About a year ago, Mom and I were sitting at our kitchen table lamenting the lost life of Jyoti Pandey, the 23-year-old physiotherapy student brutally gang-raped in our motherland’s capital city of New Delhi. We condemned the institutionalized sexism that allowed this to occur; we tried and failed to imagine the terror she felt, and we denounced the perversion of the Hindu and Muslim religions that encourages female subjugation.
Then we drained our teacups and paused the conversation, because I had choreography to finish for my South Asian dance team. Per my usual “creative process,” my fourteen-year-old sister and I pulled up the video of the song I was working on, “Halkat Jawani.” I haven’t seen the movie from which the song originates, so I don’t know the context of this musical number, but it opens with a sweeping shot of a full theatre, accompanied by applause and wolf whistles. And then, to catchy guitar riffs, Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor descends to the stage on the back of a glittery bull being lowered from the stage rigging. The camera zooms in as she cocks an eyebrow alluringly. Then she beckons and lip-syncs the first words of the song: aaja.
And they do come: her male back-up dancers flock around her, moth-like, as she smacks her behind, shakes her hips, thrusts her chest, beckons again, and winks. That’s only the first 30 seconds of the video.
It is captivating. It is entertaining. It is beautifully and professionally executed. It is also confusing.
Halkat Jawani is just one of many of Bollywood’s hits that rely on the “item girl:” a beautiful woman in revealing clothing, dancing usually for a male audience, to a song that has little to do with the plot of the movie. Item numbers are easily marketable (for obvious reasons) and commercially successful. Item boys, on the other hand, are uncommon.
You could interpret these songs as a celebration of female sexuality and desire, like the way we might perceive, for example, Beyoncé’s performances. But this blatant depiction of sexual desire clashes with a rigid Indian taboo on sexual dialogue. (I’m not saying America doesn’t suffer from this contradiction; I think it does as well, but to a lesser degree). These songs emerge from a country where one form of consensual sex was just outlawed, where sex education is not just discouraged but banned in several of the largest states, and, as a result, only 15 percent of young adults report receiving any sex education at all. Out of all teenage pregnancies worldwide, a quarter occur in India. Anecdotally, most of my second-generation Indian peers never heard a birds-and-the-bees talk. I don’t think my parents said the word “sex” around me until I was in college, and even then only sparingly. To be clear, I’m not assigning blame. It is a specific culture that cultivates these attitudes, that makes these approaches habit.
And because I know all of this, I cannot view Kareena’s—or any item girl’s—performance in the Beyoncé lens. I can’t argue that these songs celebrate female sexuality when they’re marketed to mass audiences that attempt not only to extinguish it but to deny its very existence. I can’t reconcile the image of a woman mouthing “come” at a room full of men with a total lack of dialogue about consent. And I am shuddering at the worsening consequences of the world’s largest producer of films relying so heavily on the objectification of the female body.
I do not believe that item songs actively cause rape, because it’s not really a question of active causality. Media permeates our perceptions. The images and sounds we passively absorb every day influence our worldviews, and they do so subconsciously, which is actually pretty scary. How do Indian women view themselves when they grow up with these images? From what I’ve seen, I would argue that these images say: Female bodies are created for the visual and physical pleasure of men. A woman’s role in sex is passive. Lust is unhealthy and disgraceful for women to experience, but natural and instinctive for men.
I’m not trying to blame the actresses who participate in these songs; it is, after all, their livelihood, and who knows what their opportunities might be if every single one refused any role that pandered to the male gaze. I myself have enjoyed my experiences choreographing and dancing to these songs. I don’t know that boycotting these songs is the solution either, because they could be celebrations of women’s desire and bodies. What I want is the recognition that these performances can’t perpetuate healthy attitudes about sex unless they are balanced by open dialogue and education. After all, “make me your snack and taste me” (an actual line from Halkat Jawani) could be part of a great discussion on enthusiastic consent, but only if people actually know what enthusiastic consent is. Both men and women—particularly young or uneducated populations—need tools to make sense of the media that surrounds them, to distinguish the right from the wrong, to understand what applies to real life and what should stay in Bollywood fantasy-land with the fake mountains and snow and spontaneous musical numbers. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point out in their book “Half the Sky,” countries with the most sexually conservative societies exhibit disproportionately large numbers of forced prostitution. This cultural taboo on dialogue about sexuality and consent is hurting Indian girls and women every day.
So more than a year later, I can finally articulate the innate discomfort I felt when, minutes after discussing the brutal rape and death of a woman with her entire life ahead of her, I watched my little sister follow Kareena’s dance moves with a keen eye. She’s only watching it for choreography’s sake; she is intelligent, educated, and privileged, and my mom and I can ensure that she doesn’t take away the wrong message. But in the back of my mind I see many more girls her age in our mother country’s cities and villages—girls we could have been.
India, it’s time to talk.
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