India has been consumed by a mixture of doubt, revulsion and a desire for vengeance after the rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student on a bus in the Dehli suburb of Munirka as she returned from a trip to the cinema.

Human rights activists, filmmakers, politicians and commentators have invariably linked the rape to Westernization, individualism, consumerism, education, clothing and caste. While the sexual attack has caused a nationwide sense of grief, it has also been marked by a number of responses from Indian officials that have highlighted entrenched retrograde attitudes towards women.

Mohanrao Bhagwat, the leader of India's popular ultra-nationalist movement, Rash-triya Swayamsevak Sangh, caused outrage when he claimed: 'Such crimes hardly take place in Bharat' -- summoning the Sanskrit term for a fortress state untouched by modernity.

Neeraj Kumar, Delhi's police chief, meanwhile, voiced a sentiment that did much to explain India's 20 per cent drop in rape convictions in the past 40 years: 'Women should not go out late at night'.

A significant portion of the blame has been laid at the door of the country's film industry. Editorials in The Times of India and Outlook India have spoken of the nausea some cinema-goers feel when watching 'item numbers' in Bollywood films -- musical sequences where scantily clad females sing and dance around large groups of men. The elaborate sequences, once bashfully flirtatious, have in recent decades edged towards X-rated misogyny, occasionally toying with fantasies of hum-iliation and rape.

The portrayal of Indian women on-screen mirrors the country's own post-partition experiment with democracy and human rights. For much of the Fifties and Sixties, romantic comedies such as Shree 420 (Mr 420) and Padosan (Neighbour) revered women as domestic goddesses who prepared meticulously cooked meals, acquiesced to their husband's wishes and raised polite children. In the Seventies and Eighties, as metropolitan cities such as Mumbai and Delhi saw their populations boom, Bollywood introduced women as thrill-seeking femmes fatales, likely to be found prowling Mumbai's hotel bars and nightclubs. Filmmakers didn't wholly abandon conservative values, however: many of Bollywood's Jezebels met either a grisly end in the final act, or sobered up and renounced their independence.

In parallel with the Indian economic revival, the past decade has seen the country's film industry embrace the free-market model. Women in films such as My Name Is Khan combine work with life as single parents, or indulge in late night inner city hedonism, as in last year's romantic comedy, Cocktail, set in London and Cape Town. Yet while the Indian dream machine remains genetically immune to singledom -- most on-screen couples invariably settle for domestic bliss -- women are more liberated than ever. Like their counterparts in the West, they party, they meet men and they date. Their new-found confidence doesn't always register with local audiences.

'Many Bollywood films used to restore Indian life to what was seen to be its proper order,' says Nasreen Munni Kabir, author of Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story.

'They were morality tales. Then there was a change in the Seventies when women began to work. Bollywood these days caters to the tastes of expatriate audiences -- who tend to be more liberated than audiences at home. Many Indian audiences simply don't recognise this India; they feel they are barred from its success and adventure. The sculptured bodies of the actors we see on-screen can prove very confusing.'

Others argue that the problem goes much deeper than cinema. Modern India faces myriad social problems, says Richa Chadda, 23, who starred in last year's acclaimed Gangs of Wasseypur. 'With liberalism, everything is in question. Porn is rampant, and available for free. As a society, we agree to an assertive patriarchal mentality. Caste and the attitudes of men are also to blame. India doesn't suffer from a film problem; it suffers from a rape problem.

'There is no correlation between cinema and rape,' she continues. 'Rapes were happening in India even before we had cinema. There are villages where no cinemas exist -- yet rape is common.'

But in a country where one woman is raped every 20 minutes, according to official statistics, the violence that marked the death in Delhi has prompted a re-examination of the public portrayal of women.

'Item numbers are superfluous -- I would love them not to be part of a film,' says Lalitha Gopalan, associate professor at the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the University of Texas in Austin.

'Traditionally, item numbers have been a feature to stop audiences from getting bored. I think it's time we questioned what part they play in defining women in India. As well as the messages they send to male viewers.'

Burhan Wazir is the Editor of Qulture.com, an upcoming arts and culture website, based in Doha

 

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