At the time of Chennai techie Swathi's murder, there was a lot of debate on whether films were to blame for increasing violence against women.

Cinema gives unreal dangerous ideas about love Study from the south revealsScreengrab from 'Remo'
news Cinema Wednesday, June 07, 2017 - 12:46

It has been almost a year since Swathi, a young, Chennai based techie was brutally murdered in the early hours of June 24 (2016) by a man who allegedly stalked her and was miffed that she didn’t reciprocate his romantic advances. At the time, popular film critic Baradwaj Rangan in his column for The Hindu, countered The News Minute’s article on the role of cinema in glorifying stalking and violence.

Mr Rangan called for more research data and number crunching before people began blaming movies for increasing violence against women. My recent research paper titled Celluloid to Soulmates: A study on the impact of films on the perception of romantic love among the youth may finally shed some light on the disturbing relationship between the silver screen and its young patrons.

As a part of the research study, 500 youngsters across south India (250 male, 250 female) in the age group of 18-23 were chosen.  They were chosen through random sampling and most of the respondents were from urban middle and upper middle class families.

The most popular films of 2015 (Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi and English) were picked and the common romantic motifs running through the films were culled out. The respondents were questioned on the content and tropes found in these films. 

The emotional pornography of cinema

In recent times, barring a few movies such as the Marathi hit Sairat (2016), Indian cinema has failed to paint a realistic portrayal of love and its aftermath.

As people consume the media’s view of love, it’s becoming more common for relationships and marriages to be primarily based on a desire for happiness. When these feelings fade, people think love is gone.

This mediated view of romance is now being referred to as “emotional pornography”, insinuating that just as pornography sets unrealistic expectations for sex and physicality, the media’s fanciful stories of love, condition consumers to expect Hollywood-style kisses in the rain and constant epic moments of dramatic love. How can real life compete?

Myths are aplenty and cardboard characters rule the roost in cinema. A girl, who for years has been utterly unable to commit as a result of some deep-seated emotional trauma, can suddenly become fully capable of having a long-term, meaningful relationship, and the boy who's had his heart stomped on can completely forget about what just happened and start anew with the girl. The fact that there's no psychological truth to either of their behaviours is immaterial to the filmmakers.

In real life, we have to live with relationships going unresolved. Endings are messy, people are obstinate and there are misunderstandings abound. People don't change unless they really want to.

Glorifying violence against women

Besides setting unrealistic relationship standards, cinema is also criticised for glorifying violence and passing off deplorable behaviour in the guise of romantic overtures. What for some might seem as stalking, as per Indian movie standards is “normal behaviour”, as many movies cultivate the idea that a woman will eventually fall in love with a man if he pursues her hard enough. Such behaviour does inevitably affect an audience’s assumptions about how to conduct themselves in similar situations.

The film Darr: A Violent Love Story by Yash Chopra (1993), where Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) is obsessed with Kiran (Juhi Chawla), who is engaged to another man, is an example of a movie that legitimises stalking. Rahul carves her name on his chest with a knife, decorates his room with her photos and discusses her with his dead mother. He even kidnaps her to force her into marriage but is eventually killed. The film catapulted Shah Rukh Khan into mega stardom.

Read: Filmmakers need to step up: Three women TN IPS officers take on misogyny in cinema

Over the past 20 years, the deranged and thwarted stalker has evolved from nominal villain to an outright hero. In the Tamil film 7G Rainbow Colony (2004), the protagonist is an unemployed wastrel, whose sole ambition is the pursuit of a girl who moves into his apartment. In a particular scene the ‘hero’ is shown climbing up a drainpipe to leer at the girl through her bedroom window, and in couple of occasions even forces himself on her. 

Eventually, she gives in and ‘falls in love’ with him. The film was a huge box office hit and was remade in several regional languages. One of 2013’s biggest hits Rhaanjhanaa was of a similar premise.

Top findings of the research study

Romance films are enjoyed equally by both men and women: Though romance films are pegged as ‘chick flicks’ in the west, India doesn’t have this clear demarcation as most Indian films have romance woven into them. Films are the preferred recreation choice and are enjoyed by both men and women alike.

Romance is main course and not dessert: Relationships often take precedence over career, studies and family. The want, or the need to find ‘love’ is very strong among the youth. Interviews held highlighted that respondents have had at least one serious relationship by the age of 20 and all have a special person in their life - either someone they were currently interested in or were involved with in some way.

Movies provide lessons on love and intimacy: Young minds are impressionable, and while waiting at the brink of their first relationship, or after having navigated through many unsuccessful ones, they seek for some kind of guidance to steer their way to a happy ending. Talking about love and romance is considered taboo in Indian families.

In the absence of a social system that doesn’t judge couples in a relationship or encourages youngsters to air their concerns and raise questions about love and romance, many draw inspiration and conclusions from what they see on media. Cinema seems to provide entertainment and education. In cases where parents set bad examples, or a person has had a relationship that went awry, they tend to become vulnerable and seek movies as a form of wish fulfilment. Perhaps if romance was accepted more openly in society, there would be a greater possibility of youngsters choosing real life models.

The young believe reel is real:  As research indicates, youngsters believe in most of the romantic tropes present in movies. The idea of ‘soulmates’, that someone ‘perfect’ is waiting in the wings for everyone or that one needs another person to ‘complete’ them can be misleading.

Often this is the reason why people either never find themselves in unhealthy relationships or change partners frequently in the hope of finding someone ‘perfect’. This leads to disappointment and depression. Many fail to realise that the ideal never exists and the perfect relationship is a myth actively propagated by the media.

The second ranking trope is ‘true love’. Life is often not fair, and people clamouring for true love and believe that love can change everything often put themselves on the path of disillusionment. It is surprising to see that many believe in serendipity/happy coincidences. Movies often depict dramatic moments of serendipity such as ‘bumping into a handsome stranger in a store,’ or striking instant chemistry with a cute co-passenger’ culminating in a fairy-tale ending.

However the odds of such events organically occurring in life are extremely rare. Movies are responsible for encouraging youngsters to believe that their life could be as exciting as their protagonists in their favourite movies.

It is a cause for worry that many are of the opinion that if one’s partner truly loves the other, he/she would know what’s running in their mind. This belief leads to the biggest cause for relationships to fall apart - the lack of communication and unrealistic expectation of having a partner who can read one's mind.

People also seem to believe in pre -requisites such as instant chemistry being vital for a relationship, opposites attract or that outlandish gestures are necessary to exhibit true love. In reality, chemistry may build over time as demonstrated through the success of arranged marriages in our country, and people who are complete opposites may not endure a long-term relationship.

Research has shown that shared interests and friendship are the cornerstones of any successful relationship. ‘Love is the cure for everything’, ‘love will ultimately find a way’ and ‘unrequited love is beautiful’- belief in such motifs could be life threatening.  A person may wait all his/her life for the elusive ’love’ to show up, only to end up missing out on other opportunities.

When asked to name their favourite romance films of the year 2015, a majority picked the Tamil film OK Kanmani with its skewed understanding of reality, followed by the historical love saga Bajirao Mastani and the Malayalam cult hit Premam .The common motifs running through these movies include love at first sight, love is eternal and that love conquers all.

Youth are in denial: Many of the respondents recorded that though the films they watch don’t affect them personally, they do know of people who are. This is an example of the ‘Third person Effect/Hypothesis’ first articulated in 1983 by the sociologist W. Philips Davidson that predicts that people tend to perceive that mass communicated media messages have a greater effect on others than on themselves, based on personal biases.

A majority of the 309 cases of acid attacks reported in 2014 across the country were against women and a large number of them are suspected to be the result of failed or spurned relationships. Cinema’s heroes exhibit subtle stalking and psychopathic behaviour and it is ironic that people condemn it on the streets and applaud it in films.

Though as adults youngsters should be able to tell the diffrence between overromanticised love and healthy realistic realtionships, these tantalizing and persuasive images of cinema do affect their behaviour and hopes for romance.

Filmmakers are not obligated to take the moral high ground or inculcate social messages through the films they make. However they could perhaps invest in showcasing realistic portrayals of love, or explore its different facets and ramifications.

The author first presented the research paper at the ‘Breaking the 4th Wall -Media Meet’ at Christ University in August 2016. It has now been shortlisted for the ‘ReTrace 7thInternational Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology’ in Austria, November 2017. This is a condensed version of the original paper.

Also read:

'Stalking is violence, period': A rejoinder to Khushbu for her defence of film industry

Love doesn't stalk, kill or murder, stop justifying toxic obsession as romance

A lot of stalking in real life is inspired by what we show in films, says Siddharth

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