Bollywood and Abortion - We Need To Talk

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Originally published on Feminism in India and re-published here with their permission.


BOLLYWOOD AND ABORTION – We Need To Talk

Safe abortion is legal in India since 1971 (Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act) under a set of circumstances including failure of contraception and rape. Due to mixed messages that came out during the sex determination law implementation (PCPNDT Act, 1994), widespread belief remained that abortion was illegal altogether which is not true.

Thankfully we have not had to take to the streets to gain the legal right to abortion like some other countries but a pro-choice conversation is still a utopian concept. While, according to WHO, the death toll from unsafe abortions keeps rising to contribute almost 8% of maternal deaths, our films are not really helping the discourse about pro-choice abortion either.

1. Raazi 2018

Raazi was a moving and edge of the seat watch, yet Alia’s last dialogue in the movie left a bad taste in my mouth, even worse than Sanjay Suri’s sad guest appearance.

“Mujhse ek aur Qatl nhi hoga” (I cannot commit another murder), she says. Pretty strong words to describe an abortion, which by the way is legal in India under various circumstances since 1971, the time the movie was set in. But this is not the only case where ‘abortion is equal to murder logic’ has been used in Bollywood.

2. Zeher 2005

I was watching the Shamita Shetty-Emraan Hashmi starrer Zeher the other night and she tells him, “I killed my child because of you”. She goes on to point out that he only wanted to get her pregnant to keep her tethered to the house and ruin her career, an all too real situation when men and women are struggling with their gender roles in marital relationships.

But the constant use of the words “killing” and “murder” with reference to abortion ascribe personhood to the foetus, which under law and human rights guidelines is detrimental messaging especially when safe abortion is a service most women in the world find difficult to access even in dire circumstances. Who can forget the 10-year-old rape survivor who had to give birth against her wishes because she had passed the legal time limit for abortion? How many more such cases need to happen before we realise there’s something wrong with our messaging? Case in point is the next movie.

3. Salaam Namaste 2005

“Get rid of it, let’s kill it” Saif exclaims, to which Preity replies, “The word is abortion, we need an abortion, don’t say kill it”. She goes on to act pretty level-headed and even tells her anti-choice (I refuse to call it pro-“life”) agenda pushing gynaecologist that it’s just a part of her body and she gets to decide what to do. So far so good, until she watches an actual ultrasound of a much pregnant woman (breach of medical ethics and privacy be damned), does a complete 180 degree turn and says, “I can’t kill it”, to which Saif now retaliates, “The word is abortion”. This movie just kept going in circles. Preity Zinta became a favourite for plot-lines on unwed pregnancies after Kya Kehna, speaking of which, the next movie is none other than Kya Kehna.

4. Kya Kehna 2000

This movie came out when I was in my teens and it was very revolutionary. Though they mention abortion in the movie, Preity hears a divine voice call out “Maa” from a baby Lord Krishna picture and decides to keep the pregnancy. Very sentimental, but again, assigning personhood to the foetus.

5. Terre Sang 2009

This was an extremely well made and sensitive movie about teen pregnancy. When 15-year-old Maahi learns she’s pregnant, her friends convince her to get an abortion but the portrayal of the unsafe procedure scares her away. This is a sad reality for many women who have to undergo abortion in unsafe and unfriendly spaces, so I would say the depiction is not totally unwarranted.

In this movie, when Maahi’s parents find out about her pregnancy, they foist abortion on her like a punishment. Overall, the movie was quite sensitive and accurate with even a courtroom judge saying that bringing a child into this world is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

6. Aitraaz 2004

The most feminist depiction of abortion I found was in the movie Aitraaz. Priyanka’s character is driven and ambitious and very clear about not wanting a child. She exercises her agency to get an abortion but of course she is then portrayed as the “bad” woman and Akshay Kumar, the self-righteous hero, moves on to a woman who was ready to bear his child.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and there must be some more movies that mention or portray abortion, though the portrayal would most likely be the “killing” or “gira do” trope, something that only bad or tragedy struck women do.

We need more realistic portrayals of this sensitive issue in movies and for heaven’s sake sensitise writers to stop assigning personhood to foetus as that is a disservice to the cause of access to safe abortion.

- Dr. Ishmeet Nagpal

Author’s bio: Ishmeet is a dentist turned social activist. As director of Project Manasvi, she conducts workshops and sensitization sessions on gender, sexuality and mental health. She is an established spoken word poet and co-founder of Sexonomics Band, that creates awareness on gender issues through dramatic satire.

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