My new favorite Bollywood film is “Om Shanti Om.” Besides its phenomenal disco dancing, it depicts an all too common practice in India—bride burning. Don’t worry, the following is not a film spoiler, the description on the back cover says the same thing. The main character, Shanti, is a young actress who secretly married her film producer. When her husband decides that she is holding him back from a more prestigious and profitable marriage opportunity, he burns her alive in their movie studio. Throughout the rest of the movie, the audience can feel the film maker’s anger and condemnation at this despicable action. I really enjoyed this movie. Don’t misunderstand me, I do not enjoy watching movies where women are burned to death, but the fact is that this serious issue is shown in a popular, mainstream film where it reaches a large audience. In fact “Om Shanti Om” is one of the most successful/highest grossing Hindi films ever produced. This film is able to reach out to a much wider audience than an independent documentary could.
Many Americans do not know that bride murders or “dowry deaths” are common occurrences in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Sadly the number of bride deaths related to dowry quarrels in India alone in 2007 was 8,093, up from 6,767 in 2005 (U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor 2010). The customary murder practice is dousing the woman in kitchen kerosene and lighting a match. It’s quick, cheap and effective. Poisoning and hanging are other commonly used barbaric means of cheap murders. Bride burning is not limited to only dowry disputes. Divorce is taboo in Indian culture, thus the alternative of murdering the bride is, in many cases, more appealing. Often times a husband and his family will burn a wife as punishment or because she is a burden to the family. Even more gruesome is the suicides committed by the young bride due to pressure and verbal and emotional abuse. According to recently released data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a total of 2,276 female suicides as a consequence of dowry disputes were reported in 2006.
Dowry deaths also have indirect consequences. For example, sex selection abortion and female infanticide. Because of the perceived burden of women due to their future dowry, parents often opt to kill their daughters at the get go rather than having this future financial burden. Now this is not the only reason for female infanticide, but it is a leading factor. If women are going to be such a large financial burden, then men are more profitable because they receive the dowry instead of giving it.
Fortunately, there has been some initiative taken by the Indian government to combat this heinous practice. The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 makes it illegal to offer or receive a dowry. Additionally there has been other legislation made in the 1980s that if a bride dies in unnatural circumstances within the first 7 years of marriage then the husband and other members of his family (most often the mother and father-in-laws) are automatically imprisoned until further investigation. Lamentably, dowry is still a rampant practice and the instances of dowry deaths continue to increase every year (U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor 2010).
I am glad to see that mainstream Bollywood films are starting to include horrendous actions against women in movies because these films are enlightening massive audiences. While the government has the legislation in place, it is ineffective until the people decide to live by it and enforce it. As audiences see these films, these issues are more widely recognized and perhaps more action on the ground will happen. I hope that I will see more Bollywood films that not only have amazing dance numbers, but also share messages about the status of women in India and that the people who watch them can take action to stop these atrocities in their own lives.