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The atrocious portrayal of Indian Air Force in movie Gunjan Saxena points to a larger social malaise in Indian media

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Akshay Saraswat
A journalist and sports writer with over five years of experience. I have worked in organizations like The Pioneer and The Sunday Guardian. A cultural nationalist who believes in India being the greatest civilization on the planet.

There is justified uproar and anger over the way Indian Air Force and its culture is depicted in Karan Johar-produced movie Gunjan Saxena. The film presents male officers of IAF as hardcore misogynists who not only dislikes a woman being inducted into the force but also treats her badly to the point of physical abuse.

Not surprisingly, nationalist sections of Indian media and ordinary people have let their disgust with the movie be well-known. However, blaming just Karan Johar or even Bollywood for the pathetic depiction of IAF would be ignoring the much larger malaise that is afflicting the Indian intelligentsia and even the ordinary public.

The real problem is an obsession that Indian journalists and other wannabe intellectuals of this country have developed with running down their own nation for the sake of looking enlightened. This requires a detailed explanation.

Dissing your own country

As per the existent culture in our country, the shortest route to becoming an intellectual is describing Indians and their culture as regressive. Especially when it comes to issues of gender justice and women empowerment, all you need to do in order to be considered enlightened and modern is to run down your own society and people as misogynist, sexist, and every other term describing male chauvinism.

In Indian media, this phenomenon has translated into an obsession to depict the story of every successful women as one of her facing unrelenting opposition and discrimination in the pursuance of her goals. This is something the author of this article has witnessed first-hand during his time as a journalist covering sports.

Personal experience

Back in 2016, three Indian women made the nation proud with their performances in Rio Olympics. PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik won medals at the games while Deepa Karmakar created history by becoming the first Indian to reach finals of a gymnastic competition.

As expected, they were widely interviewed. Karmakar revealed that it was her father, a weightlifter himself, who got her into gymnastics. Sindhu’s tilt towards sports was even more natural as both her parents were volleyball players at national level. Sakshi too benefitted due to her being from Haryana – the cradle of sports culture in India and being granddaughter of a wrestler.

It was clear that all three had been pushed into the field of sports by their families and had received full support from them. But that is not what journalists in India find sexy. For them, Indian men can never be anything but unimaginably repressive towards women. And when Indian media doesn’t find the story it likes, it creates it.

Creating sob stories

Just after the Olympics of 2016, I was working as an intern for a newspaper. As it happened, one of my senior colleagues was going to interview Sakshi Malik. The editor told the interviewer that she should try and find out about the opposition she faced from family and other. This was the theme he wanted for that interview.

Not surprisingly, the interview was published with the headline ‘Against All Odds,’ and one of the blurbs had her talking about how people didn’t think it appropriate for her to participate in men’s sports.

Now, it is nobody’s case that sexism does not exist in India. However, as it has been observed, what is true of this country, the opposite is also true. Yes, Haryana has had an atrocious record on social indicators related to women. But there is a parallel story also about how, the same people are also very keen to see their daughters excelling in sports.

Media coverage in the aftermath of Rio Olympics would have you believe that success of Indian women in sports is a recent phenomenon. Those writing such nonsense should remember that India has been producing great female sportspersons for a long time.

In 2002, Indian contingents performed brilliantly at the Manchester Commonwealth Games and Busan Asian Games. Many of the top performers were women and, many of those were from the much-maligned ‘sexist’ den of Haryana.

Interacting with sports stars

Coming back to the way media works, in the last year, I had the privilege to interview several members of the Indian women’s hockey team, in my capacity as sports reporter for International Business Times, India. There was something very interesting about my interactions with them.

When I talked to the players, I asked about what led them to take up hockey and the difficulties they faced. Interestingly, many of them praised their families for extending full support. In fact, not one of the ladies complained about their family telling them that the game as ‘improper’ for girls.

Yes, they did face problems. But those didn’t have to do with gender. The issues they battled were poverty, lack of adequate facilities, lack of financial support, and, in rare cases, the worry of their parents that sports are not a dependable source of livelihood. As a matter of fact, Savita, the goalkeeper of women’s team, said to me that girls are highly respected in her family.

Now, perhaps some of these ladies did face some opposition from their families. If I probed for it, maybe, I would have discovered some discouragement at some stage from someone.

But that’s precisely the point. I didn’t go there with a pre-determined mindset to look for stories of persecution and discrimination. I just asked them simple questions and let them speak, rather than encouraging them to say what I wanted to hear. I was looking for their story, whatever it is, not their story as I want it.

But that’s not what journalists want. They want to sing along in the chorus of ‘Oh how terrible our country is.’ After all, it’s only India where women face discrimination and only India where crimes are committed against them!

There is also a problem with the tendency of Indians to feel sorry for themselves. If you tell someone that they have faced discrimination, regardless of whether they have or not, 99 out of 100 would agree. It’s what in Hindi is called ‘ungli kata ke shaheed banana’ (becoming a martyr just by pricking your finger).

This is why Karan Johar and his fellow filmmakers chose to depict IAF as a bastion of severely misogynist men who continuously torment a young lady just because of her gender. For the journalists and Bollywood, Indian men and Indian society are irredeemably sexist. Any women who has succeeded in her life could have no support from her family. That’s why the story of Gunjan Saxena has been presented in this form.

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Akshay Saraswat
A journalist and sports writer with over five years of experience. I have worked in organizations like The Pioneer and The Sunday Guardian. A cultural nationalist who believes in India being the greatest civilization on the planet.
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