Movie-mad Indians challenged to rewrite sexist Bollywood songs

Rights group says young women feel harassed by men singing inappropriate Bollywood song lyrics, many of which demean women; activists accuse Hindi film industry of glorifying violence against women

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 2:34pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 2:34pm

A women’s rights organisation is asking movie-mad Indians to rewrite sexist Bollywood songs, the latest attempt in drawing attention to gender stereotyping and misogyny portrayed by the country’s influential film industry.

The Akshara Centre’s Gaana (Song) Rewrite competition, launched last month, invites people to change the lyrics to any Bollywood film song they find sexist. The group says it may then engage with the film industry to push for change.

“In our gender awareness work, one of the issues that’s been raised repeatedly by young women is being harassed by men singing inappropriate Bollywood songs,” says Snehal Velkar, a coordinator at the Akshara Centre in Mumbai, the Bollywood hub.

“Bollywood songs are great to sing and dance to, but when you pay attention, you realise that many of them objectify and demean women. This leads to normalising sexual harassment and violence against women.”

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The Hindi film industry, also called Bollywood, is one of the world’s most prolific, churning out hundreds of movies every year. They are generally syrupy romances, family dramas or action movies peppered with elaborate song and dance routines.

We want to send a message to the industry that we can have popular music without it being sexist or humiliating to women
Snehal Velkar

Many movies also have so-called item numbers or songs, which often have little to do with the subject of the film, and typically feature scantily clad women, such as the track Dilliwaalli Girlfriend from the film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.

In recent years, as violent crimes against women have made the headlines, women activists and some movie stars have taken Bollywood to task for its sexist themes and for glorifying violence against women.

Nearly four out of five women in India have faced public harassment ranging from staring, insults and wolf-whistling to being followed, groped or raped, according to a recent survey by charity ActionAid UK.

Well-known Hindi film songwriters including Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi have criticised their peers for writing vulgar and irresponsible lyrics, while also blaming moviegoers who encourage such music.

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Earlier this year, activists urged the Tamil film industry to stop portraying stalking as cool, and instead see it as a crime that has resulted in violent deaths in southern Tamil Nadu state.

The Indian government has brought in tougher penalties for sex crimes, including criminalising stalking and voyeurism.

Velkar says popular culture, including Bollywood, must be accountable for the enormous influence it wields and help ensure a more responsible portrayal of women. She is spreading word of the competition using hashtag #BollywoodCanChange.

“We want to send a message to the industry that we can have popular music without it being sexist or humiliating to women,” Velkar says.