International Women’s Day, March 8, saw the predictable media feeding frenzy. From print advertisements that focused on weight loss, including corrective surgery, and fairness products (size and colour matters, we are repeatedly told) to television discussions on women’s safety, the advertisements, articles and talk shows, Indian women and their status was the talk of the day. But the content was typically limited and incomplete. The media had decided that Indian women lived in metros, were concerned above all about safety in public spaces, were facing major health problems, including body weight and shape but were generally better off today than ever in the past.
The fate of the majority of Indian women did not feature in most of the discussions or celebrations. That over half the population of Indian women is anaemic; that the maternal mortality rate – that is women dying due to something that is not a life-threatening condition – is at least 250 per every 100,000 live births; that every 54 minutes a woman is sexually assaulted; that every 66 minutes a woman is burned for dowry. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 8,383 dowry deaths in 2009, an increase of 2.6 per cent over the previous year, 25,741 reported rape cases, 89,546 cases of cruelty by husbands or members of family. Of the rape cases, over 11 per cent of the victims were girls under the age of 15. Yes, these too are Indian women. But you would not have known it had you glanced through the Indian print media or watched television debates and discussions.
A woman being shot in broad daylight outside her college in Delhi sparked off, understandably, a discussion on women’s safety on NDTV. But the discussion was defined only in terms of the urban middle class woman. To give expert comment were the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, actor Shabana Azmi and then inexplicably, Kareena Kapoor. Why Kareena Kapoor? What are her concerns about women, or about women’s safety? Have we ever heard her make any statement concerning the condition and fate of millions of women in this country?
To her credit, the actor did not pretend to be a concerned citizen. Her concern about safety extended to the fact that her niece was not allowed to go down alone in the building compound. Her world was clearly far removed from the one that the young women in the audience inhabited.
CNN-IBN did little better with a predictable panel, including the redoubtable Madhu Kishwar, once known as the person to launch India’s first feminist journal in India and now seen often on television distancing herself from feminism with statements like, “I don’t know anything about patriarchy-shatriarchy!” She was speaking in the context of a recent survey by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) that found that 65 per cent of the Indian men surveyed thought women should tolerate domestic violence. Here again, we had a Bollywood persona, Pooja Bedi, on the panel.
Why are TV channels turning to Bollywood for everything, even issues on which the people invited have no position or opinion? Can this really help in TRPs?
In contrast to Bollywood, Hollywood does have several actors who have openly espoused causes. Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon and Angelina Jolie amongst the women and George Clooney, Tim Robbins, Matt Damon, Sean Penn amongst male actors. If any of these actors are called to discussions on issues, one can understand. George Clooney campaigned for Americans, and indeed the world, to wake up to the crisis in Dafur. Jane Fonda stuck her neck out during the Vietnam War and since then has been outspoken on issues such as violence against women. Do we have any equivalents in India barring Shabana Azmi, who hardly acts in any films now, and Nandita Das, who has taken a break from acting? So,why Bollywood?
The media has run out of ideas on women’s concerns, it would seem. Even the world of advertising cannot find any new products to promote on Women’s Day. In previous years, March 8 was marked with special advertising supplements in almost every newspaper.
What this actually illustrates is the increasing distance between mainstream media and the reality of India. The bubble of celebrity and consumerism has become a permanent cocoon, something that obscures the world outside and limits the options inside. As a result, the same tired faces are seen on TV discussions and debates, repeating what has been said before. The expectation that Bollywood will add spice falls flat because the Bollywood community has little to say on issues of real concern. Instead of realising this and breaking out of this cocoon, the circus of talking heads continues unheeded.