Imagine the coach of the Indian National Male Hockey Team was a woman. But not just any woman, rather a stereotypical Bollywood woman: Clad in a sexy saree, turning heads whenever she enters a room, with her hair flowing dramatically in the wind and her pallu occasionally slipping off her shoulder in a suggestive manner. She walks around with an umbrella to protect herself from the hazing sun, and plays Hockey with heels on! Given the opportunity, this is the type of portrayal that mainstream Bollywood would resort too. However, another layer of patriarchy is at work here: A woman will never be represented in any capacity of power over men, unless her existence incites a sexual awakening for her male students.
Simone de Beauvoir argues in The Second Sex that being a woman implies being subjugated to a man and making yourself smaller in comparison. That is exactly what Bollywood’s representation of female teachers and mentors does. It extracts the woman from the situation and assigns her a secondary role in the lives of her male counterpart. Her merit as an instructor only lies so far as she can be presented as an object of desire.
Bollywood is notorious for its highly sexualised depictions of female teachers in its media products. Ms. Chandni, played by Sushmita Sen, in Main Hoon Na is visibly upset when her older student Ram tells her “rehne dijiye na, aapke baal khulay huway bohat achay lagte hain,” but secretly loves the attention she is getting from him. In Khatarnak, Nakshatra, portrayed by Ileana D'cruz, is shown wearing glamorous sarees and displaying a chic and stylish figure, particularly in front of her students. This includes Dasu, the male protagonist who is an older man studying among younger classmates. The Sex Education teacher (Silk Smitha) in Halli Meshtru seductively manouvers her way through a class full of men who are much older than her. These representations seem to reinforce a troubling narrative. Bollywood’s portrayal of female mentors, particularly in educational settings, is not just about their professional competence, but rather about their appeal as objects of male desire. This narrative not only undermines the role of women in positions of authority but also reinforces harmful stereotypes about gender roles and interactions.
This sexualization of female characters in positions of power, especially in the context of education, is problematic for several reasons. First, it diminishes the value of women's professional skills and accomplishments, reducing them to mere sexual objects. Such portrayals fail to recognise or respect the intelligence, capability, and expertise that women bring to their professions. Second, it perpetuates the idea that the primary value of a woman lies in her physical appearance and ability to attract men. This not only devalues women but also sends a damaging message to society about how women should be perceived and treated.
Furthermore, these representations contribute to a larger societal issue of sexism and misogyny. By continually portraying women in such a manner, media reinforces and normalises the objectification of women. This has real-world implications, as it can influence the way men perceive and interact with women in professional settings, potentially leading to harassment and discrimination.
The need for change in Bollywood's portrayal of women is imperative. Media has a powerful influence on societal norms and values, and by portraying women in more diverse, realistic, and respectful roles, Bollywood can contribute to a more equitable and just society. Female characters should be depicted as complex, multifaceted individuals with their own aspirations, challenges, and strengths, not just as accessories to male characters or as objects of desire.