Our worldviews are largely shaped by the media we consume in our formative years—movies, TV series, glossy glam magazines, and what have you.
For the girls of my generation, Disney classics like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ made us long for our own ‘prince charming’, our own ‘happily ever after’ in real life. When I think of it today, those animated features taught us young girls to be subservient.
Take Prince Phillip (Sleeping Beauty) kissing an unconscious Princess Aurora while completely ignoring the concept of consent. Or Belle (Beauty and the Beast) being held captive against her will by the grotesque Beast, with whom she eventually falls for in a twisted Stockholm syndrome of a story.
As young girls, we romanticized and idolized these characters. They taught us that women are vulnerable, always the damsels in distress. They also reminded us that a man’s actions—if he is the hero of the story—are always valid, no matter how condescending and sexist they were.
While Disney has made some amends—with movies like ‘Brave’ (in which Merida, a lead, is a warrior) and ‘Moana’ (the eponymous hero who saves her village from destruction)—where women are shown as capable in their own rights, most Nepali and Indian films and soaps continue to peddle some extremely troubling old tropes.
Most mainstream Nepali movies still portray women in supporting roles. ‘Women lead’, they call the main actress, but in most cases, she is leading nothing. “So far as Nepali women’s portrayal on the big screen is concerned, not much has changed in the past two decades,” says Dipendra Lama, a film director who has also been critiquing Nepali movies for 22 years.
Catcalling and harassing are our hero’s way of winning the girl’s heart—which he always does. For instance, in ‘Jerryy’, a 2014 smash hit, female characters are called ‘maal’. The literal translation of the word is a possession or an object. The word in the movie refers to a ‘loose woman’, or to put it more bluntly, a slut. In the film, Anmol KC, our hero, has the penchant for calling women his ‘maal’. This is done to show that KC is a ladies’ magnet, a bona fide playboy.
In KC’s other hit ‘Dreams’, he rescues the character played by Sandhya KC from a bunch of thugs just five minutes into the film. The only purpose the scene serves is to show that a woman requires a man to be safe or saved from other men, and that our hero can single-handedly rough up six or seven villains. In the same movie, not long after this scene, we see KC threatening the character played by Samragyee RL Shah just because his ego was bruised when the latter refused his advances.
Women are thus objectified, abused and catcalled, and apparently these things are normal.
Movies and shows like these twist the perception of boys and young men, especially when it comes to women. “As artists, we should have been more progressive with our filmmaking,” says Lama. “But most filmmakers are only concerned with what the audiences want, not what they need to see.”
This normalization of patriarchal roles in the entertainment industry is nowhere more blatant than in the Nepali reality show, Blind Date, where the male participants are often brazenly lewd and inappropriate with the female contestants. The show creators do not seem to care that they are giving out a wrong message.
The same goes for the 2019 Bollywood hit ‘Kabir Singh’ in which the main character played by Shahid Kapoor uses controlling behavior and violence towards his romantic interest, a role portrayed by Kiara Advani. The movie is toxic masculinity at its worst and it was a box office hit.
In Lama’s view, it is no surprise that Nepali movies, many of which are adapted from Indian cinemas, continue to be so bad.
Such movies and shows “reflect the reality of our male-dominated society,” in the words of actor Richa Sharma.
They amplify male dominance in the name of entertainment and in doing so contribute to the vicious circle of patriarchy.
“The sad reality of Nepal is that movies with such storylines gain more viewers. It doesn’t matter how good the actors are or how good the story is,” says Sharma.
Even in the case of smash-hit movies like ‘Loot’, its initial hype was largely based on its sultry and highly suggestive dance number ‘Udhreko Choli’ (‘torn blouse’).
Sex sells in the entertainment industry and mainstream filmmakers and show producers are apparently going a step further by hyper-sexualizing and hyper-objectifying female characters. The audience, meanwhile, is lapping it up.
“To change this pattern of filmmaking, we need newcomers who are more open-minded and attuned to the changing tastes and sensibilities,” says actor Surakshya Panta.
She adds that although progressive movies and series are being made, they get drowned by the sheer number of films and shows that objectify women.
Patriarchy and normalization of sexual abuse and violence on women run deep in the entertainment industry. “Actress and models facing unwarranted sexual advances, abuses and harassment is nothing new in Nepal,” says Sharma. “But only a few cases come out.”
In 2020, actor Samragyee RL Shah shared via her Instagram posts about the harassment she faced in the film industry. More recently, former child actor and model Sushmita Regmi shared her harrowing story on how she was raped multiple times by a beauty pageant organizer, who is currently in police custody.
All of these incidents show how unsafe the entertainment industry is for women.
Panta adds that many female actors who have been abused or harassed cannot expose their abusers because there isn’t a proper support system. “The industry would be safer for women if there was an authority to do background checks, or to simply control who comes into this industry,” she says.
Actor Sharma says incidents of abuse and violence are not limited to the entertainment industry. Women and girls are facing abuse and other heinous acts even in their own homes, she says.
“How do we expect these cases to come out when women cannot share their sufferings with their own family?” she asks.