Bollywood Better Watch Out: Hindi Cinema And The Bechdel Test
Movies play a crucial role in shaping public mindset. We often borrow our understanding of the world around us through the tinted windows of celluloid depictions, and this gives movies the power to alter public perception. A study conducted by Michelle C. Pautz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, revealed that people were more likely to trust the government and respond favourably about it after watching films like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty which depicted incidents involving the American government. Considering this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise as to why the biopic of Narendra Modi did not get released ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The reason stated by the Election Commision was that, a biopic which can disturb the level playing field during the election season, must not be displayed.
If movies have the potential to wield such influence on people, its opinion on topics like female empowerment and female representation too, is likely to have an effect on people.
It has been long debated that women characters in movies are ancillary to their male counterparts and their lives are depicted to revolve around men. While women-centric movies and strong female leads with a mind of their own have made it to the silver screen, their representation still remains skewed. The question is not about the movies being feminist in nature but about the screen space allotted to women characters.
Coming to the rescue, here is American Cartoonist Alison Bechdel who devised the Bechdel test (alternatively known as the Bechdel-Wallace test). It acts as a litmus test for women representation in movies. It first appeared in her comic ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ in 1985. Bechdel credited the idea to her friend Liz Wallace and the writings of the author Virginia Woolf. Ever since, this test has been widely used to test the female representation in Hollywood movies.
So what is the Bechdel test?
The Bechdel test has three simple, unambiguous criterias:
- A film has to have at least two (named) women characters in it.
- These women characters at some point of the movie talk to each other.
- They talk about something other than men.
How does Bollywood fare?
Of the 2018 movies that performed well in the box office, 4 out of 10 movies analysed by Youtube channel Vitamin Stree do not pass the Bechdel test.
Movies like Sanju, 2.0, Baaghi 2, Thugs of Hindostan, Simmba and Stree do not pass the test, while movies like Raazi, Race 3, Padmavat and Badhai Ho pass the test.
Even a few fairly progressive contemporary films that have strong female characters, do not pass the Bechdel test. Movies like Hichki, Padman, Pari and Veere Di Wedding all fail the test. Only Andhadun manages to scrape by with two instances throughout the 2 and a half hour movie.
Why did these movies pass/fail?
While only five of the movies discussed above passed the test, it becomes important to know why these movies passed or failed the test. Most movies that failed, didn’t have two female characters that spoke to each other during the course of the movie. On the other hand, seemingly women-centric movies like Veere Di Wedding have ample female characters but their conversations are about men and their relationships with men.
What’s wrong with the Bechdel test?
It is obvious that movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha and Tumari Sullu make the cut but other movies do not pass the test with so much ease. Some of them do not necessarily have strong female characters but make the cut owing to tokenism and sheer technicality which can be considered as limitations of the test.
Other limitations observed include:
One, it merely talks about screen space for female characters and does not even pay heed to the nature of conversation between female characters beyond their independence from male-centric topics. Sometimes the script might involve two or more women just talking about something inconsequential to the central plot too.
Two, movies that pass the test might still contain same sex conversations about gender stereotypes if not about Men explicitly, this includes stereotypes about motherhood, fashion, caretaking or appearance-related topics.
What about a Bechdel test for men?
The Bechdel test has been vastly discussed and variations of the same have also been tried out. In the spirit of equal representation, let us explore if men also get disadvantaged by stereotypical conversations in movies because in reality, men are often victims of male toxicity and imposed stereotypes.
A study conducted by Hansika Kapoor, Prachi Bhuptani and Amuda Agneswaran in 2015, titled “The Bechdel in India: gendered depictions in contemporary Hindi cinema”, analysed the dialogue content of male and female characters in top grossing, women-centric and parallel cinemas. The Bechdel test was tweaked here, to create a reserve Indian Bechdel Test to assess male characters and their depictions in the three categories mentioned above.
This test explored if a movie had “at least two men, who talk to each other, about something other than a woman, and other than stereotypical topics such as their profession, recreation such as sports, games, sex, cars, and world news such as politics or talks related to technology.”
Conversation between the same gender were also quantified and categorised as typical, stereotypical and non-stereotypical for males and females. Firstpost in an article on the subject, reported that on analysing male representation using the reverse Bechdel test, men enjoyed a fairly balanced representation in all three genres of films, where the content of their conversations were not dictated by gender. It was also found that Male characters spoke of more varied areas, both stereotypical and non-stereotypical, than women, particularly in top-grossing content.
This sums up the need for a more progressive and matured outlook on movies. The importance of minimal female representation that the Bechdel test analyses should not be cast aside as a ‘feminist notion’, but rather a more comprehensive understanding of the same and its impact on people through subtle mediums like cinema should be given careful consideration.