Hindi Film 101: “Male Gaze” and “Female Gaze” in Indian Film, or Why John Abraham Keeps Taking His Shirt Off

This is an off-shoot of my post on misogyny/objectification/patriarchy, in the comments there was a discussion of whether or not men are objectified in Indian film, which got me thinking about the “male” and “female” gaze questions.

I’ll start with a definition of the term. Laura Mulvey came up with the idea back in the 70s, based primarily on a discussion of the ultimate voyeurism film, Rear Window. There are 3 important things to know:

  1. It refers to any time that a female character is regarded as a thing to be looked at who cannot look back at you.
  2. It is not necessarily sexual, a woman can be looked at as a sexual object or merely as a work of art.
  3. It refers to THREE things the way the camera regards a woman onscreen as though through male eyes, the perspective of the male character, and the way the audience is invited to share the perspective of the male characters.

So, what does this mean in a larger sense and where did it come from? As I see it, it starts with the essential divide between the genders. Which is about so much more than just sexual attraction.

Society has conditioned us since birth to be divided into the categories of “male” and “female”. Studies constantly show that “gender” is the first thing we identify when we look at someone, before age or race or anything else. And as you age, you learn more and more to regard the opposing gender as “other”. You see them, in the world, but you have no sense of what is happening behind their faces, how they think and what they think and what they want and feel and so on and so on.

The simple solution to this, of course, is interaction between the genders, to learn to see someone as more than just “male” or “female” but as a person. But it is a hard road to climb, since society makes that very hard, every society. And that means that every film director, every actor, every cinematographer, every choreographer, is struggling with the challenge of seeing the opposing gender as a real person, breaking through their lifelong social conditioning to the other side.

(This kind of stuff? Not helpful!)

In terms of women in particular, most societies place a higher value on appearance for women than for men. Possibly because women’s fertility is more closely tied to age, possibly because of the patriarchy trying to minimize women’s bodies, but for whatever reason, it is there. So it is easy for a man to get away with only relating to women in terms of surface appearance without society noticing he has a problem, far easier than it would be for a woman.

Which brings me back to Laura Mulvey’s theory. She is talking about Hollywood, where almost all directors, producers, cameramen/cinematographers, scriptwriters, everyone involved in putting a film together, will be male. And she identified a specific phenomenon of the “male gaze”, a previously invisible function of film in which the woman onscreen are filmed as though they were works of art, statues or paintings to be observed. While the men stare back at the camera, demand that we treat them as people with souls, pull the audience into relating to them.

Of course this is not true of every director, or every moment on film of every director. But in the broad sweep of film history, it is far more likely that an actress will be painted and primped and put in a fantastical costume and paraded across the screen for us to gasp at and say “oh how beautiful!” than that the same thing would happen to an actor.

Often in popular usage, “male gaze” is meant to be a sequence in which the camera sexualizes a woman. But that’s not quite accurate.

First, there can be sexual sequences in films in which the woman is allowed to “gaze back”, making it not a “male gaze” situation. The woman is not cut off from her body, her body is not an empty shell. There is a character onscreen providing a “female gaze”, and the audience is invited to share it. This is the part that relates back to the “objectification” discussion, if the woman is treated as a human person with a soul, then it is not “objectification” even if it is sexual.

(Very sexual, very much not about Shilpa-the-person being removed and only the body remaining for Anil to look at. We even have Shilpa gazing back at other women, and being inspired by them to claim her own sexuality, which in term invites the female audience to watch her and feel the same way)

Second, there can be sequences in which a woman is not sexualized that are still clearly examples of the “male gaze”. A woman is treated as a mysterious beautiful creature, without sexual desire being an element.

(Not sexual at all, still about the little boy watching the little girl perform and the audience watching through his eyes)

Third, a major component of the “male gaze” concept is the interaction of the audience with the onscreen male audience. You can have a moment in which the camera alone provides the “gaze”, but most often it is a matter of cutting between reaction shots of the male character (in order to make the audience feel as though they are watching through his eyes) and the woman who is being watched.

(She’s not even awake!!!!!)

There’s also a fourth point: the “male gaze” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you do want to show a male character’s perspective, and you want to show that he is mystified and confused by the female character. Bajrangi Bhaijaan has a good example of this. Salman sees Harshaali suddenly as a mysterious magical beautiful figure that he can’t reach inside, and the camera shows us his perspective. But immediately, his view is questioned and corrected both by Kareena within the film who reminds him that Harshaali is not some unknown “other” but the little girl he loves, and by the way the film itself frames Harshaali, allowing her face to show and teaching the audience to see her as a full person again.

(That is what is happening in this sequence. Salman is caught up in his fantasy of Bhagyashree, but once the real character appears instead of his fantasy visions, he quickly learns his lesson and remembers that she is a real person. And at the same time, the camera shows the audience her full face, making her again a real person for us as well)

The “male gaze” become a problem when it is used to excess. Suddenly it helps to enforce the idea that woman are there to be looked at, not look back. It is part of an increasing division between the genders, telling men that woman are an impenetrable “other”. And part of a damaging lesson for women, telling them that they are empty inside and should focus on the surface.

(I continue to find this song hilarious, but a large part of the humor is through Madhubala being perfect and pretty, while Kishore is allowed to be funny and strange and loud and opinionated, and just generally a person)

And then there is the “female gaze”. Which is the male gaze but in reverse. This time, the camera is looking at the male body as an object of beauty, a thing to be looked at which cannot look back.

This is what has been frequently pointed out as a difference between Indian and Hollywood films, the prevalence of the “female gaze”.

But it is perhaps not as prevalent as it appears. And it is also not necessarily completely female related. Common knowledge, along with multiple research papers and so on, shows that it is young male fans who enjoy discussing their favorite male stars appearance as much or more than female fans. It is young men who are whistling when Salman removes his shirt, not the young woman.

However, notice, most of the time when Salman is shirtless, he is gazing back at the camera, inviting the audience into his emotions and his perspective on this shirtless experience, suggesting that they identify with him and share the experience of being admired for an awesome physic, not that they merely admire his physic.

(He has no shirt, but he still has a personality)

The same is true for many of these male stars with adoring male fans. They change their hair, their clothes, their bodies, in the same way that they repeat catchphrases or have distinctive mannerisms, it is something for the male fans to latch on to, to imitate and feel somehow as though they are the star. It is not there for the female “other” to observe and admire, but for the male “us” to feel a part of.

And then there are moments in Indian film that are interesting variations on the “Female Gaze”. One of my favorites, this moment from Jodha-Akbar. At first it is a classic “female gaze” moment, the audience is relating to Aishwarya watching Hrithik, while Hrithik himself is just there to be observed, never makes direct eye contact with the camera, just a body. Until halfway through, when suddenly his eyes lock onto ours in the audience and we find ourselves wondering what he is thinking, relating to him. Followed by his glance to the side indicating that he is putting himself on display purposefully, this is a moment of equality, she is watching but he is letting himself be watched.

(Everything changes the moment Hrithik makes direct eye contact with the camera and then glances back to acknowledge he is being observed)

And there is another thing that I really love about Indian film, the female-on-female gaze. The woman who is putting herself on display for another woman, not for a man, and the woman who is the audience surrogate in enjoying that display.

(Madhuri dancing and displaying her body for a “female” gaze, to show a woman what “we” are like, not display what “they” are like for a man)

Even with these examples removed, however, there are still many many moments of the “Female gaze” in Indian film. Many more moments than in, perhaps, any other industry (although as we all know, the South Korean TV industry could give them a run for their money). These are moments when the camera treats the male actor onscreen as an object of beauty, an empty vessel to be admired.

(The classic example. Intense, shirtless, posing, empty)

Even more rare, many of these moments include a female character onscreen observing the male, serving as the audience surrogate. Female desire, rampantly on display on screen and encouraged to burst forth from the audience in sympathy.

But the question is, is this a good thing? On the one hand, the “female gaze” provides equality between the sexes, women can look at men just as men look at women. On the other hand, the concept of the “gaze” whether male or female, relies on minimizing a person, and encouraging the gender divides between “us” and “them”.

But on the mutant third hand, there is a power dynamic at play, turning men into something to be looked at is a revolutionary act, an act of defiance and resistance, on the part of the oppressed gender, very different from the way the male gaze serves as a tool to reinforce existing power dynamics.

(Empowering feminist moment?)

Based on what I have just said, and knowing there is no right answer perfect answer, would you prefer:

A. No “gaze” at all, no human person ever treated as merely a surface thing to look at.

B. More “female gaze” as an effort at breaking down the male-female power dynamic

C. Male and female gaze in equal measure reflecting equality of the sexes

(by the way, my TGIF posts tend more towards “B”, and I don’t really feel bad about that. Although, in a non-sexual way, I am also trying to put in a little more “C”)

27 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: “Male Gaze” and “Female Gaze” in Indian Film, or Why John Abraham Keeps Taking His Shirt Off

  1. No comments! I am SHOCKED! So, I’ll start it off. Generally, I am torn between a,b, and c. In an ideal world, there would be no one-way “gaze” at all, but that seems unlikely to happen. I do think there is something empowering in turning the gaze back on men, in a limited way it is a good thing. And my favorite film examples are the ones where the male and female gazes take turns, hopefully within the same scene, each posing for the other.


  2. I am going to have to reread this one like four time before I get all the gazes sorted out. Fascinating! but a complicated concept.


  3. Hey, I’ve been saying this ever since I started watching Hindi movies! The female gaze is much more present in Bollywood than Hollywood. The actors in Hollywood superhero films are getting roided out but the bigger they get, the less it’s about women looking at them and more about men identifying with them (Example: Hugh Jackman’s body when he started out as Wolverine vs. what he looked like in later films).

    In Bollywood you have Raveer Singh licking his thumb and running it down his chest in a very sexual way aimed at women, you have the example with SRK above, you have Ranbir Kapoor with his bare butt through a sheet in front of a window. In Hollywood, those men would read as gay. I think that’s the biggest difference, that sexual displays by men are coded as gay in the US while they aren’t in India (or at least in the context of the films I’ve seen). Which isn’t to say there isn’t an appreciative gay audience in India, just that it seems to me that the cultural context is very different. There’s almost a contempt for men who submit to the female gaze that I don’t see in Bollywood even though it’s patriarchal in many ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it’s something about the song sequences? Those moments of spectacle that can be removed entirely from the rest of the film? So Ranveer can do a super sexy song in Band Baaja Baarat, and spend the rest of the film playing a realistic layered interesting character.

      On Wed, Apr 25, 2018 at 7:53 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



    • I was reading this article on the AV Club and through the pretentious words one observation stood out for me– Hollywood is driven by rich, white males who seem to only want to make films about their own particular experiences and sometimes a very narrow vision of the image they want to project. Do you think the emphatically hetero square male is a concocted correction to cover up the actual debauchery and possibly commonplace gay encounters of these men?


      • I live in Los Angeles and I’d say no to that. My experience is that most of the big directors and producers are straight. There are a few exceptions like Bryan Singer but mostly the powerful men are heterosexual guys who are hugely sexist (I met a producer who told me he was successful and therefore entitled to a hot girlfriend on his arm to cement his status and he wasn’t kidding). Harvey Weinstein is the worst and most extreme example of a pretty common type out here.

        I really think the superhero physiques are about men aspiring to be powerful, not about looking like that to elicit female sexual desire. Because they don’t really care if the women desire them or not, it’s about gratifying their own desire.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting. Where do you think the extreme insensitive towards women comes from? I mean I’m comparing the attitudes to those of the Indian film industry where even if you’re an ass and extremely sexist and even if you do do the casting couch thing, you just don’t let it be public knowledge let alone show off hot women that you’ve managed to “get”


          • It’s a problem with US culture magnified in Hollywood because it attracts men with those attitudes. The US doesn’t have the paternalism that you have in India. Paternalism is problematic and sexist but at least there’s a presumption that bosses have a baseline obligation of responsibility toward the people who work for them.

            In Hollywood it isn’t just sexual harassment, you also see these attitudes in things like movie crew members having their lives put at risk on dangerous shoots. Uma Thurman was badly injured doing a stunt that she was bullied into by Quentin Tarantino. He didn’t sexually harass her but he abused his power and wasn’t looking out for her well being.


  4. I think the time you started writing this I was deep in thought post a video from the Pakistani reaction dude (I think I have a new crush hehe) that reviewed this stand up routine from this Indian guy Zakir which was about Tip Tip Barsa Pani. The routine basically was a lesson in male gaze and the male experience of the male gaze and to have a guy’s reaction to it was priceless. And I thought hey I should tell Margaret about this and then I thought oh but we just had a heavy discussion post so maybe she’d wanna have some lightweight posts for a while. And of course turns out you were probably thinking about publishing this post around the same time!!!

    Anywho here’s the video.

    Pakistani Reacts to Zakir Khan | Kabhi Gaana Kabh…: https://youtu.be/nUk-vPy2ITY

    Now I wanna add that when Zakir makes the joke that this song ruined many a childhood, my immediate thought was “Wait!! What’s the childhood ruining song for girls from my generation??” And I couldn’t think of any. Seriously. All we ever got was love songs in the 90s. But then I remembered Oh Oh Jaane Jaana. And suddenly it made sense to me why my cousins still love him despite the bad films. He gave them their “childhood over!!!” moment!!

    Also, and this was funnier to me when I watched this, was the thought that I, a girl, was watching a guy (a potential crush, btw) and seeing his intimate reaction to another guy giving his intimate reaction to a guy giving an intimate reaction to a woman’s titillating, made-for-inviting-male-gaze moves crafted by male filmmakers as an expression of the intimate and universally male phenomenon that apparently women can’t even pick up on naturally even when it’s so in our faces!! That song is not subtle. But I’ve never really thought of it as being as potent a phenomenon in the world of boys I grew up with.

    Now, if you do watch this video, notice how the Pakistani reactor (I don’t know his name yet, 😁) gives the softest expressions to both the apparently sexually charged moves and magnificently displayed body of Raveena as well as the comedic observations of Zakir which are also about how sexually charged thr scene is and how magnificent raveena looks. And zakir points out that Akshay is giving the same soft expressions to raveena on the screen!!!!

    That blew my mind!! And I couldn’t get over the softness of these three guys’ expressions in what I always imagined would be a very very sexual experience in that moment.


    • Really interesting point about the “soft” way the male reactions happen. It reminds me of Jerry Pinto’s book about Helen, in the epilogue or something he talked about when he was researching the book, going to the Pune archives and stuff and people would ask him what he was working on. When he told them, he got universally warm reactions. The memory of Helen, in the many many men who grew up with her, was this deep affection. I don’t know what makes the difference in how things are shown now, but I doubt that today’s young men feel the same way about Katrina Kaif, for instance.

      On Wed, Apr 25, 2018 at 7:54 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Falling in love requires putting up with a guy’s BS. And I spent 7 years training the guy I have so why would I quit that and do it all over again with a Pakistani living in the US?? Why would I do that to myself?! 😂

            Of course he’s a reactor on YouTube with 67k subscribers making the same request to him and I don’t want to put up a hot profile picture on my YouTube account because the place is crawling with creeps!!!

            Although the guy’s videos ARE helping me figure a few things out. Including why Indians love YouTube reactions!! Apparently that’s because we’re a nation of people that grow up with a tradition of bakchodi which I can only translate as “talkfuckery” if that makes any sense to you. And we love people giving us our daily dose of bakchodi.

            Also, we grew up watching tv and movies and videos “together” with friends and BFFs and the bakchodi was a prerequisite for the enjoyment of this shared experience. I mean look at me!! 😂

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that given the structural power differential between men and women, C is not really a thing that can happen. No amount of individual “empowerment”, including gazing at men as objects, can change structural power differences. I am all for a big dose of B as a coping mechanism, but I think A is the goal. It is absolutely possible to lust after a person, or see them as nice to look at in a non-sexual way, and still know they are a person.

    Engels, by the way, totally got it right about why the power differential developed between men and women. Once property started accumulating, and men wanted to pass it to their sons, it became very important to know who was whose son. Therefore men (as a class) had to control women (as a class) through any means–brainwashing through gender roles on up to routine violence.

    Also, controlling and exploiting (physically, socially) weaker people’s productive and re-productive labor is a great way to move your society ahead quickly with a few people at the top reaping the benefits. I use “move ahead” ironically. I’m among those who feel like we would have been better off staying as small distributed groups of hunter-gatherers. Agriculture has been a way-bad deal for humans, and an even worse deal for many other species of plants and animals. No way to go back now, sadly, so we gotta make the best of things from here on. Or die out, whatever.

    I’m fascinated by a woman named Sonia Johnson, a former Mormon wife and mother who ended up going full “women’s liberation” in the 70s. She has tried to fully imagine relationships between men and women, and women and women, parents and children, etc, without the need for dominance/submission that characterizes our relationships currently. Fascinating thought experiments. She and her later partner, a woman, tried to live out a dominance/submission free relationship, and it has been difficult. I’m not saying I agree with all of her views, but I really love that some folks are out there trying to imagine a different way to be. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonia_Johnson

    Well, this got a bit heavy. Still, much more fun to think about than work, as usual!


    • I’ve run across that Engel’s theory before, and one thing that I am still hoping will happen is a shift thanks to DNA tests. You no longer need to control your woman’s sexual independence in order to be sure her child is your child, the DNA tests will tell you instead. But that doesn’t seem to have happened so far.

      I’m (obviously) fine with B as a coping mechanism as well. If you are living within a system of oppression, anything that gets you through the day and helps you perform one revolutionary act is okay. Maybe some day the equality will be more balanced, so that there will no longer be a system or oppression to survive within, but until then I think it’s perfectly okay for John Abraham to take his shirt off and all of us to look at pictures of this happening.

      On Thu, Apr 26, 2018 at 11:04 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

  6. If it is understood and relayed that you can look but you can’t touch or you can look as long as it doesn’t feel like he/she is about to be harassed. It really depends on the intention of the gazer and whether they deem the person gazed at as an actual human being with rights.


    • ah, but then we get into the issue of film! If you are watching someone in a film, and your intentions are bad (which surely some people watching a popular film would have), does that retroactively affect the person being shown on film, even if during the actual filming they felt safe and happy with what was happening?

      I don’t really have an answer for that, but it seems like the big question that comes up all the time, with everything from item songs to Facebook photos, does the way your image is used after you have been removed from it have an affect on you and how should that be handled?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, that’s a tricky question… it really is a matter of how it’s handled. There’s a way of doing things tastefully and respectfully where the heroine is not only admired for her appearance but where the audience is also reminded that she is a human being. And if men objectify her anyway, then it’s a mans responsibility to check himself. And if a woman chooses to do an item song because she enjoys it and wants to appeal to the audience, then it is her choice and neither is she at any fault for how she is perceived afterwards. Item song or no item song, a woman must still be respected.


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