The changing image of women in Bollywood

Bollywood women

As the founder of a company called BollyFit, and someone who adores numerous facets of what ‘Bollywood’, also known as the Hindi Film Industry, brings to people around the world, I feel like I’m about to burst a beautiful, big screen bubble. But it must be said, so here goes…


I am embarrassed by the sheer lack of clothing the directors are putting on women in Hindi film songs today. As a girl who grew up aspiring to be like the actresses in Bollywood movies, now I’m finding it easy not to have star envy. More and more Indian actresses are succumbing to the call to de-clad, often times without purpose. To me, the additional skin does not add to the song or perpetuate the plots of most of the songs or movies.


I am a modern, forward-thinking woman, yet I yearn for the days when there was some subtlety. When everything, and then some, was not given away. Today, with just about any song featured in a Hindi movie, there is skin—skin everywhere. I don’t feel this is an issue of feminism and women’s rights. Yes, we have a right to be free. I certainly wear what I want, when I want. But I wonder what has happened to the damsel – does being dressed mean she is in distress?  What is the purpose of the bra-underwear getups? OK, I’m not a moron. It draws eyes, envy, excitement, and money in the bank. But more and more, I find my own eyes downcast while watching a Hindi movie; whereas as a young girl watching, they used to glisten to the geets (songs) and glow green, wishing I could be on the screen.


I posted the video of the recent hit song “Chammak Challo” from the Hindi film Ra One on the BollyFit facebook page (hey, like us at Sophie, a friend and BollyFit student, commented what was in my heart, what made me think thrice before I even posted the link. She wrote, “Video is a blast! And the guys wear long skirts while the girls wear short, umm…”


And she is being kind. They are short skirts… and very short, bra-like tops. It’s not just this particular song; it is in almost every Bollywood video these days. And it’s not just the background dancers; almost every heroine’s get-up seems to require a completely bare midriff.


Is this to try to catch up to the West? Or, at least, the perception of the West—since we have the same problem in our own music videos.  I want to scream, “What do you think?! That us women who live in the West walk around like this? That you are now catching up?! That this is taking India to the next century and will help the country compete with China?”


It feels like a personal and cultural loss. On our family’s visit to India this December, I was so excited for my kids to watch movies and see songs on the regional movie and music video channels. But I found myself constantly grabbing the remote and changing the channel or turning off the TV altogether because the clothes were so, so scant and the moves were so sordid for the innocent eyes of my six-and-a-half and five-year-old boys!


I realize that Bollywood movies have long featured minimally clad background dancers and, yes, the heroines of my childhood (Rekha and Madhuri Dixit, to name a few) often played non-chaste roles too. But there were subtlety and shawls. Today there is sexuality and skin everywhere. At least back then, families could watch many of the musicals together, or at least the songs, if the movie content was too mature.


Perhaps I’m the only one who misses the days of the umbrella covering up the kiss. Of the wet white sari covering the demure décolleté. Yes, both India and the Hindi film industry should and are evolving with the times, beyond repression. And I agree that if we do it in the West, then of course Indians should, too …and do!


Although I lived in India for six years as a child, I was born and raised in the U.S. and continue to live here. So who am I to tell the Indian film industry what to do? Well, I’m a girl who adored Hindi movies. Today, I am a mother of impressionable young boys. I am missing being able to share one of the joys of my own childhood with my sons, because I’m just not comfortable doing so at their impressionable young age.


I am also a businesswoman directly affected by this issue. My company, BollyFit, features Bollywood movies and even has “Bolly” in the name! I adore the moves and music and so many of the current songs, but I cringe at the thought of friends and the public seeing many of the current song videos, lest they think that ‘bare-midriff required’ is what India is all about. And, worse for me, that that is what my interpretation of Bollywood is about. It’s not; come see and dance for yourself! Yes, our clothes and costumes are part of the fun for stage events, but they are not necessary to enjoy the best of Bollywood and BollyFit… the joy, idealism, vibrancy, connectedness, and fun.


I understand the need for certain costumes in certain scenes, but it seems to be a more indiscriminate decision these days—‘When you have a song, show the skin’ is the mantra.


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