The proliferation of sexual violence and female oppression in India is truly disturbing. The Times of India recently reported that 95% of women in Delhi and the surrounding areas feel unsafe outdoors. While the recent gang rape of a student in Delhi has brought significant attention to this issue, male sexual dominance deeply associated with violent tendencies is a mainstay of Indian culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bollywood, where "eve-teasing" – a euphemism in India that refers to everything from provocative comments to groping - is historically displayed by cinematic heroes.

Steve Derné conducted an in-depth analysis of Hindi films during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The study found that Hindi films not only tend to “eroticize” sexual violence but these films often legitimize such violence[1] by showing heroes who use milder forms of sexual violence to gain the affection of heroines. Derné interviewed Indian men on how films shaped their beliefs about romantic relationships and women’s place in society more generally. These interviews confirmed the hypothesis that men at that time idealized submission in women and that that ideal was often supported and even amplified by the images they saw in films. What is notable here is that, by simultaneously legitimizing “mild” sexual aggression by men and idealizing submission in women, these films rob women of their agency.

A more recent study of nine randomly selected Bollywood box-office hits from the late 1990’s reveal that over 40% of sexual scenes included sexual violence [2], and perhaps even more shockingly, nearly 70% of the perpetrators of this violence were the “heroes”. The same study found that while “serious” sexual violence was shown in a negative light – moderate sexual violence, of the sort often perpetrated by the film heroes, was framed as fun. Once again, the narratives of these films serve to rob women of their agency, by treating them as prizes to be won by force.

Notwithstanding this, Hindi films have certainly evolved over time.  More recent films have celebrated women’s abilities beyond their role as sexual objects.  In the 2009 film “Wake Up Sid”, the heroine is not only a successful writer but encourages the hero to be self- sufficient, forcing him to grow up and effectively educates him.  Furthermore, in the 2012 the sleeper hit “Kahaani”, the heroine is elevated to the status of an action hero and mastermind, manipulating a series of events to avenge the death of her husband and destroy a terrorist cell.  Even with this substantial progress, however, many of old social mores remain.  Another highly successful 2012 romantic comedy, “Cocktail”, again reinforced the image of the “ideal” Indian woman with a shy, traditional and selfless heroine juxtaposed to her modern and more liberal best friend. 

These common film images, reflected in the attitudes of Indian youth, reinforce specific ideals of both masculinity and femininity. In a recent pilot study of college-aged students, researchers found that 32% of female respondents thought that eve-teasing was a way to display masculinity.[3] The acceptance of male aggression as a legitimate expression of masculinity by this group of educated women confirms the fact that these norms are still deeply entrenched in Indian society.  In addition, the majority of male respondents reported enjoying watching scenes of eve-teasing in movies and 50% asserted that they believed women liked to be “teased”.  The vast majority of male-respondents, 76%, reported that films and television played a role in the prevalence of eve-teasing behaviors. This shows that, over 20 years following in-depth studies and interviews by Derné, these “minor” acts of sexual violence are still eroticized by the Indian media industry.  

Moreover, these images and storylines continue to rob female characters of their agency.  This loss of agency affects young women and men’s attitudes and responses in their own lives.  On the one hand, the same survey study found that 51% of female respondents ignore eve-teasing situations due to feeling helpless.  45% of women and 39% of men also revealed that not only was there no point in protesting against eve-teasing, but that such protest was likely to aggravate the situation. On the other hand, The Pink Gang, an impressive group of Indian women collectively acting to protect themselves, is taking pro-active steps to reclaim their agency. These women reject the deeply ingrained belief that women are helpless and take action to change their own situations and even their communities.  This fundamental shift in these beliefs is vital for Indian women.  These beliefs, however, will remain deeply rooted in Indian society, as long as young Indian women and men are subjected to images idealizing outdated and harmful notions of sexuality.

The recent commercial success of films, such as “Kahaani”, show that there is a growing demand for empowered heroines in Hindi films. This presents a significant opportunity for the Indian media to not only reflect present and past Indian societal attitudes towards women but also help re-shape them. In this way, it encourages the development of more three-dimensional, empowered heroines and heroes who fully respect women, thus condemning even mild sexual violence and its perpetrators. The films mentioned above highlight that this shift in media portrayals is already underway. In fact, over the last several years, public service announcements against eve-teasing have multiplied. However, the unification of the nation after the horrific Delhi gang-rape coupled with the proof that pro-feminist films can be commercial successes should lead to a rapid rise of more empowering portrayals of women in Indian entertainment.


1. Derne, S., Making Sex Violent: Love as Force in Recent Hindi Films. Violence Against Women, 1999. 5: p. 548.

2. Ramasubramanian, S. and M.B. Oliver, Portrayals of Sexual Violence in Popular Hindi Films, 1997-99. Sex Roles, 2003. 48(7/8): p. 327-336.

3. Ghosh, D., Eve Teasing: Role of the Patriarchal System of the Society. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 2011. 37: p. 100-107.

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