“Ab bakwaas band, badlaav shuru” – now the nonsense ends, change begins. That is the slogan for a social awareness building exercise spearheaded by one of India’s most popular radio stations, with Bollywood actor John Abraham as its ambassador. Having highlighted the pressing issues of acid attacks on women and sexist language, this campaign is focusing on women’s safety in homes, offices, and public places.
With this radio campaign, Abraham – a former model and now a top-ranking film star – joins the steady trickle of Bollywood personalities lending their support to India’s ongoing anti-rape struggle. The Mumbai-based, Hindi-language film industry, or Bollywood, has often been guilty of sidelining and objectifying women, even trivialising sexual harassment, on screen.
Off screen, its stars have usually avoided commenting on sensitive social and political issues. However, the anti-rape protests following the 2012 Delhi gang-rape have led to a noticeable change.
A handful of stars, like Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, were known for their social activism, but in the year-and-a-half since the Delhi gang-rape, others have spoken out. Actress Kareena Kapoor Khan has thrown her weight behind an emergency cellphone app for women’s safety; others have taken to the streets in demonstrations; and some like Abraham have used other media platforms to air their protest against rape.
When it comes to sexual violence, silence and shame are pretty universal. But silence has a cost. And for me, when that young woman boarded that bus in Delhi on December 16, 2012, my silence became too costly to keep.
Speaking from experience
Poorna Jagannathan – star of the Bollywood blockbuster Delhi Belly – has chosen the stage as her medium. “It’s rare in any country, not only in India, for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories with the public,” she told Al Jazeera.
“When it comes to sexual violence, silence and shame are pretty universal. But silence has a cost. And for me, when that young woman boarded that bus in Delhi on December 16, 2012, my silence became too costly to keep.”
Poorna found her voice against violence by co-producing and starring in the play Nirbhaya, Breaking The Silence. Nirbhaya (fearless) was the name given to the now-deceased Delhi gang-rape victim by the Indian media. The play won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year. It was premiered in India this March, and is headed for Dublin later this month.
Written and directed by internationally acclaimed theatre professional Yael Farber, it juxtaposes the Delhi gang-rape against the cast’s personal experiences of child sexual abuse, adult rape including gang-rape, molestation, domestic violence, and bride burning in India and abroad.
These performers are not alone in reaching out to the public with their personal traumas. At a conference earlier this year organised by actor Rahul Bose’s NGO to build awareness about child sexual abuse, Kalki Koechlin created ripples by identifying herself as a sexual abuse survivor. The actress has also drawn attention and acclaim for starring in a satirical video slamming victim blaming as the standard social response to sexual violence.
“Ladies, do you think rape is something men do out of a desire for control, empowered by years of patriarchy? You’ve clearly been misled by the notion that women are people too,” she says in the video that has garnered 3.8 million views on YouTube so far.
Stars on the streets
The involvement of these glamorous stars helps to keep a much needed spotlight on India’s rape epidemic. According to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau, there has been a 902 percent increase in rapes in India from 1971 to 2012.
The official statistics for sexual crimes in India still are vastly lower than in the US, but Indian activists attribute the difference chiefly to considerable under-reporting – even more than in the US – due to systemic hurdles and the stigmatisation of victims.
The spontaneous anti-rape citizens’ protests in the months following the Delhi gang-rape, have gradually shifted from the streets to drawing rooms, newsrooms and other spaces. While the public and media remain at the forefront of this movement, initiatives by movie stars have played a part in sustaining the momentum for 18 months now.
Muddying their hands in roadside battles has usually been seen in India as the job of art film personalities or celebrities eyeing political careers. However, since December 2012 , the country has witnessed the unusual sight of popular young mainstream stars like Ranveer Singh and Sonam Kapoor at anti-rape rallies.
“India’s shocking statistics for female infanticide show that we don’t see women as an essential part of society. Instead of demanding action from others, each of us must play a part in changing mindsets towards girls,” Kapoor told Al Jazeera.
Actor-director-producer Farhan Akhtar fronted a campaign last year titled MARD – Men Against Rape and Discrimination – to overturn popular notions of masculinity using various media platforms.
Saying no to sexism
This is not to suggest that Bollywood has metamorphosed overnight into an activist industry. Hindi cinema remains male-dominated and gender-prejudiced. However, since the Delhi gang-rape, at least some significant members of the industry have been at pains to distance themselves from sexism.
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Megastar Shah Rukh Khan, for his part, made a public commitment that his heroine’s name would precede his in the credit rolls of all his future films.
Following widespread debate about song and dance tracks that grossly objectify women in Hindi cinema, leading Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra let it be known to the press that she had previewed her costumes and the lyrics of a song before agreeing to do a cameo in the thriller Shootout At Wadala.
Coming in October this year is the film Kill The Rapist? which is the culmination of a journey that began for producer Siddhartha M Jain following news of the Delhi gang-rape. “I needed to vent my anger and do something,” he said.
Jain and director Sanjay Chhel sought audience votes on the question of whether the rapist in their story should be killed: 92 percent said yes, eight percent said no. In a nation simultaneously debating the need for capital punishment, if nothing else, this move and the film’s contentious title are likely to generate heated – and welcome – discussions when it is released.
The silence on sexual violence, it seems, has been broken for good.
Follow Anna MM Vetticad on Twitter: @annavetticad