Updated: Jul 26
On my very first day of fieldwork at a children’s home in Delhi, I was witness to a conversation between the staff of the home and a girl who had attempted to run away from the home by jumping off the first floor of the home’s building. Admonishing the 16-year-old, the staff member asked the girl if she had expected the popular Bollywood actor, Shahrukh Khan, to come save her and run away with her. Hearing this, the girl paused from her sobbing to crack an uncertain, embarrassed smile.
This vignette has been taken from my ethnographic research project at a children’s home in Delhi, where I sought to study how children’s homes, established under the juvenile justice system of India, detain girls who have been designated as Children in Need of Care and Protection. Inside children’s homes that are established and operated by non-governmental organizations in partnership with the state, girls are subject to various services with the stated objectives of their reformation, rehabilitation and empowerment. However, my research found that children’s homes become more than just institutions that seek to protect vulnerable children- in their functioning, they become sites where the sexuality of girls is policed and regulated. The idea of girlhood that these practices of regulation seek to produce is that of an innocent, asexual child. However, these forms of regulation are disrupted when girls discover ways of expressing their sexual desire. Within the space of the home that does not allow girls to express sexual desire in direct ways, Bollywood assumes a central importance in being the medium that allows girls to express their desire.
Girls’ desire to listen to Bollywood songs and watch their dance sequences was made evident to me in my very first interactions with them during my fieldwork. The children’s home that was my research site does not allow girls to own mobile phones. In the absence of phones and internet access, girls would seek out Bollywood films and song and dance sequences on the television within the home. However, their access to television was also highly restricted and the girls shared with me that the staff of the home would often not allow them to watch what they wanted. Thus, many of the girls were very excited when they learned that I had an internet-enabled mobile phone and that I was more malleable than the rest of the staff in allowing them access to the content on my phone. Often when we would be out of earshot of the home’s staff, they would ask me to play their favourite songs. These songs would often feature their favorite actors or have elaborate dance sequences. Many of these dance sequences would consist of highly sexualised movements. For instance, a 17-year-old would ask me every day to play her favourite music video “Saki saki”, a popular “item number” where the actor dances erotically, surrounded by men. She would tell me that she wanted to learn the movements so that she could perform them on stage someday. Another 15-year-old would ask me to play a song featuring her favourite actor, and with her eyes glued to the screen, tell me that her boyfriend looked a lot like Vicky Kaushal, the popular Bollywood actor who featured in the song. Others would watch videos of songs, teasing their friends about finding certain actors attractive. Sometimes they would playfully enact out some of the scenes and movements from the scenes with each other. Interestingly, within the Bollywood song and dance numbers that the girls most enjoyed, while women seemed to find possibilities of engaging in romance and sex, the ‘good’ woman would still be expected to be passive and respond demurely to the male actor’s actively expressed desire.
In her study on young Muslim women in bustees of Kolkata, Kabita Chakraborty (2016) found that young women use Bollywood to “write multiple identities and pursue transgressive desires” (p. 2). She writes, “Talking through popular culture does not directly implicate them and thus provides a safer avenue to reveal their own desires and romantic practices” (2015, p. 191). I found this to be especially true in my research where girls would be otherwise hesitant to share their perspectives on romance and sexuality, especially in the formal interviews I conducted with them. This is understandable, given that many girls detained in children’s homes are punished for expressing and acting on their romantic and sexual desires. A study by Partners for Law in Development (Mehra & Nandy, 2019) found that the response to minor girls who form romantic and sexual relationships in opposition to the dictates of their parents or community is a criminalisation of their relationships, with the girls framed as victims and sent to children’s homes and criminal cases filed against their male partners. Similarly, a social audit of children’s homes in India found, “…girls reported being picked up in large groups from coffee shops, restaurants etc. while they were out with their male friends and sent to these homes in the name of protection” (Nag, 2018). Despite punishing girls for expressing romantic or sexual desires, there is no acknowledgement or mention of consensual sexual relationships in the texts of key child protection laws in India, such as the Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection Act) 2015, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA) and Prevention of Child Sexual Offences, 2013 (POCSO). In completely disassociating sexual desire from young women and punishing the sexual relationships that they are part of, these laws work to extend parental and community control over girls’ lives, ensuring that any exercise of sexuality by young women takes place within endogamous marriages approved by their parents and communities. In addition to maintaining hierarchies of religion and caste, these laws act to silence girls and young women, defining them solely as victims without voice, agency or desire.
Such a deliberate silencing of sexual desire experienced and expressed by girls is reinforced within the space of children’s homes within which girls are detained. For instance, as a volunteer within the home, when I sought to organise a sex education workshop with the girls, I was asked by the home’s staff to remove any references to contraception. I was asked to limit my discussions to menstruation, regardless of whether my workshops were with girls who were 11-14 or 15-18 years of age. The staff would also chide girls for talking about movies or actors and would ask them to focus on their studies. Anxieties around same-sex relationships between girls would often be voiced by the staff.
As discussed above, within the space of the home, there were multiple instances of girls enacting the sexualised dance movements of Bollywood dance numbers, of expressing their desire for actors or even talking about their own romantic and sexual relationships under the guise of discussing songs. In the context of limited exposure of girls to places and people outside the shelter home, Bollywood remains one of the few sites around which girls would be allowed conversations, however indirect, on love and sex. By engaging in these discussions, the girls disrupt the policing of their sexuality, challenging the ideal of innocent, desexualised girlhood that they are expected to embody within the space of the children’s home. What I would like to study further is how girls engage with models of desirable femininity and ideal heterosexual romance that Bollywood depicts and whether these depictions shape how girls understand their own experiences of romance, intimacy, agency and sex. However, what is significant are the moments of rupture that girls introduce into the space of the home when they express their desires. These moments of rupture and resistance may not translate into any direct challenge to the child protection laws under which they are detained or to the functioning of the children’s homes- after all, these acts of resistance remain mostly individual, they are ephemeral and are easily contained by the staff of the homes. However, in the constant reaffirmation of their sexual desire, girls ensure that the dominant constructions of innocent, desexualised girlhood remain destabilised. Thus, it becomes critical to highlight these expressions and acts of resistance and study the many forms that they take.
Chakraborty, K. (2016). Young Muslim Women in India: Bollywood, Identity and Changing Youth Culture. London: Routledge.
Chakraborty, K. (2015). Bollywood as a Role Model: Dating and Negotiating Romance. In C. Bradford & M. Reimer (Eds.), Girls, Texts, Cultures (pp. 189-209). Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Nag, S. (2018). Muzaffarpur Shelter Home Rapes: Dark Underbelly of ‘Beti Bachao’. Communist Part of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. Retrieved from http://cpiml.org/feature/muzaffarpur-shelter-home-rapes-dark-underbelly-of-beti-bachao/. Accessed on July 21, 2020.
Mehra, M & Nandy, A. (2019). Why Girls Run Away to Marry. Partners for Law in Development. New Delhi: Partners for Law in Development.
Sujatha Subramanian is a PhD Candidate and a Distinguished University Fellow at the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. Sujatha's doctoral research project at OSU examines the effects of India’s juvenile justice system on the girls placed in its institutions.