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The hidden flow: Examining Bollywood's hush-hush approach to periods

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Karishma Jangid
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periods in Bollywood

Bollywood produces the highest number of movies in the world. However, menstruation or periods, an everyday occurrence, are nowhere to be seen on the screen.

“Menstruating and menstrual cycle is not a handicap,” these words by Minister of Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani ring true. However, the fact that these words came to oppose menstrual leaves to women has caused a furore on social media. A similar furore erupted just a few weeks ago when in the film, Animal, the protagonist, Ranvijay belittles his wife, Geetanjali for complaining about her period pain. Be it politics or cinema, women are dismayed with how little understanding Indians have of menstruation which is causing real-life repercussions. Sure, cinema is not accountable for schooling anyone, but it still does influence the audience. From hairstyles and saree inspiration to stalking and rape, Bollywood movies have often inspired people in the most unimaginable ways, haven't they? Similarly, their portrayal of menstruation being scarce and problematic is detrimental too.

Bollywood produces the highest number of movies per year in the world. Bollywood movies that talk about periods? Barely any! Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian film, was made in 1913 and actresses have been working in movies since then. It would only be fair to assume that more than a century later, menstruation, a biological process that most women undergo, must have been depicted in our movies. The reality is disappointing though. As per the 2011 Census, 48.5% of India’s population is female and as per the National Family and Health Survey of 2021, India has 1,020 women for every 1,000 men. While ‘women’ is not a homogenous category, most women get periods and it can be excruciating for many. As per a Statista article of 2020, "about 16 percent of women respondents between the ages of 20 and 29 years suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)" which can cause irregular periods and horrible cramps. Numerous women also suffer from menorrhagia, dysmenorrhea, and various other diseases. But have our movies cared to talk about it?

Take any genre - mystery, horror, science fiction, comedy, politics, and more, menstruation is nowhere to be found. Look at our drama movies or romantic comedies; the lovers will talk about the moon and stars. Lately, they have also spoken about consent. But even simple mentions like a scene where 'a police officer gets delayed for a mission, just when she’s supposed to leave because she got her period' haven't found their way into mainstream cinema. More and more women are entering action movies, a male-dominated arena. Not once while fighting do their pants get stained because it's the first day of their period and they stained themselves. Wouldn't it be so realistic to watch if our movies actually reflected a part of our struggles?

As more women are entering the film industry, we are seeing female narratives in Hindi films. These movies can be controversial too, especially when they talk about taboo topics like sexual freedom. However, even in these movies, the word 'menstruation' itself is nowhere to be found. Movies as audacious as 'Lipstick Under My Burkha', 'Thank You For Coming', and others, also haven't mentioned periods. Moreover, when menstruation for upper-caste, upper-class, heterosexual, able-bodied women isn't being portrayed, talking about period issues that trans, disabled, or women from other minorities face is a distant dream. The only exception was the documentary 'Period. End of Sentence,' which documented the life of a woman generating and selling pads in rural India. However, this is a Netflix documentary. And we all know that documentaries, especially on OTT platforms, don't have the same reach as commercial cinema.

I know what you are thinking, "But what about Padman?" Yes, ‘Padman’ was perhaps the first commercial film to openly talk about periods, followed by ‘Phullu’. Two movies, same protagonist, different names - a man learning to make pads for his wife. Padman, especially, emphasized the significance of sanitary napkins and the lack of their availability due to high costs as well as taboo, especially in rural areas. However, the movie is focused on the male protagonist and his heroism. His wife is constantly embarrassed of him implying that women don’t understand what is best for them, men do. In fact, in China, the movie is called ‘Paddo man: 5 oku-ri no josei o sukutta otoko’ which translates to 'Padman: A man who saved 500 million women'. Seriously? Even the advertisement about sanitary pads featured before movies in cinema halls has Akshay Kumar promoting sanitary pads. And why not? It’s a man’s world! In a society that loves hero-worshipping, people will preferably listen to a man. What's disheartening is that even these movies are exceptions in a cinematic world where menstruation is invisible.

As I said before, in a country where people worship cinema, the invisibility of menstruation further makes it taboo. It leads to filmmakers doing zero research and writing toxic characters like Ranvijay who belittle the pain. As a woman who bleeds for a week every month, my question to you is this -  Is it too much to ask for some relatability in Indian cinema? Is portraying a part of our lives as they really are not worth it? Moreover, you need not always hyperfocus on ‘period’ in a film. Just a casual mention of periods would also add a lot to its visibility. I am aware that superstitions around menstruation won't disappear overnight and taboos around periods won't completely vanish. However, it will help normalize periods and provide logic to related conversations so people in power don't make statements based on their own conditioning. After all, we are a country full of people who are okay with watching bloodshed onscreen, showing a little period stain here or there won't hurt now, would it?

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