Bollywood explores Indian social taboos

Clearer and bolder projections


August 31, 2017

/ By / New Delhi

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While earlier, films highlighting social issues were limited to the screenings at film festivals, Bollywood filmmakers have lately been talking about social taboos in India and other subjects like defecation, menstruation, and sex.

Words like ‘sex’, ‘periods’, ‘homosexuality’, ‘inter-cast marriage’, ‘smoking’ and even ‘love’, amongst other ‘forbidden’ expressions in India are often muted, or discussed with a lot of discomfort. Over the course of time, these norms have continued to exist in India, obstructing the younger generation from having even basic knowledge on these subjects.

In an attempt to put an end to these taboos, Bollywood filmmakers have been taking an indirect approach to educate viewers with narratives that are far from the usual content in Hindi cinema. From a range of subjects like defecation, family issues, loneliness and the unconventional love, Bollywood has lately been talking about it all.

With piece-of-life content-driven cinema like Udta Punjab (2016), Pink (2016), Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) and Mom (2017), Hindi films have been procuring global acknowledgement.

Highlighting the issue of open defecation in rural India is the film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: A Love Story), starring Bollywood star Akshay Kumar and entrant Bhumi Pednekar in lead roles. Inspired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India campaign), the film is directed by film editor Shree Narayan Singh, who feels that Indians are still apprehensive when it comes to talking about taboo topics. The satirical comedy aims to throw spotlight at the defecation problems faced by rural Indian families, especially women. Through the movie, Singh is hoping to light the path to improve sanitation conditions in support of governmental campaigns with the focus on eradication of open defecation.

Phullu (2017) is another Bollywood film that strives to educate the Indian public about menstruation and proper hygienic treatment of periods – a subject that is considered a taboo by many Indians.

Similarly, film Udta Punjab underlines another issue – Punjab’s drug problems and that apart from countries like Mexico, US and France, the north Indian state of Punjab is too fighting a war against drug and substance abuse.

However, looking back at some of the unconventional movies of the 1990s, it seems like the struggle to eliminate social prejudices started back then. Niranjan Pal penned Acchut Kanya (The Untouchable Girl) in 1936 to highlight unfortunate social position of Dalits (people traditionally regarded as untouchable in the Indian caste system) in the country.

Then, there are movies that even showcase the emotions of women against the authoritative patriarchal setup, like Adhuri Kahani (The Incomplete Story) of 1939, highlighting the tragedy of an educated woman, who is oppressed by her conservative husband, and commits suicide due to chauvinistic ideologies of the society. The movie was left with an abrupt ending for audiences to think of a less oppressive society in the future.

Reaching its target?
Phullu was given an Adult (A) rating by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), prohibiting minors from viewing the movie at theatres. The film thus missed its most important target audience – young Indian boys and girls. However, not only Phullu, but many other films have been a victim of censorship.

One such movie that came as a much-needed guidebook underlining issues such as prejudices against women and their degree of freedom in the patriarchal Indian society, was Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink that strives to explain what some men may find hard to understand – a ‘no’ from a woman means ‘no’. The board however finally gave a green signal to its release, though with some verbal cuts.

On the basis of being woman-centric, screening sexual expressions and absurd words, CBFC also initially refused to certify the recently released Lipstick Under My Burkha, and objected the word ‘intercourse’ in the Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma starrer Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017).

While India does not lack initiatives like these movies and others by activists and Non-Government Organisations to raise awareness on essential issues, the road to eliminating these social strings from the Indian society seems long.

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