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“O Gori Gori”: Foreign Women & Bollywood

She smokes, drinks and is always ready for a little roll in the sack with our hormonal heroes — Bollywood has never painted a flattering picture of the white woman. It is this portrayal that is partly responsible for the rise in crimes against foreign women in India, argues Vibha Kumar

Vibha Kumar  11th May 2013

Sunny Leone in a still from her item song in Shootout at Wadala

oreign women do not have it easy in India, and in the last few months, the number of reported incidents seems only to be on the increase: a New Delhi management graduate nonchalantly spiked a Chinese girl's drink and raped her, while a hotel manager in Bhopal drugged a Korean girl and raped her, both in the same month. In the most recent case, a Swiss female was gang-raped by five men in Madhya Pradesh.

But does Bollywood's depiction of foreign women have something to do with the perception of their perceived licentiousness? Does Bollywood play a part, however small, in the repeated transgressions against foreign women in India?

As early as 1970, Saira Banu, in Purab Aur Paschim, played a British blonde named Preeti who favoured mini-dresses, smoking and drinking. Preeti has no idea of "Indian values" until she meets Bharat (Manoj Kumar), an Indian in London for higher studies. Bharat, of course, wants to transform her "Western ways" so she fits the popular conception of a good bride, and brings her to India. Eventually she adopts the Hindustani lifestyle, becomes a good Indian girl, worthy of love, not just a zone of sexual pleasure.

There were sundry white actresses in Indian movies of the '50s and '60s that portrayed scantily-dressed temptresses with a cigarette in their hand and consuming alcohol. Who can forget Helen, the cabaret queen of Anglo-Indian/Burmese descent, who graced incalculable films from the 50's onwards. Her role, as such, was to lurk in the background, a repository for the male gaze.

Fast forward 60 years later and little has changed. In fact, it has only gotten worse.

"Media has tremendous influence on our minds. Repetitive characterization can create a stereotype which leads to a generalisation in our thought process. White skin is associated with Western culture which, in turn, is assumed to be less traditional in concepts of sexuality, lifestyle habits such as drinking/smoking or in their relationships with the opposite sex. It could perhaps be this age old notion that governs many mindsets, which then leads to these women being seen as easy targets. Bollywood is just a medium that is an extension of a similar mindset," explains Dr. Sanjay Chugh, a prominent psychiatrist based in Delhi.

The fair ones are not bound by our concepts of “propriety”, a word that evaporates in thin air the moment Salman Khan comes shirtless on screen and John Abraham shows half his butt on the beach.

Indian cinema has long nurtured a fascination, bordering on obsession, with the gori chori. The fair ones thrust their chest and "jiggy-wiggy" with the hero (like Kylie Minogue did in Blue next to Akshay Kumar), in raunchy Bollywood songs wearing next to nothing. They are not bound by our concepts of "propriety", a word that evaporates in thin air the moment Salman Khan comes shirtless on screen and John Abraham shows half his butt on the beach. The male protagonist may indulge in a romantic dawdling with the white girl but inevitably ends up falling in love with the Indian pinnacle of propreity. Case in point: Florence Brudenell-Bruce, who plays Jo in Love Aaj Kal, and is only worthy of a fling with Saif Ali Khan before he happily gets back with the lovely Deepika Padukone.

This, however, is as good as it gets for white actresses in India. Most foreign women who work in the Indian movie industry are relegated to the portrayal of arm candy, dancers dressed in sparse, garish clothes, either the vamp or the candidate for a one-night-stand when the actor is jilted, drunk or upset. The Indian girl never has a one-night-stand, rarely smokes or drinks or wears tasteless clothes. If they do, they are not to be respected but feasted upon visually.

Bollywood is undeniably a dream world, yet via its great cultural omnipresence it plays on the psyche of all Indians, even those who do not frequent the theatre, providing a frame through which we filter many of our perceptions. There are those who argue that if people are willing to copy Salman's clothing style, apply fairness creams that SRK and John Abraham endorse, copy the dance moves of Shahid Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan, then they might well be willing to treat women in the same way that the men on screen do. This however, is a bit of a logical leap: endorsements by popular figures run in every culture, and actors and other celebrities are often style-setters, but the projected pernicious effects of violence in movies, such as, say, gun violence in America, are still to be determined.Image 2nd

"This has a long history, beginning with white women being typecast as the 'vamp', but it continues to this day. Even films with more liberated Indian characters, such as Salaam Namaste (shot in Australia, depicting pre-marital sex and an unwed mother) showcases the white women encountered by the main characters as overtly sexual and/or controlling. As for the impact of such films on the masses, it is difficult to generalise because there is very little audience and empirical research. Nevertheless, given the cultural capital attributed to Bollywood and the stars, it can be argued that they have the responsibility to offer more nuanced representations, and generally be better role models," argues Sukhmani Khorana, a Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

What is the life of white women in Bollywood then, if this is the way their counterparts in real life are treated?

The women one sees as back-up dancers in Mauja hi Mauja, Dard-e-disco and Shut Up & Bounce Baby also have terrible tales to tell. On set, everyone from the spot boy to the the director makes them feel like pieces of meat. Katja Vovk and Anca Cobzaru (*names changed as per their request) from Donbas, Ukraine and Muntenia, Romania respectively, tell me: "We came from eastern Europe and earn decent money. It is a struggle always, we try to live with dignity but it is hard in Bollywood," says Katja. She has had many propositions from a few producers which she politely denied, resulting which she only got a spot in the 4th line of dancers, not the front.

Anca reveals that when they are on the sets, remarks and groping are de rigeur: "I have had a famous male choreographer grabbing my ass during rehearsals very inappropriately, but I endured. I know too well where protesting goes," she says. Katja also revealed that her cousin Leysa Melnik (*name changed) had a B-grade film director lunge at her and she was infuriated and called the cops. "A big mistake," Katja says, "many of us work on tourist visas and earn in cash. Leysa momentarily forgot that and when it came to paperwork, it was done. She was deported within two days." They both strongly feel that most men around them think that having white skin makes girls easy.Image 3rd

I hear horror stories from female expatriates about the way they are treated everywhere. They also tell me they are amused and at times disgusted when they see what white women are made to do in Hindi movies. They feel completely alienated from the portrayal but understand that they behave based on a model, the Bollywood model, where the fair skinned folk are always dressed in a bikini, dancing, and, of course, always loose and immoral.

Elise Tassin and Rowena Withers from France and Australia respectively, were both attacked and injured beyond belief because they were white. Elise, a tall, beautiful blonde was on her way back home at 11 pm in Defence Colony area of New Delhi, dressed in a jacket, jeans, on a motorbike with a helmet on. She could almost pass for a man given her height and attire... But the four boys in an SUV noticed the strands of blonde hair flowing out from one end of her helmet. "It took nothing for them to start harassing and teasing me and eventually crash my motorbike with their car, leaving me badly injured and bed-ridden for weeks," she tells me. She left India soon after, completely terrorised.

Rowena Withers has an even darker tale. Walking alone through a tea plantation to catch a local bus, a young man spotted her and attacked her over the head with a large rock. "I fell backwards over a high wall and when I woke up he was trying to choke me -- I'm sure his intention was to rape and then kill me." She had a broken ankle, internal bleeding and needed stitches to her head. When he was caught and brought to her for identification, she asked him why he'd perpetrated this random act of violence. He had no answer. When elders in the village came to visit her at the local hospital, they claimed the opening of a local DVD shop and the accessibility to unregulated movies with warped notions of Western women was to blame for the changing attitude in their young men towards Western women.

Clara Kanner, who runs Bed n Chai, a dorm-like set-up in South Delhi, was in an auto where the driver was looking at her in the rearview mirror and started to masturbate. Sara Puig from Spain was walking the streets late in the evening when a man started doing the same, walking next to her, separated by the bushes. She had to throw stones at him to make him go away. Audrey Alejandro was in India to do fieldwork for her thesis, and was far from being dressed inappropriately (in a salwaar kameez) visiting Nizamuddin dargah (a religious place) where someone grabbed her bottom, and pinched it.Image 4th

Stories like these abound. There are many incidents of more grievous nature, but we must also examine why these smaller incidents take place, and why they also demand self-examination.

Alice Gregoire who used to work in cultural section of the French embassy in New Delhi says, "I must say I keep a bad memory of the way men in the streets looked at me, as if I were a superior piece of meat. Now, whenever I meet a girl here in France who tells me she is going to India for a trip, I warn her-'Beware of the guys in the market places, they'll take advantage of the crowd and try touching your breasts. Beware when you are in an auto at crossroads or a red light, boys selling jasmine flowers or newspapers will try touching you when your rickshaw starts up, at a moment when you can't defend yourself and you least expect it. Beware when you walk alone, some guys on scooters will drive by and hit your chest or try to touch you just because you are white.'"

But nevertheless, she thinks that as a white girl she has less to fear than the perfectly sweet and shy Indian girls. "Because I didn't grow up in a society where silence is the law, I know that if anything happens I will raise my voice and do anything I can to get justice. I know my embassy will help, I know the media will give me an echo; I know I can create a big mess and show to the world how shameful the Indian society can be. So, to a certain extent, even though I am seen as a piece of meat that doesn't deserve respect by some men in India, I still consider myself protected compared to a village girl without education who doesn't have the same weapons to fight back or an urban girl whose family won't support her because she had a drink and wore western clothes that apparently provoked the men and gave license to them to behave like an animal," she concludes.

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