An effervescent Riya Gautam, all of 21 years, dreamed of flying the skies as an air hostess. Her journey was abruptly cut short by a stalker who brutally stabbed her to death in broad daylight in New Delhi’s Shahdara on July 5, 2017. She was stalked for many months and had registered a police complaint against the man.
In another incident, on July 15, a 17-year-old girl was doused with kerosene by a stalker inside her house in Kottayam, Kerala. She sustained 80% burns.
With these images in mind, watching the songs that play on television these days can induce revulsion. Many popular Bollywood films are full of double entendre and misogyny. The songs appear to normalise and romanticise stalking. For instance, ‘tu hi lage sohni tenu mari jawa line main….boyfriend bana le’, goes a song from the upcoming movie, Mubarakan, which shows Arjun Kapoor chasing Illeana D’Cruz, or ‘tune English mein jab humko daanta, toh aashiq surrender hua; pyar se maara galon pe chanta toh aashiq surrender hua‘, from Badrinath ki Dulhaniya, with Varun Dhawan chasing an uninterested Alia Bhatt. Apart from the rabid sexism embedded in many songs, even a movie like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha inspired by the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has a proper ‘stalking song’. The song, ‘hans mat pagli‘ has Akshay Kumar stalking a distressed Bhumi Pednekar, following her on a motorcycle and hideously clicking her pictures.
How could Bollywood get wooing so wrong? For far too long, Bollywood songs and movies have shown wooing by the stalker-lover as romantic and mostly successful in melting the heart of the woman. But what do the real gut-wrenching stories of stalking point to?
Can we ever recover from the horror that gripped us as we watched the visceral CCTV footage of a stalker repeatedly stabbing a young Delhi school teacher with a pair of scissors before smashing her head with a stone? Many acid attack victims have disturbing personal narratives of how the rejection of a stalkers’ advances resulted in their disfigurement and condemned them to a life of trauma and suffering. The media is rife with shocking stories of stalkers raping their victims, burning them alive, hurting them physically.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of stalking cases in 2015 was 6,266. Yet, these figures likely do not capture the entire scale and horror of stalking. It has been four years since stalking was recognised as a form of violence against women under IPC Section 354D. But the crime is punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term up to three to five years. The lack of diligent law enforcement is evident in these horrific stalking crimes.
Bollywood has got it all wrong
The casual manner in which stalking is often portrayed on screen raises alarming questions. If the makers of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha feel that the movie has a strong message against open defecation, can one assume its message is as much about making stalking normal and even a preferred way of wooing a woman? Specifically, a movie like this one is more than ‘entertainment’, it is Entertainment-Education. Education-entertainment harnesses the power of the media to impact people’s attitudes as a part of behaviour change communication. In a sensational case from Australia in 2015, an Indian man, Sandesh Baliga, accused of stalking two women in Tasmania, successfully argued that he believed the patient pursuit of a woman would make her fall in love with him since that’s what he’d seen in Bollywood films.
In this context, it is particularly worrisome how many of the recent blockbuster movies popularise stalking myths.
Popularising stalking myths
Sultan, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Badrinath ki Dulhania, Raanjhanaa, Tere Naam, Wanted, Saawariya, Fan, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Besharam and Fanaa are some the recent movies with a prominent stalker-lover plot or sub-plot. A few of these are quintessential stalker films paying tribute to the obsessional madness and violent acts of the stalker.
For instance, the recent blockbuster, Badrinath ki Dulhaniya, is about a violent stalker who harasses, threatens and even kidnaps the woman he is obsessed with, despite her repeated rejections. The irony is, the girl not only tolerates his obsessive behaviour, she actually finds the goodness in him. Even when the ending si different, the valorisation of stalking remains, for example in Raanjhanaa, starring Tamilian superstar Dhanush, and the 2003 film Tere Naam, starring Salman Khan. In these films, the stalkers torture and ruin their victims’ lives due to their morbid infatuation before choosing their own passionate end. Ironically, the audiences lapped up the message of selfless love and honesty of the ‘heroes’ and rooted for them. The actors’ craft created a deep sense of sympathy among viewers, edging out the fact that stalking is a purely criminal act.
A shifting compass
As many would argue, stalking is an old Bollywood trope. The popular number ‘o laal dupatta walli, tera naam to bata‘ from Aankhen was the stalking song of the 1990s. But many popular movies from that era which had stalking as its central plot – such Darr, Anjaam, Daraar and Jeet – still maintained the semblance of a moral compass: the stalkers were accepted as villainous ‘obsessed lovers’ rather than heroes. The compass, it seems, has shifted in the last quarter.
However, in light of the real life horrifying crimes committed by rejected and resentful stalkers, can Bollywood filmmakers and actors remain uncritical to the projection of stalkers on screen? It is a pity that the female lead of the movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Bhumi Pednekar, recently sought to defend the stalking in the song, ‘Hans mat pagli’, by suggesting that it’s not stalking if the girl in question does not object. Which make-believe world is this that she is talking about to defend the indefensible? Are we not all familiar with the fate of most of the victims who questioned stalkers and pleaded to be left alone?
Leveraging star appeal
Given their popularity, it is time actors desisted from such depictions of criminality as unrequited love. This is not too difficult now that many actors are also producers or filmmakers. Bollywood may not be the root cause of stalking, but when movies depict stalking as love, stalking is made to look cool and, eventually, socially acceptable.
Bollywood actors today are leveraging their star appeal to affirm their social commitment in several spheres. Perhaps it is time to for them to use their power to condemn and refuse to essay roles that portray a pathology as love.
Minati Dash is a sociologist interested in issues of political economy and popular culture.