Our deeply problematic notion of consent: or how Bollywood messed us up.

I remember a small (but perplexing) cultural adjustment problem I had when I came to the United States. When I went to a party, I would be offered food or some drink. My first instinct would be to say no. Of course it did not mean that I actually meant no, it was just a preparation for the customary hospitality ritual. The way it was supposed to play out was that the host would insist I have something to drink. I would look undecided. The host would offer alternatives. I would finally agree to something.

Only in the US (as is the case in many places), my host would just say ‘OK’, when I said I din’t want a drink. This is because there was no subtle dance of hospitality. If you said you did not want something, it was assumed you din’t want it. Honestly, this is a GREAT way of doing things.

But my blog post today is not about food and hospitality. It is about the deep ambivalence about the meaning of consent that is seeped into our Indian psyche. There will be some stereotyping (alas, it is inevitable in a blog post based on anecdotal evidence. I apologize for this, but request my readers to try to find the kernel of truth in the chaff of anecdotes).

What made me jump on this train of thought was this article I read. It is a Legally India article on how an Australian lawyer successfully argued before a district court in Tasmania that his Indian origin client should not go to jail for stalking women, because Bollywood movies had taught him that pursuing a woman hard enough would make her fall for him. Of course I will not comment further on this case because I have not read the judgment, which is unavailable online.  But there is some truth to this statement. Bollywood films do teach you that pursuing women relentlessly, gives results. Also crass sexual harassment is actually charming when SRK does it. Check out this scene from “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” an iconic Bollywood film that a lot of boys and girls grew up watching. Our charming hero spends the better part of four minutes singing inane songs full of innuendo, toying with the heroine’s bra, trying to put his head on her lap when she is clearly uncomfortable. This sensitive and well written scene ends with him saying, eloquently as ever, ‘I hate girls’.

But if you thought this was the exception, that is not really true. Let us note that I am not even talking about the objectification of women in films with songs where a woman compares herself to chicken drumsticks or a golden doll. Really, I am willing to let that slide.  I am talking about generations that have been brought up watching films where good girls don’t want to have sex,  where persistently pursuing women almost always leads to results, where (for the longest time) rape was a source of voyeuristic titillation is movies. What does a generation that grows up watching these movies do? How does it understand the role of women in society and relationships? Is there a genuine problem in understanding and articulating the meaning of consent?

There is also a deep ambivalence about sex in the Indian psyche ( stereotyping alert).  I know what you will say, we are the land of the kamasutra and the khajuraho paintings, so really ancient India was pretty cool. Let us blame all our faults on the Victorian mindset. But I have some bones to pick with the treatment of some women in our epics. Look at Ahalya for example. She was a woman who had been turned to stone because she had sexual intercourse with an impostor who pretended to be her husband. The reason she was cursed was that deep down, she knew that the man who she was sleeping with was not really her husband. Of course I am no torchbearer for adultery, but consenting to a sexually ambiguous situation is not really something that is punishable with being turned into stone (literally or metaphorically). But wait, if Ahalya was the adulterer that she was, why is she celebrated as one of the “Panchasatis” or the five chaste wives? Was she innocent then ( and her curse a tragic mistreatment of a good woman)? Or is it that the reference to Panchakanyas is actually ironic, given that all of them (Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, and Mandodari) have ‘known’ a man, or more than one, other than her husband. For further details and a sophisticated analysis read this article by Pradip Bhatacharya.  If any of my readers happen to be experts on the scriptures, perhaps they can tell me what the reality is. My ramblings, however, were intended to point out that even the rich heritage of our past has some deeply problematic understandings of consent. A single transgression by a good woman (which in some versions is actually rape) makes her liable to be turned into stone, but her unflinching acceptance of her fate redeems her. Similarly, a woman may, to keep an ill-thought promise made to one’s mother, be forced to have five husbands (the story of Draupadi). That is her dharma, because promises made by one’s husband cannot be broken.

My purpose of going into our not so rich Bollywood history, and our rich cultural history was neither to denigrate India nor to justify the terrible violence against women that takes place. The purpose was rather to reflect on what our attitudes to sexuality are. I began to think of what made grade 3 stalkers and gropers of so many men (as a bus-ride or a walk alone on the roads in Delhi in the evening would show). I also wondered whether this unhealthy attitude to women and sexuality came from the fact that sex itself was a taboo subject. The fact is, as this taboo lifts, we are left with men and women caught in the churning of history. This churning engenders reprehensible violence, guilt, confusion, and sometimes great freedom.

I would like to end by talking about a feeling that is hard to quantify. For the past six months or more I realize, I haven’t been stared at on the street. I haven’t been whistled at, or ‘accidentally’ brushed against. I walk home late with a jaunty spring to my step. This doesn’t mean that violence against women and sexual harassment are not problems in the USA . But it does mean  that there are pockets (perhaps pockets of privilege) where there can be relative safety.Can we start creating such pockets in India? Cities and campuses where women feel safe? But going further than that can we ensure that poor and indigent women, who often lead the most sexually vulnerable lives, can live in safety, comfortable in their bodily integrity. Really, safety is such a great feeling.

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5 thoughts on “Our deeply problematic notion of consent: or how Bollywood messed us up.”

  1. Fascinating and powerful post on dangerous cultural influences, past and present, Srishti – thanks for sharing this. I’m very glad you feel safe now and hope the pockets of safety you hope for in India can grow with more articles like this in circulation.

  2. Srishti, I love reading you.
    I think the Australian case (without having read it) also highlights the problematic way Western countries deal with the cultural backgrounds of their new citizens. There is this awkwardness of trying to be politically correct and accommodate everyone’s moeurs, without clear direction and meaning. To be honest, governments have no idea how to deal with religion, different relationships between men and women, etc. I think the stalking case is “cultural accommodation” at its worst.

  3. Wonderfully written. Cinema, History and even our sacred books have been unfair to women.
    Indra used them (Apsaras) as a weapon against sages to secure his seat. Shiva made Ganga an ornament in his hairs. Worst of all the humans made them a commodity to be sold and purchased in markets. Shameful.

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