You’re at a party.
A man approaches you, checking you out from top to bottom.
He suddenly compliments your skin tone.
Scared and uncomfortable, you try to walk away.
“How many kisses are you going to run from? Come be my whore.” He yells.
Can you imagine a man speaking to you like that?
These are the words that greet you right after you play “Brown Rang” (“Brown-skinned”) by India’s controversial pop star Honey Singh on a playlist of Bollywood and Indian pop songs on Saavn, a popular music app in India.
But that is exactly what you heard in the song that just played, the voiceover continues to tells you. You are then urged to take to social media and “Let Bollywood know that a woman is not an item and sexist music is #NotMusicToMyEars.”
This is part of a campaign to draw attention to sexism in the lyrics of Bollywood and Indian pop songs. The campaign is spearheaded by Love Matters India, a multimedia project that promotes information, awareness and open conversations on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Love Matters India was co-founded by Vithika Yadav, who is an award-winning Indian activist and serves as Head of the organization. Love Matters India relies on digital media (e.g., a website, social media) to bypass traditional gatekeepers of information, and provides SRHR information to millions of youth in India. Its followers are mostly urban and young (18-30 age group), but it aims to reach people across all ages, gender and sexual identity.
I spoke with Vithika, and Roshan Kokane, Associate Editor, of Love Matters India, who were very forthcoming about their current campaign. Branded “Not Music to My Ears” – #NotMusicToMyEars on social media – the campaign is a partnership with Ogilvy One, a marketing agency. Vithika and Roshan explained that the campaign was motivated both by recent acts of censorship (e.g., the ban in India on the film Lipstick under My Burkha, which gave female sexuality its due) and by atrocities and violence against women in India. (Funny how often the two go hand-in-hand). The campaign debuted on a popular Indian music streaming platform, Saavn, in late March and ran for a week as an initial phase. It also has a significant social media component.
So why target Bollywood lyrics? If you have not spent much time in India, you may find it hard to visualize exactly how integrated Bollywood and its music can be in everyday life in India (particularly in the North and West of the country, where Hindi is spoken and/or more widely understood). Bollywood movies are typically over 2 hours long, and usually contain a storyline and several songs. Some songs are accompanied by vigorous dancing. Once a movie is made, its songs (along with their videos) are released to the public independently and may find fame of their own. Songs that make it to the top of the charts are played over and over everywhere – at home, on public transport and in restaurants, while you are waiting for the doctor or dentist, at your local convenience store, pharmacy or shopping malls, and at parties and dance clubs – and they can sometimes be hard to avoid unless you decide to shut off all communication with the outside world.
In recent decades, both Bollywood songs and the accompanying choreography have become increasingly sexualized. It is not uncommon for particularly raunchy songs to feature the central female character – usually at least somewhat scantily-clad – wiggling her bust or her bottom suggestively at a mob of several obviously sex-deprived men, who gratefully return some robust pelvic thrusts back in her direction. Sometimes, the men get to grab the woman, inspect her quickly for perks and glitches, and pass her down an assembly line, from one man to another.
Together, the song and dance leave little to the imagination, and you really have to experience them in tandem to understand their full impact. Take, for instance, the popular song “Aa Re Pritam Pyaare” (“Come here, lover”) from a 2012 Bollywood film. In the song, the female lead heaves her chest frantically while taunting a crowd of salivating men: “All the fire is in my shirt…It’s hidden under my pallu [traditional piece of clothing that covers the woman’s chest]…If I take it off, then the real fun will begin.” Then there’s the Bollywood hit, “Gandi Baat” (“Dirty Talk”), from a 2013 film. Here, the male lead pelvic thrusts his way to letting the female lead know that he is just fed up of being the decent guy: “When I behaved in a polite manner, you called me a goon and didn’t give me any attention…I have tried saying nice things to you, but now I am only going to engage in…dirty talk, dirty talk, dirty talk, dirty talk.”
Sexualization does not equal sexual liberation. And Love Matters India, an organization that works to promote open conversations about sex, should know. As Vithika and Roshan explain, “most people in India still do not have access to sex and gender education but they do have access to Bollywood movies and songs. So they are highly influenced by what they watch and hear. Such repressed sexuality only further proves why there is a need for sex-based education and why such sexist music and films need to stop.”
Because Bollywood is so seamlessly integrated into many people’s lives, it can be easy to internalize the sexism in the lyrics, even though the sexism is a salient and deliberate feature. This is particularly likely to be the case if you have been listening to such songs your whole life. Love Matters India‘s strategy is to disrupt this pattern by forcing consciousness in the listener. The “USP” of their campaign, according to Vithika and Roshan, is “to deceive the listener into listening to a song with sexist lyrics and then asking them to retrospectively think about the meaning of what they just heard.”
So how did they go about doing that? “We created a playlist and approached the most popular music app in India [Saavn]. The playlist was put under an alias ‘Desi Dhamaal Mix’ [Indian Rock Mix] to attract listeners. After every song, an ad was played to make listeners aware that the song had sexist lyrics. They were then told how to take part in the campaign.”
This is what the playlist would look like:
I asked Vithika and Roshan what they hope to gain out of this campaign. By using social media and media coverage, they aim to “spread the message so people start thinking about and objecting to the lyrics of songs that are sexist and demeaning.” Their idea is “to create social pressure that builds a common understanding among people (i.e., the consumers) and Bollywood film-makers, singers, lyricists, producers, and actors that it is not OK to have sexist lyrics in songs.” In addition to the online campaign, Love Matters India also plans to do some offline events that attempt to simulate an experience of how it would feel if the offensive lyrics are turned into real-life situations.
I also asked the Love Matters India team what they thought had contributed to the increased sexualization of Bollywood music in recent years. They first noted that some forms of sexism in Bollywood songs have been around for years. As an example, they pointed to a song from a 1986 Bollywood movie that contained the lyrics “Bhala hai bura hai jaisa bhi hai…mera pati mera devtaa hai” (“Whether he is good or bad, my husband is my idol/deity”). Compared to the explicit raunchiness of the songs in the Desi Dhamaal playlist, these lyrics may appear to be innocent (a little devotion never did anyone any harm, especially if you are a woman). But as Vithika and Roshan noted, such lyrics “help to build an understanding that your husband might be abusive but at the end of the day, he is still your husband. In some ways, such songs normalize situations of violence in relationships.”
But they also believe that in recent years, songs that demean women have taken a turn for the worse. In fact, such songs have become something of a trend. And it is easy to see why: the songs typically have catchy beats, there is social pressure among young people to listen to them, and the sexism, although certainly loud and proud, feels a lot like business-as-usual. The “Not Music To My Ears” campaign wants to ensure that “people associated with Bollywood are accountable for what is put out there.”
Given that Bollywood and its music are such an inseparable part of life for so many in India, I wondered whether “Not Music To My Ears” campaign had faced skepticism from people in India, and possibly even opposition from Bollywood. Vithika and Roshan reported that that had not happened. “The campaign has been very well-received and the message has been striking and clear. Besides that, Twitter is abuzz with support from celebrities, music industry professionals and our users.”
Love Matters India plans to evaluate the performance and reaction to the first phase of the campaign on Saavn. In the meantime, it continues to expand and promote the campaign on Twitter and Facebook. You can support it too by using the hashtag #NotMusicToMyEars.