece garb reminiscent of dancers in temple carvings of India or artistic representation of mythological characters. The traditional saree receives a hyper-sexualised treatment removing it from the quotidian and realistic. Apart from women almost never upholding the public sphere or public causes such as nationalism, women also lack ambition – a major underlying factor or assumption that deepens their objectification in films. In 83.7 % films women are at some point or the other brushed off by her lover or by another man.

Another noteworthy aspect of objectification of the female body in popular films is the manner in which it bends and twists itself at impossible angles, simulating the grotesque of pornography – a body bending in utter subjugation to male control.


Representation of women in films was observed to have a direct impact on the idea of femininity among respondents – male and female alike. It mingles and correlates with the image of the perfect woman perpetuated by family, community, religion and other sources of symbolic representations. This strand of query was particularly important to situate VAWG within the triad of tradition, a woman’s sense of self and body imaging, the combined power of cinema’s symbolism always raising the bar, and lure of consumerism and market.

With the public rhetoric in India replete with claims that “girls invite rape”, the study examined how young women negotiate aspirations regarding the self, fashion consciousness, body imaging etc. Discussion with female respondents threw insight into how cinema sets a benchmark for body imaging which is then immediately strangulated by tradition and fear of being assaulted. While more and more girls are experimenting with and challenging the fixed notion of how a village girl should look, they continue to be immensely susceptible to stigma and assault.

Adolescent girls were found to be resentful and fascinated in varying degrees by the mythical heroine. In Siwan (Bihar), Khunti (Jharkhand) and Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh), more than 70% felt that the heroine was a hyperbolic and urban representation of women. What caught their attention most was the fashion, the exaggerated clothing she wore.

They were appreciative of ‘style’ but felt that it was relevant to women in big cities. Almost no one spoke of affordability. It was always a question of appropriateness – “women and girls in our villages cannot wear such clothes.” When the discussion moved to depiction of village women in Bhojpuri films, they felt it was nearer to reality, had a local flavor, but too vulgar for them to have a sense of identification.

The distinction between reality and fantasy was very clear. “They get paid to wear such clothes” or “they do it for money” were the primary responses. A smaller percentage of young girls spoke appreciatively about the preoccupation with the body. “It may be a good thing to take care of oneself. Go to the gym, have a slim body. Look good. If they were allowed, many girls here would.” There is also a suppressed outrage at the disparity in possibilities of styling oneself.

Sita, a 17-year old girl from Usri village in Siwan, who spoke passionately on many subjects and as a result was immediately identified as a disrupter by the other girls, said “we have to surrender to the fact that we can never dress like that. It is our destiny. Who would not like to dress like them? But if we do, those vultures will rip us apart.”

In Bhubaneswar, where the respondents were from an urban slum, the body and beauty ideals represented in the heroine were far more complex. The female respondents in this groups viewed films once in a while at the Cineplex, where the movie going experience, by their own admission, is interwoven with the thrill and glamour of branded shops. Fashion is more accessible and hence, there are aspirations that are influenced by the cinematic splendor. Here as well, affordability does not occur to the eager young minds.

They feel stymied instead by the oppressive gaze of their community and the male peer group. Sunita Digal, a 17-year old girl who aspires to join the police force, engaged in a polemic about dress codes and sexuality. A few others participated in that discussion. They tried to understand why it was important for them to stick to dress codes, citing reasons such as concern of parents that it might make them appear sexually available, ‘fast’ and ‘easy’, envy of other women and neighbours.

Sunita: Nothing is ever enough. Whether we wear salwar kameez or shorts, they will talk about us. Whether we are thin or plump, dark or fair. I am tired of the eyes on us, the constant talk – like poison filling up our lives.

Interviewer: Who are they?

Rojalin: Everyone, our neighbours, the elders mostly. Relatives and friends.

Interviewer: But not the boys?

Nandini: They are the worst. We don’t care what they say because we are not going to obey them are we? We care only about those whose talk makes our parents upset. But there are times when because the boys are whistling at a girl, she gets talked about.

Their counterparts in Buccha Basti, a Dalit village in Purqazi block of Muzzafarnagar, had found their own explanation – which is also the rhetoric of tradition and male hegemony – “If a girl wears jeans but has good character, it may be alright.” Tradition imposes limitless and whimsical sanctions on what is considered appropriate clothing. Also, the definition of a ‘good girl’ is ever changing and slippery. Girls shoulder the moral burden of corrupting influences such as vanity, filmi fashion and modernity.

Women community leaders in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, while sharing their insights regarding the influence of the sexualized attire of the heroine on the sexuality of the region, spoke from within the context of traditional thought. Modernity according to them, could be measured by parameters such as access to mobile phone or propensity to ‘dress up’ like a heroine. Rehana Adeem, community leader and president of the NGO Astitva in Purqazi, spoke of fashion imitations that the girls bought from local melas. “They don’t match up to clothes that heroines wear or the big brands and look terribly tacky. It makes the girls who wear them look like wannabes, fakes. And that says something about their character. When a village girl wears such clothes, she is liable to get teased by the boys or criticized by the elders.”

The connection is unclear but there is enough to point to the fact that heroines create an aspirational image in young women that is completely at odds with the moral limits of their lives.

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