Omission of Menstruation in Female-Centric Bollywood Movies
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
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Singh, P(2020, September 16). Omission of Menstruation in Female- Centric Bollywood Movies. BeyondBlood.https://www.beyondblood.org/post/omission-of-menstruation-in-female-centric-bollywood-movies
Analysing the depiction of the menstrual cycle and issues in Bollywood is a particularly peculiar and difficult task, owing to the fact that mainstream Bollywood movies refuse to acknowledge even the existence of menstruation. It is something that exists in a void, away from the public eye, supposed to be a private issue, and thus, not something meant for hundreds of thousands of people who watch cinema. This lack of acknowledgement manifests itself in female characters whose lives in no way or form are affected by menstrual cycle, and it becomes a part of their life not important and significant enough to be discussed or depicted. Cinema, especially mainstream cinema, both reflects and perpetuates the popular cultures and norms in a significant manner. The age-old taboo of menstruation being a private matter and to never be discussed in front of men has further silenced the conversation around Menstruation. This refusal to discuss menstruation and the issues related to it guides and provides an argument for Bollywood movies to not depict, represent or even mention menstruation. Moreover, this continued silence around menstruation in mainstream cinema fuels the taboo around it further. This pattern of minimal to no representation of menstruation in Bollywood becomes even more profound and problematic when it becomes a part of contemporary ‘female- centric’ films-a relatively new phenomenon which focuses on female protagonists and stories. The fact that the entirety of these movies revolves around a female character(s), without even once mentioning mensuration, reveals how intrinsically rooted are taboos around menstruation and how difficult it is for us to discuss it.
The argument doesn’t revolve around how often Bollywood movies do not mention menstruation, the argument is how often do movies consciously omit to talk about menstruation, especially in narratives where menstruation can take up important space. Cinema is one of the most consumed and impactful form of media, with a wide base of audience, where actors are hero-worshipped. Movies are influential in shaping the principles of dissimulation, perpetuating the norms of the society, and influencing the opinions of the majority. The only depiction of menstruation that is available to us is seen in sanitary napkin advertisements, which in themselves are very unrealistic and problematic. Menstrual hygiene advertising has strengthened cultural taboos that menstruation is unwanted and dirty and something that must be concealed (Yagnik, 2013). In these advertisements, menstruation is seen as a negative aspect that must be hidden and it is the menstrual products being advertised that provides a way to conceal menstruation. This method of advertising reinforces the idea that menstruation is extremely impure and unwanted (Simon and Berg, 2001). Other than advertisements the only other knowledge of menstruation comes form school books, which are incomprehensive and absence of sex education further stigmatise the idea. Thus, it becomes important to have an open, comprehensive and educational conversation around menstruation and its health impacts on women, and movies are an impactful medium for the depiction of these conversations.
The accurate portrayal of menstruation in media, especially movies, becomes important and its omission becomes problematic because menstrual hygiene in India is abysmally low and there is an absence of knowledge around menstrual issues like PMDD, PMS, PCOS, Dysmenorrhea, PME and the phases of the menstrual life cycle. AC Neilson’s (1) report, 'Sanitary Protection: Every Woman's Health Right' showed that only 12% women in India have access to sanitary products, and the remaining population of women are vulnerable to many serious diseases (Goyal, 2016). Another major conclusion from the report revealed that around 23% of women do not leave schools after reaching menarche, as either a result of embarrassment or restrictions from family. A realistic depiction of menstruation in movies will helps in lifting the stigma around it and makes it easier to discuss the various spectrums of menstruation.
The cultural norm around menstruation is silence and stigma and it is perpetuated by the media (Yagnik, 2012). The menstrual cycle also has deep implications on both the physical and mental health of females. The taboo around menstruation makes it difficult to talk about health issues related to it and thus getting proper treatment. The only time a female’s menstrual cycle is discussed is when it is done in the context of reproduction. Here is why talking about menstruation in female-centred movies becomes even more important. It makes the character relatable, human and most importantly helps women to identify their problems with that of the protagonist. Other than paving the way for conversation, representation of menstruation in these films can help in breaking the stigma of menstruation being a private issue, and bring forth the need to discuss menstruation and its various health aspects and treatments in the open. Female characters are constantly shown as 'perfect' women and a conversation around menstruation provides the danger of looking at that character as 'impure', and thus, menstruation is constantly concealed and considered a part of private life, and not public discourse.
Absence of Menstruation from Female-Centric Movies:
Female centric films are marketed as feminist, revolutionary, refreshing and a much-needed break from male-dominated storytelling. These movies revolve around women, their stories, friendships, career and tries to mark a significant departure from traditional roles ascribed to women in Bollywood. While there can be an argument around whether this wave of women-centric films is the commodification of feminism or an attempt to subvert dominant status quo in Bollywood, what cannot be denied is that these movies do provide a fresh wave of storytelling in a world of ‘hero-saves heroine’ narratives, where women are not provided with any active agency in the movies. Films like Lipstick Under my Burkha, Veere di Wedding, Angry Indian Goddesses, Razi, Mary Kom, Panga, Parched, Mardani, are some of the examples of woman-centric films. While each of these films can be venerated or criticised individually regarding their portrayal of female characters, what remains common in all the films is no mention of menstruation, a feature of every mainstream Bollywood movie.
The first kind of female-centric movies focuses around female bonds, friendships and their shared experiences, an example of which are Angry Indian Goddesses and Veere di Wedding. While Angry Indian Goddesses does provide more diversity in its characters than Veere di Wedding, the characters in these movies come from a privileged background. Angry Indian Goddesses tried to tackle various issues in women’s lives through a portrayal of sisterhood and female companionship, with sexual harassment being the focus of the movie. The movie has pivotal scenes where the female characters discuss their problems, and even in light-hearted banter scenes, we do not encounter menstruation coming up, even with seven female characters in the movie. Similarly, Veere di Wedding was publicised as a breakthrough movie on female friendship and talked about taboo topics like divorce, dysfunctional families, masturbation and female sexuality, with no mention of menstruation even once. What is an important thing to note is that the filmmakers were comfortable discussing and explicitly showing a scene where the female character is masturbating(which is a huge and significant leap for Bollywood), and you would expect even a passing reference to menstruation in such a movie, but it is significantly absent. Menstruation becomes a particular aspect that time and again does not become a significant aspect of the lives of these female characters.
Period pains and menstruation are an important part of female athlete lives and are an aspect around which they navigate their professional life. The omission of any talk around menstruation becomes even more peculiar in sports movies that centre around female athletes. Mary Kom was one of the first Bollywood movies to present the biography of a female boxer, of the same name. The movie depicted various kinds of struggles faced by Kom in her journey to become an Olympic gold medalist. Her marriage and motherhood were important themes of the film and depicted the rigorous nature of the training she went through. What becomes important and problematic here(other than casting Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom) is that the movie does not acknowledge periods being an important part of a female boxer’s life. It is difficult to imagine that a sport as rigorous as boxing, does not get affected by the menstrual cycle. Including a healthy talk and struggles around menstruation in a female athlete's life would have been a refreshing undertaking by the filmmakers, and would have made the film more relatable, especially for aspiring female athletes.
The relatively recent Kangana Ranaut starer Panga was a story of a female kabaddi player who returned to playing kabaddi after a gap of seven years. The movies used a small town narrative to depict the life of its protagonist as a mother and a wife, and how these two roles inspired her to finally take up a sport she left a long time ago. The movie was effectively about Kangana’s character as she tries to navigate motherhood, marriage and her dream of making a comeback as a kabaddi player. Panga focusses a significant part of the narrative on the protagonist's struggle to build up the physical strength and stamina she lost due to her seven-year-long break. Across various health hurdles that the protagonist experienced, menstrual health would have been a crucial aspect to cover, that the film doesn’t address. The difficult journey from being a working mother to playing kabaddi at a national level, through various health and physical obstacles, did not portray how menstruation regulates the life of a female athlete. Saala Khadoos, although more focussed on the complexities of R Madhavan’s character, was another movie about a female boxer, and very explicitly portrayed the painstaking nature of training given to boxers. Just like other movies within the genre, the movie revolved around rigorous training, competitions and aspirations to win, and did not concern itself with health problems, and specifically menstrual issues.
Chak De India and Dangal, are also important sports films that centre around female athletes(2). Both the movies were successful and provided an insight into the discriminations and obstacles faced by female athletes in a fairly male-dominated field. Chak de India came with a story of a female hockey team and its journey towards winning the world cup, under the training of an overemphasised male protagonist. While the movie used various nuances of nationalism and gender to make it an impactful watch, it is to be noted that an entire team of female hockey players doesn’t talk about menstruation. Dangal was a biographical narrative of the lives of two prominent wrestlers in India, Geeta and Babita Phogat. The film navigates the sexism against female children in rural India and tries to address that the path to becoming an athlete is much more difficult for women than men, as it becomes difficult for women to step in the public world. It is interesting to note that these two movies do talk about sisterhood, female friendship and shared biases and struggles, but those struggles are only those which occupy the public space and discourse. Women and their private lives and health issues are omitted. A topic as important and common as menstruation does not become a part of the film, because the films do not want to address this ‘private’ and ‘embarrassing’ aspect of women’s lives. The fact that menstruation is one of the most common struggles of women, that it is experienced differently by every woman, and a very important aspect of female athletes life, does not become a part of the narrative tells us just how shunned the discussion around menstruation is.
Mardani, starring Rani Mukherjee, was a credible movie revolving around a female cop and her hunt to take down the antagonist, who trafficked young girls. The sequel, Mardani 2 released recently, also navigates sexual assault and rape and the protagonists' journey to bring justice. Both these movies have substantial action scenes, highlighting the ‘toughness’ and ‘manliness’ of Mukherjee’s character. There are certainly problematic aspects in the title of the film itself and the depiction of a female having traits that are considered traditionally ‘masculine’, and thus being ‘man-like’. The movie would have been relatable and a refreshing departure from mainstream cinema if it had addressed mensuration and its impact on the training and life of a female police officer. Talking about menstruation, menstrual cramps, or menstrual diarrhoea, especially in such high intense action movies, would be a great way to introduce conversation around menstruation and shed the taboo, misconceptions and prejudices around it.
There is a range of other movies that focus around female characters, like Nil Batte Sanata, Queen, The Dirty Picture, Lajja, Razi, Lipstick Under My Burkha, that broke the ceiling of controlled sexuality in Bollywood and opened up many avenues for female characters to explore. Lipstick under my Burkha was a groundbreaking feminist film and did not shy itself from portraying its women characters in the barest form possible. However, when a movie is breaking so many stereotypes, the conversation around menstruation also becomes important. While promoting the films the producer, Ekta Kapoor, and the actors in the film did talk about the stigma around menstruation and the need to make menstrual products tax free. This conversation that was made during the promotion of the film, would have been a wonderful addition to the film itself because a portrayal of women’s ‘real’ self is incomplete without a conversation around menstruation.
The above discussion helps us to understand how the omission of menstrual talks in female-centred films is a serious issue that perpetuates the vicious cycle of the stigma that revolves around menstruation. Whether menstruation as a topic is consciously omitted or it is something that doesn’t even occur as a viable topic of discussion for the filmmakers is debatable. However, both instances reveal the dangers of stigmas around menstruation. The fact that menstruation does not even come up in movies that are solely centred around female characters is something to dwell upon and requires an investigation of the social and cultural implications of menstruation in our country. Even if it is slow-paced, there is a growth in the narratives and stories that are portrayed in Bollywood and we see an era where counterstories are represented. Even in this pattern of growth, menstruation is nowhere to be seen. The only movie we get around menstruation is Padman, that shifts the entire narrative to the heroism and selflessness of the male characters and fails to dwell on menstrual health issues of rural women. Padman does bring menstruation into the limelight, which is important, but the conversation around menstruation should involve more women and their stories.
While on one hand, the film tried to destigmatise one issue, on the other, it reinforced other social and cultural norms and stigmas. In order to give menstruation a proper and informed representation, filmmakers need to involve female characters in the narratives around menstruation. Talking about menstruation does not only help in breaking the stigma, but it also makes female characters essentially more relatable and likeable. What is being asked here is not just entire movies on menstruation, rather what is being asked is that menstruation should also come up in conversations and narratives presented in mainstream cinema as casual, common and stigma-free and not something that brings forth humiliation and embarrassment. Menstruation is neither represented as a social issue nor a health issue, and if the mainstream cinema continues to ignore menstruation and refuse to acknowledge it, it will continue to fuel the stigmas, taboos, misinformation and misrepresentation that surrounds menstruation in the country.
AC Neilson is a global marketing research firm, and on behalf on UNICEF conducted a study in India in 2016, to understand menstrual hygiene and access to sanitary napkin in the country
Although I won’t call them female-centric per se, as the narrative was extraordinarily focussed on the male characters
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