Social responsibility as a concept generally belongs to the area of the business— stating that businesses must also factor in benefitting the society in one way or the other and not just focus on making profits. With time, this concept is now slowly being discussed and accepted in the Film Industry, too, with talks about movies not only being a source of entertainment but also a very important tool to shape society. Some argue that movies are a form of escapism, i.e., they disconnect the audience from reality for a few hours to enjoy an engaging story and should be treated so— not giving them much power and responsibility or having any expectations that they can change society. Meanwhile, others are of the opinion that movies have become an integral part of society, and thus they possess some form of responsibility towards the audience and the society they are a part of. As the audience, we are not expecting anything from a movie except it should possess a little bit of social consciousness.
This article discusses the subject of the social responsibility of movies. But before answering that question, we do need to understand why it is important to discuss this issue and how movies that are essentially just a source of entertainment can affect a person and society or nation as a whole.
MOVIES AND SOCIETY
The relationship between movies and society is very strong. Movies are a reflection of society, and at the same time, movies have the raw power to influence and shape the ideas of people in society.
Are Movies Normalising Stalking and Violence?
Since the 60s, the common plot of a love story, especially in Bollywood, always revolves around a “hero” who is in love with a girl that initially rejects him. This then becomes the guy’s mission to “win her over” by any means— be it stalking, excessive persuasion, or even threat by suicide!
What is more disturbing than this completely abhorrent plot is how it is perceived by the audience, with them rooting for the hero, praising his efforts and justifying his outrageous acts as true love, and applauding when the girl finally agrees. Scenes like violence and stalking are not only normalized but considered heroic, and because heroes in these movies hardly face any consequences, the fine line between reel and real often blurs, and people find it perfectly fine to imitate such acts in real life too.
Similarly, the amount of violence in mainstream movies has been growing steadily and, with the passing years, has turned more realistic and graphic. Violence in movies is not just part of the plot but is even romanticized. When committed by the protagonist, it is often considered a sign of strength and courage, and such actions are deemed necessary to “gain justice.” The depiction of murder and physical brutality has been normalized so much that it is hardly questioned.
Here are a handful of examples among many where movies can influence a person negatively:
In 2016, a man kidnapped a 24-year-old girl and was said to be inspired by Shah Rukh Khan’s character in the movie Darr (1993).
UP’s Ashwini Kashyap was obsessed with Shahid Kapoor’s character in Kabir Singh and killed a girl named Nikita—whom he liked but killed since she was to get married in December 2018—after repeating a dialogue from the movie in one of his TikTok videos “Jo mera nahi ho sakta, usse kisi aur ke hone ka mauka nahi doonga (Who is not mine, will not be someone else’s either).”
In 2021, a 24-year-old man in Tokyo attacked and injured as many as 17 people in a Tokyo train line wearing a Joker costume. He was apparently inspired by the scene in The Joker where Joaquin Phoenix, who was playing the titular role, attacked a few people on the train who were harassing him. While giving the police his statement, the man even quoted that he was dressed like Joker because he “looked up to him.”
How Individual Psyche Is Affected
Movies do evoke certain kinds of behavioral responses, and a 2003 Psychological Science in the Public Interest report has argued being exposed to watching violent scenes for a significant time can increase both short-term and long-term aggression and violence in some people. It can make people, especially young children, emotionally distressed and anti-social.
According to Neelam Mishra, a Delhi-based Psychologist, “The basic phenomena of human psychology says that people pick and follow whatever makes their image come across as ‘powerful.’ In such movies (like Kabir Singh) where so much aggression, misconduct, misbehavior is depicted, sometimes people take it as a correct step and follow it. They consider it correct as their immediate need is being gratified. Secondly, it also depends upon the actor’s fan following, as people follow their idol without realizing or that they are playing a character in a movie.”
“People follow what they see; films can manipulate the audience’s mindset. When films persistently show a negative task being accepted by actors’ family members in a movie, they get mental approval to pursue the same task and expect others to approve of it as well and consider it morally and ethically correct, due to such conditioning which they have gotten. Such films distort a person’s mindset, especially of adolescents,” she concludes.
MOVIES AS A SOURCE OF SOFT POWER
The words of George Orwell, “All art is propaganda,” point to the political agendas and ideological motivations behind the culture. Although the statement might be generalized, it holds a certain level of truth. The power of movies has been realized by world leaders who have time and again have used movies to advance their political agenda. The most infamous example can be of Adolf Hitler, who used films as a tool to propagate his ideas during WWII.
Joseph Nye, an American political scientist who introduced the concept of soft power, also believed that pop culture could facilitate the process of carrying out a policy, making it more easy and effective. “Popular entertainment often contains subliminal images and messages about individualism, consumer choice, and other values that have important political effects.”
The best example can be the way American movies have been made has helped the USA to create an “American Dream” all over the world and increase the desirability of the American lifestyle and cement the hegemony of the nation. Movies can help create a positive image of a country as for most people, especially those who do not reside in that nation, movies are the first point of exposure to understand its culture and lifestyle.
According to French Politician Hubert Vedrine, he believes that Americans are so powerful because they can “inspire the dreams and desires of others, thanks to the mastery of global images through film and television and because, for these same reasons, large numbers of students from other countries come to the United States to finish their studies.”
SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OF FILMMAKERS
Although we might agree that movies in one way or the other influence an individual, whether movies should be socially responsible or should just remain a form of entertainment is still debatable. Here are some arguments given by both the factions:
Movies Should Not Be Taken Seriously
Yes, movies evoke a reaction and affect our emotions, but are they enough to change our beliefs and influence our actions? At the end of the day, movies are just a form of escapism and an excuse for the public to shut themselves off from reality and indulge in a fiction world— movies should not be taken seriously.
“I want to know, in which country a social change has been brought about by cinema? Secondly, I don’t understand what is ‘social responsibility’ in terms of cinema. On one hand, you say cinema should reflect reality. When the same cinema reflects reality, we run it down,” said Suresh Kohli, documentary filmmaker, during a panel discussion of Indo-American Friendship Association (IAFA) in 2014 while questioning the theme of social responsibility.
Cinema is a reflection of society— all the dark themes of violence, rape, corruption are simply a mirror to society. It is wrong to say that crimes occur because of the violence in the movies. Many movies have such scenes, and millions of people enjoy watching movies but not all go on committing such crimes. Most of the audience is sensible enough to understand that such acts are good for entertainment and are often exaggerated and would not work in real life.
Movies are as good as the audience’s interpretation and what lesson the audience wants to take away from it. The misogynistic behavior of Kabir Singh can disgust some, while for others, his commitment and love towards his lover can inspire some. At the same time, the story of Joker can be appreciated in one sense as it tells us about the negative side of society and opens up a conversation on mental health, but some might even criticize it for glorifying violence.
Movies Should Have A Social Responsibility
Garth Davis, during the promotion of his first film Lion once said, “Filmmaking is not a job but a social responsibility for me.”
People, especially young audiences, are hugely influenced by actors and consider them role models. Thus, a problem arises when these people start blindly following these actors.
Cinema is a great medium to communicate and thus should follow a certain moral code.
“A nation where people are obsessed with cinema, where people are inspired and motivated by films. So, I think we should have certain responsibilities towards telling a story, which is not the case today. Cinema no longer is an art form. It has become a product, i.e., at any cost you want to sell it,” said Mr. Nila Madhab Panda, the director of I Am Kalam, during a panel discussion of IAFA in 2014.
Cinema is a mirror that reflects the hopes, aspirations, frustrations, and contradictions of society which leads to an attachment of social responsibility to it.
Movies like Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan showcasing a gay love story; or movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha and Angry Indian Goddesses portraying women not only as protagonists of the movie but also showing stories of women in a completely different light; Padman and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha talking about rural sanitation; Dear Zindagi, Phobia, and Tamasha highlighting mental health issues, have truly helped and educated people about sensitive issues while providing entertainment to them.
No, it is incorrect to say that every movie should be about a social issue and should teach something. But the world surely needs more diversity in its stories and needs to give a voice to different communities while providing entertainment. Also, it needs to realize how to portray negative characters and problematic traits in movies while keeping in mind how much they can impact society.
Nowadays, due to easy access to the internet and the “OTT Revolution,” movies are very easily available irrespective of age. Thus the young are more vulnerable to sensitive content that goes beyond their understanding, making them more susceptible to having a more twisted sense of the world.
A filmmaker will only make movies on a certain issue till he/she is getting a positive response from the audience and is profitable to the production house. Thus, it also becomes the responsibility of the audience to reject misogynistic themes in a movie and openly criticize a project. Also, movies do possess the power to start conversations on difficult topics and make the audience aware of some issues, but at the end of the day, they are just stories. Sometimes the audience needs to act maturely when watching sensitive content and oppose content they find offensive.
Filmmakers need to change their storytelling and narratives according to the changing times to fit the audience’s desires. Recently, we do see a change in the attitude of the audience as they have started embracing socially conscious films, and filmmakers have also started to venture out and use their platform to tell stories about topics that are much less explored and much less accepted in society. This paves the way towards normalizing issues that were once considered taboo and starting conversations regarding rather uncomfortable topics.
Written by: Aashna