Shifting the Narrative: Understanding the (Fe)Male Gaze in Indian Cinema
Films and media in particular, share a symbiotic relationship with society. Films depict a microscopic view of our intrinsic relationships, with each other as well as ourselves; and society in turn, adapts itself to what it sees on the big screen.
Not only are films influential, but they’re also a source of entertainment and escapism. Films combine music, stories and pictures to give us a space where we are allowed to forget about the real world for 120 minutes, and fully disappear into the narrative created solely for our eyes. But what happens when this power is misused? When the portrayal of any identity (apart from the male one) is either erased, or viewed from a voyeuristic approach, the identity is stripped from its own personality?
So completely has the male perspective controlled cinema that, at this point, until someone clearly points it out to us, it often simply doesn’t occur to us that there could be any other perspective.
The Male Gaze does not simply dominate society, it marginalises all identities apart from the heterosexual hyper-masculine male one. The film industry especially, is a gendered space that conveniently exists within this demarcated comfort zone, and commercialises the male gaze to its own benefit.
But what are these gazes, and is there really a particular way to look at films and tv series, and through them - the world around us? Let’s find out
The Male Gaze, a term coined by Laura Mulvey, in her renowned essay on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema has been widely popularised in pop culture. Put simply, it is a way of creating and viewing films in a manner where the man is the spectator or the observer/ and the woman is the one being observed. The difference lies in looking v/s being looked at- an active v/s passive character in the film, as well as in real life.
Often the woman is looked at by other male characters on screen, often by the male director and/or cinematographer, and always by the audience.
It pervades a sexualised way of looking, one which empowers men and objectifies women. The male gaze predominantly puts the heroine in a position where she lacks an individual identity: she is a love interest, a femme fatale, a cause of concern for the male protagonist, or simply an object of desire. In herself, she has not the slightest of importance. She exists to propel the male narrative forward, and to eroticise the male fantasies of the audience.
Men are responsible for 95% of the mainstream, commercial films - and are thus calling all the shots regarding the framing, the lighting and the sound design of all the films we have ever seen. Demoting half the world’s population to use-object happens not only at the level of script and narrative but within actual framing choices and lighting strategies.
This imbalance of gender in the industry has been so normalised that we don’t even realise that this perspective is NOT the one true, accurate, and all-inclusive reflection of reality. This is simply a narrow prism that has been obstructing our views, and through that - our thoughts and mentality.
This concept can be easily explained through the Hawk-eye Initiative - a project that draws attention to the different ways male and female superheroes are posed in comics and movies. Take this illustration as an example, which poses the male heroes of The Avengers in the same hyper-sexualised position as the film’s sole female protagonist, Black Widow.
Bollywood, Objectification, and the Dissection of the Male Gaze
Bollywood has a long history of glorifying its larger than life male heroes, and simultaneously objectifying its heroines - be it through the camera fixating on their body parts before their faces are even revealed, the constant glorification of item songs despite their irrelevance in moving the plot forward, or the complete disregard for consent.
This industry relies heavily on the commercialisation of this male gaze. The ‘Angry Young Man’ trope, the item songs, and the portrayal of female characters as simply secondary love interests set a tone for what forms of masculinity are acceptable in society, and which ones are looked down upon. Toxic masculinity is revered through characters such as Kabir Singh, whereas attributes associated with femininity are disregarded, and even made fun of.
Check out the film review of Kabir Singh here to understand how the glorification of toxic masculinity is not a narrative that should be praised:
The point here is, the Indian audience has always been incredibly impressionable when it comes to the kind of content that Bollywood creators feed into this cultural machine. We take to fashion, try to shape the lifestyle, set our standards of luxury in accordance with what Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra have been showing us. If exposed to such questionable content, the masses will reflect these values in their day-to-day lives, and the reel will become real, no longer just an illusion.
But Are the Narratives Shifting?
Bollywood may be late to the game, but it has steadily moved towards better female representation, not only as protagonists - but also behind the screens. The rampant growth of OTT platforms have contributed largely to this nudge in the right direction. More representation within directors, cinematographers and screenwriters provides for more nuanced and inclusive storytelling techniques that could cater to a larger demographic, without putting any specific identity down.
Female-directed movies like English Vinglish (2012), Nil Battey Sannata (2015), Parched (2015), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), Margarita with a Straw (2014), Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and others have enjoyed vast commercial success in recent years, as well as have been appreciated for their sensitive approach.
These films also pass the Bechdel Test, and delve into the lives of ordinary people and grounded reality, rather than opting for large-scale fictionalised stories.
These films are powerful, real, captivating and beautifully capture the emotions of humanity. They force us to reflect on the society we live in, whilst also serving as a blueprint for the world we would like to create.
The film space has opened up and welcomed more female creators, be it in the form of directors, screenwriters, cinematographers or even lead actors. This inclusion broadens the lens through which movies are created, and gives a platform for more nuanced and emotive stories, which helps in propelling the narrative towards the female gaze.
However, in comparison to other male gaze oriented films, these ‘female-centric’ films are still considered a niche, and do not receive the acclaim they deserve, nor the commercial success that their counterparts revel in.
Delhi Crime, Masaba Masaba, Pagglait, Sherni and many similar OTT films and shows have attempted to shed light on female storylines by putting them at the forefront, but there is still a long way to go.
While OTT platforms have succeeded in giving a voice to these stories, the conversation still hasn’t caused the out-roar it should have. Most of us consume media mindlessly - very rarely paying deep attention to what is being shown to us, and what values we are imbibing through this. We do not know about the female gaze, because we have inherently learned to see the world through the male gaze, and this change in perception requires us to consciously un-learn the misgivings and educate ourselves.
“The ‘male’ gaze seeks to devour and control, and the ‘female’ gaze is more a frame of mind, where approach to subject and material is more emotional and respectful … I try to approach shooting with a particular sensitivity, an openness to experimentation and a penchant for failure. I want the image to come alive and I think perfection is boring.” - Ashley Connor
Unlike what many would expect, the female gaze does not refer to the objectification of men; simply swapping the genders would not make a film female-centric. There is no direct female equivalent of the male gaze. The male gaze creates a power imbalance. It supports a patriarchal status quo, perpetuating women’s real-life sexual objectification.
“I find the female gaze easier to define in terms of what it isn’t than what it is: it’s not about objectifying the female form or replacing fully-realised female characters with loose avatars for male sexual fantasy; it’s not framing sex scenes with tropes common to pornography aimed at men; it’s not about automatically relinquishing power and control to men in storytelling.” - Phil de Semlyen
Indian Films that have successfully subverted the Male Gaze
A crucial aspect of the male gaze appears to be its subdued, unquestioned existence, which the female gaze disrupts as women acknowledge themselves as the object and refuse to accept this position by returning an equally objectifying gaze.
Here are some Indian films that have successfully started the conversation about the ‘female gaze’ and created a space for themselves within the Indian film industry.
Lipstick Under My Burkha
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
“Lipstick Under My Burkha'' is a metaphoric title. It refers to the idea that women will always have a pulsating desire to be free.”
After a long battle with the censorship board because of its premise being essentially lady-oriented, this film finally found its place amidst the silver screen in 2014. Brave, humorous, and unapologetic - this film embodies the lives of 4 women and their quest for freedom.
Director: Renuka Shahane
A beautiful story intertwining three generations of women, which reflects on feminism, and the responsibility of independence.
Released as an OTT film, Tribhanga is an unconventional film about a family of women: their struggles, their dreams and their conflicts.
Margarita With a Straw
Director: Shonali Bose
Heartfelt and sensitive, Margarita with a Straw is a film that delicately deals with the themes of queer love and disability, while never trying to patronise them. Laila’s character is a regular teenager - she feels, thinks, and loves endlessly - without letting her cerebral palsy get in the way of her life. The movie is truly a love letter to life.
Director: Kiran Rao
Navigating love through the barriers of class, Dhobi Ghat, is a story of four individuals, each with their own unrequited love, and a common muse - Bombay
It is easily one of the most dynamic cinematic portraits of that decaying, vibrant, impossible city ever, a film that considers the city itself as a character and looks closely at how it impacts people from a range of social classes.
Writing With Fire
Directors: Rintu Thomas & Sushmit Ghosh
A true testament to the power of women to revolutionise the world with their words. This documentary, which was nominated for the 2022 Academy Awards, is a tribute to grassroots journalism. Sensitive in its approach, this film deals with both private and socio-political upheavals, and leaves a mark on its audience.
Society imitates art, just as art imitates society. We need to be conscious of the media we consume, and eventually ingrain, because it dictates how we see the world around us. Representation in media sets a tone for acceptance in society, and this is why it is crucial to create and consume progressive content, instead of passively feeding on the commercialised male gaze. We deserve to see ourselves on screen, and not just overly exaggerated versions of who we should have been.
Now more so than ever, there is a desperate need for diverse voices in the film industry - because stories are not reserved solely to be seen through the eyes of a cisgendered man.