New Marathi Cinema Can Afford Modern Heroines, But Not Feminist Ones

This article first appeared on https://feminisminindia.com/2017/06/28/marathi-cinema-heroines-feminist-analysis/

 

Women’s empowerment seems to fashionable not just in Bollywood cinema. Marathi cinema is also picking up on this trend of the urban empowered, career-minded woman. The career-minded city girl who dresses as she pleases, eats and drinks what she wants, and makes her own romantic decisions has now replaced the pious and coy female love interests in mainstream as well as regional cinema. But can these films give these women equal treatment?

Let us take a look at the treatment of the heroines of two recent romantic comedies, Chi Va Chi Sau Ka and Muramba.


Savitri (Mrinmayee Godbole), the female lead in Chi Va Chi Sau Ka is introduced with one of her strongest personality traits: her love for animals. She picks up a worm from the road and escorts it to safety on a leaf. Whenever she needs to use a rickshaw, she asks the drivers whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, and will only ride with the ‘shakahari’ ones. Her puritanical casteist behaviour, which she feels entitled to enforce on every person she comes in contact with is the character’s biggest failure. Her potential suitor Satya (Lalit Prabhakar) is equally eccentric about protecting the environment. Savitri declares she wants to live with Satya before getting married, to see if they are compatible. In spite of opposition from both the sets of parents, Savitri refuses to budge. Throughout the film, she refuses to change her personality or habits in spite of growing a fondess for Satya, and actively voices her concerns and problems. This is a welcome change from the stereotypical heroines who become a mellowed down version of themselves and start dressing more traditionally once they fall in love. Even though Savitri has a seemingly strong bond of friendship with her female friends, this film sadly does not pass the Bechdel test. In spite of having very different and strong personalities, Savitri and Satya predictably decide to get married in the end. What causes a tiff between the two is the presence of non-vegetarian food that Satya throws for Savitri. Even though Satya gives up meat for her, she remains miffed that he hasn’t enforced her principles on others who may not have the inclination or privilege to be purely vegetarian. She agrees to be more eco-friendly, thus showing some willingness to compromise and accept others’ beliefs.
One of its most interesting characters is Satya’s grandmother, played by Jyoti Subhash. The widow finds love in her neighbour (played by Satish Alekar), and sneaks away on dates with him, since her son refuses to let her do as she pleases. As the head of a patriarchal family, he even feels the need to control and morally police his aged mother. The fact that even a much older woman’s sexuality and wishes are controlled by her son is a sad reflection of the lack of power women have over their own lives, irrespective of their ages. Satya’s support for her romantic endeavours is endearing to watch, as is her support for the live-in relationship of Satya and Savitri. Her character also stands out against the ageism of the film industry, and the notion that romance is reserved only for the young.
In Muramba, we also see a career-oriented Indu (Mithila Palkar) and her romantic turmoil with her long-term boyfriend Alok (Amey Wagh). The couple decide to break up, as we find out in the course of the movie, because of Alok’s lack of focus and fear of professional failure. Since the film is for most part, a conversation between Alok and his parents, Indu’s perspective is unclear. In Alok’s flashbacks, we see him being silently resentful towards her professional success. He becomes passive aggressive when she speaks to him of an opportunity to work in Kerala for a year, and acts defensive and passive aggressive whenever Indu tries to speak to him of his career. In the end, Alok apologises for his behaviour and asks her to get back together with him. Even though he does not address what he plans to do about his career, Indu readily agrees to get back with him without solving the problem that got them to break up in the first place. She however does voice her concerns about being able to manage her career and home after marriage, and not being able to enjoy the freedom she does as an unmarried girl. These, of course, are gender specific issues that a man in Alok’s position and privilege may never have to face. Indu tells him that sometimes he needs to be strong for her, and sometimes she will be strong, which seems like a healthy basis for a relationship.
Alok is unable to feel happiness for his partner’s success. After telling his parents about his break up and failing to receive the sympathy and comfort he seeks, he needlessly tells his parents about an incident where Indu had too much to drink and vomited by the road. His scheme in ‘shaming’ Indu only partially succeeds. He is able to see the world only through his own perspective. So when his father asks him about one of Indu’s good qualities, he says, ” She’s better than me at everything.” He is unable to view her as a separate individual and admire her qualities in isolation, and judges her competency compared to his incompetency. Towards the end, Alok’s father explains to him how Indu is the girl who truly understands him, and he needs her as a life partner. But Alok’s infantile behaviour and emotional manipulation unequivocally demonstrate why he’s the wrong life partner for Indu. Nevertheless, this film does not afford Indu some space, emotional growth and the ability to detect an abusive relationship.
A social trend that both these films have picked up on is parental approval and acceptance of youngsters’ romantic and life choices. In spite of Savitri and Satya’s parents being scandalised by the trial live-in situation, they never actively forbid or stand in the way of their strong-minded children. Savitri’s father nags her about keeping the relationship strictly non-physical, and Satya’s mother keeps an eye on them constantly, to which the pair literally and metaphorically shut the door on. In Muramba as well, Alok and Indu’s relationship is openly accepted by both their parents. Their refusal to accept the break up and give the couple some space is annoying, but progress in the older generations’ attitudes is clearly visible.
As women become more confident, outgoing and ambitious, it is refreshing to see relatable characters in these romances. Films from the woman’s perspective without familial or patriarchal pressures weighing her character down would be most welcome. However both the films lack the space for self-reflection and growth for the woman. In Chi Va Chi Sau Ka, Savitri is shown as a fiercely principled woman, who lacks the courage or willingness to accept different beliefs. By giving in to her unreasonable demand to be only surrounded by herbivores, she is treated as greater than equal by her partner. In Muramba, Indu, in spite of being a hard-working and career-minded woman, has to give in to an emotionally abusive relationship where her partner neither values her success nor her efforts to encourage him into facing his own professional fears. She has to settle for a relationship where she gives a lot and gets very little out of it. If such films are able to rid their women of a certain superiority complex (Chi Va Chi Sau Ka) or the romantic obligation to end up with the hero (Muramba), maybe the female leads will some day actually be feminists.
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Machismo, Hand-shakes, and Angela Merkel

Since the US Republican Presidential debate in 2016, and more so since the entry of Donald Trump into mainstream politics, hands have played an important role in political discourse. “And he referred to my hands, ‘if they’re small something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee it,” Trump had said, in response to Senator Marco Rubio’s comment about him having rather small hands.

It has been more than a year since this adolescent-level display of machismo in a completely inappropriate setting. Yet, Trump’s hands, and jokes surrounding their size have remained a constant in political coverage as well as late night comedy shows.

This hand obsession followed Trump in his first foreign trip as the President of the United States. A video of Melania Trump swatting away his hand as they walked on the red carpet at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport went viral. Even as talks about the Trumps’ unhappy marriage were doing the rounds, Donald’s little hands got even more coverage.

Trump’s awkward style of shaking hands was in public focus long before he embarked on this international voyage. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s expression after a painfully long handshake with Trump, Canadian President Justin Trudeau’s resistance to Trump’s awkward hand-yanking, Trump ignoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s request for a handshake, and French President Emmanuel Macron and Trump’s tense handshake were all widely covered, and spoken about. Newly elected Macron, who is seen as a counter against the wave of nationalistic politicians rising across Europe, explained his handshake saying, “One must show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones.”

Trudeau and Macron, both considered forward-thinking modern leaders, were hailed as the heroes who emerged victorious in this show of powerful handshakes, a topic that barely made news in the pre-Trump era.

Whilst the show of masculine prowess was still being discussed around the world, it took a woman, Merkel, to stand up and state in clear terms that Europe could no longer rely on their former allies, and had to take their destiny in their own hands. Some said that her actions may be poised for the upcoming German elections, where her opponents are taking a thoroughly anti-Trump stance, thus pressuring her to become more vocal about Trump’s policies. The need for a stronger, more united Europe after the shock of Brexit may also have prompted her actions. (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-merkel-trump-idUSKBN18P0VV) Be that as it may, she was the first European leader to make a definitive statement about Europe’s opinions on Trump where others have only tiptoed.

Angela Merkel may have her own awkward handshake moments, where she appears to have dodged a handshake from our own Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a similar manner. But like the consummate professional that she is, never has she gotten into statements or discussions of meaningless one-upmanship. She may never have deemed that as necessary, being the leader of Europe’s strongest economy.

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Merkel at Trudering festival in Munich
FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor and head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Angela Merkel toasts during the Trudering festival in Munich, Germany, May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle/File Photo

On June 1, 2017, Trump made the decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal, which is a global agreement with 194 countries (including India), pledging to reduce carbon emissions and work towards a future with clean energy. While dismay at this decision was expressed by many of the developed nations bound by the agreement, Merkel was her usual composed but clear self, called the decision “extremely regrettable,” also saying, “I’m expressing myself in very restrained terms.”

Being a woman in a man’s world, perhaps she is not expected to participate in strenuous handshakes. But no one, not even Trump, doubts her great capability as one of the world’s most powerful leaders. Perhaps Merkel’s greatest strength is to speak clearly and consistently, nevertheless emphasizing on Germany’s willingness to co-operate with other nations. Then again, maybe her greatest strength is to act calmly and rationally, in spite of the constant show of machismo that surrounds her.

Stop enforcing feminism on Bollywood

It’s disappointing when Shah Rukh Khan shirks away from topic of a slightly better shelf-life, or even equal pay for Bollywood actresses. Not because of his many roles as a stalker, emotional blackmailer, misogynist have paved the way for his enlightened view on ageism. But because he is considered one of the more intelligent actors around. According to him, women work ‘5 times harder and gets paid ten times less,’ and the market forces determine the value of an actor.

And he’s not wrong.

This is the reason why Dangal wouldn’t have done well if Aamir Khan hadn’t played the tough patriarch. It’s the reason why Mary Kom, which is also about a successful female boxer didn’t do well. It’s also the reason why Sultan did do well. Then again, bhai ka picture always does well.

We do have the occasional Mardani, Queen, or Jai Gangajal. But they will never come close to the sycophantic 100-crore club, which remains dominated by the likes of Khan. Of the top 10 most commercially successful Hindi films, only one is without a Khan (Bajirao Mastani). And of the highest grossing 15 Indian films, only Bahubali and Rajnikant’s Kabali are Khan-less.

In a sense, SRK is right. Commercial cinema is entrenched in financial super-success. Seemingly, the people in the best position to change that are the Khans.

Aamir, with Dangal being his last release, is the one creating the most positive change. A film about two young girls who are sportwomen, and not romantic accessories, is something none of the Khans have done before. He may have played an authoritarian with little regard for his daughters’ wishes, but any father-daughter story from Haryana that doesn’t involve infanticide, forced marriage or honour killing is commendable.

SRK may publicly accept the sexism and ageism, but that’s all he’s willing to do. He may even go the extra mile to patronise feminists by saying women are better than men. But his films rarely demonstrate a basic respect for women. He might have done a Chak De! India, but that does not dissolve him of his criminal offences like Chennai Express and Happy New Year.

Speaking of criminals, Salman may have films with fiesty-looking women, until they fall in love with him and forget all previous personality traits. They dissolve into the quintessential Bollywood wife: attractive impregnable slaves. Salman, on the other hand, has risen even more ever since he stopped trying to put an effort into his roles.

As the actresses cast against them get younger and younger, they are in such a cemented position that they will never get rejected by the heroine. That responsibility falls solely upon Ranbir Kapoor. Age is not the only deterrant to women starring against the Khan. They will have no qualms starring against ‘pure’ newcomers. On the other hand, the industry will subtly (and overtly) slut-shame Sunny Leone. She can be an item number, but never the love interest of any of Bollywood’s most expensive men.

Bollywood’s leading women have predominantly shied away, or gone back and forth on being feminists. And it’s completely fair that they don’t call themselves the f-word. It’s because they aren’t feminists.

The only women who have openly addressed the wage-gap are Kareena Kapoor Khan and Kangna Ranaut. Yet, one is known for her whimsical behaviour, or her apparently horrifying choice of name for her own son. The other one is known for her terrible taste in men.

There have been moments of some female empowerment. Cleavage gapers have been shamed, a cricketer boyfriend of an actress spoke up against calling her a ‘distraction’, and there are some women without the ideal Bollywood-heroine body type defending their right to exist whilst not looking like a Barbie doll.

However, none of the actresses are ready to be openly feminist. They dance in heels while men wear flats. They wear skimpy clothes and dance in freezing temperatures with a fully clothed man. They are constantly nitpicked on for their natural facial features and bodies. And if they dare change something, they will be shamed for that. They work as much as the men do. Their financial success is short-lived: many of them will be out of work by the time they’ve reached their industry shelf-life – for everyone loves a movie about a man and a youngthinbeautifulperfect woman. In spite of this, if they still don’t firmly believe that they deserve equal pay, then they’re really not feminists.

So we should really stop asking every famous vagina-owner about feminism. Especially when they come from an industry created to satisfy the patriarchy through elaborate song-and-dance rituals. If we want an unbridled feminist moment from Bollywood, all we can do is wait for the occasional Queen. Or even a Sunny Leone interview.

Women’s safety under the female leader

At the annual Women in the World Summit in New York in 2015, acclaimed journalist Barkha Dutt, speaking about Hillary Clinton’s bid for presidency, said that the debate about having a woman leader is not a conversation that we have in India anymore. “We had a woman leader decades ago”, she said (referring to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi). She quoted Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and claiming that statistically the incidence of rape is much higher in the U.S. and UK.

While having a woman leader during the 1960s may be considered progressive for those times, the Indian parliament is yet to pass the Women’s Reservation bill, which reserves 33% of the seats for female Members of Parliament. The bill has been a matter of debate for 18 long years. Currently, women MPs occupy a mere 66 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, or the lower house. The national average for legislative assemblies of all the states is a dismal 9%. India currently has four states with women chief ministers, but does their leadership necessarily amount to safer conditions for women?

 

Anandiben Patel

Even though the reported incidents of rape almost doubled in Gujarat from 2013 to 2014, Gujarat is considered one of the safest states for women according to a survey conducted by Tata Strategic Management Group.

A rape victim from Botad district who got pregnant asked for permission for an abortion from the Gujarat High Court, which was denied to her. She even met Anandiben in person, but ended up with a baby boy whom the High Court had urged her to “bravely give birth to”, and her rapist, who is still a free citizen. This court also denied permission to a 14-year-old girl raped by her doctor, who had to move the Supreme Court to abort the baby.

Patel has spoken about wanting to make women’s empowerment a priority for her state. Yet when it comes to such incidents she, much like her predecessor Modi, prefers keeping an undignified silence over the matter.

 

Vasundhara Raje

Rajasthan has the second highest number of women MLAs (14%). This state also records the second highest number of rape incidents. While the state has a history of greater incidence of violence against women, their first woman CM seems to have done little for betterment of this situation. Rapes of minors and women in Rajasthan have been as consistent as Raje’s silence over these cases.

 

Mamata Banerjee

Mamata Banerjee has several infamous statements about rape to her credit, the most peculiar one being that rapes are caused because of girls and boys interacting freely with each other. When a 70-year-old nun was gang raped in March 2015, Mamata handed the case over to the CBI, asking for quick action. However, approach to this crime seems ageist as it was she who, in 2013, dismissed that Late Suzzette Jordan (sometimes referred to as the Park Street rape victim), as a story that was “cooked up to malign the government”.

Jayalalitha

Tamil Nadu was the first state to have a female-staffed police station, first all-female police commando unit, and now the first women’s special-forces police battalion. Jayalalitha has personally vouched for the state as being safe for women. Dowry deaths and sexual assault on women have seen a steady decline during her regime, especially since 2010.

Jayalalitha was the first Tamil actress to appear in a skirt on screen in her former years as an actress. Even so, the state has had an ongoing problem of moral policing. Several colleges in the state have been known to enforce outdated dress codes and moralistic rules especially on female students in Chennai’s engineering college.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women leaders are as conducive, or as detrimental to female citizens as their male counterparts. Mamata Banerjee is inconsistent in response to sexual assault in her state, and Vasundhara Raje seems to have done little for the state which already had abysmal conditions for women’s rights. Even though Anandiben Patel and Jayalalitha have made certain strides in empowering women, they seem to suffer from the fatal flaw that most of our leaders seem to have: moral policing.

 

 

 

 

 

Online feminism is like a donation box

They’re the ones whose mundaneness we marvel at, and whose career decisions we jeer at. Celebrity culture has provided even the most insignificant of us the opportunity to assume roles moral superiority, and fashion critics. If it wasn’t for them, we would have only funny animal videos to fall back upon for small talk. 
It’s only logical that we ask them for their opinion on issues and have feelings of outrage or rapt admiration. This is precisely why we started asking every vagina owner who’s been on TV/movies about women’s rights and feminism. It’s like asking every car owner about the inner mechanisms of the vehicle. Or asking every bank account owner about the economy. But since feminism comes under humanities, opinions are much easier to fake.  
We love nothing more than when women pretend to be humans by declaring their love for food, requesting to be asked about their work rather than their booties and asking for as much pay as their glorious male peers. It even makes us care about currently-irrelevant women like Mallika Sherawat and her tiff with a reporter, and potentially irrelevant women like Radhika Apte. That’s internet feminism, I suppose.

Another exciting but inconsequential and futile attempt at understanding women’s rights was Homi Adjania’s ‘My choice’ video. As the old saying goes, put it in monochrome and it looks important enough for every man, woman, fish and reptile to discuss. The creators of democracy clearly didn’t foresee the internet and the diarrhoea of opinions that would give an outlet to.

Internet feminism is like an open donation box for crisis relief. It began with good intentions, and if you really dig deep into the box you will find some useful donations that will help the victims. Then there are misguided charitable offerings that were meant to help, but miss the point. But most of the donations will baffle you and make you marvel at the minds of those who thought these things belong to a donation box. At least there’s one field where men and women are truly equal: in being passionate about their vastly misguided opinions.

A recent social media campaign that I came across was published in an online article with the wonderful headline: ‘Social media campaign tries to make a point about feminism, fails spectacularly’ (http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/social-media-campaign-tries-to-make-a-point-about-feminism-fails-spectacularly–eJg8ZlBFoWZ). This came with the hashtag under which the campaign functioned, #BlameOneNotAll. This was also one of those campaigns where women hold up quotes that express how they feel so that men can see how non-intimidating their opinions are and so that they can shove the image into the face of anyone who says “I hope you’re not one of those feminist types…” This is excellent news for ‘meninist’ campaigns, who can now repost these images and claim to be in love with these women.
The campaign posters, some of them as artfully composed as the hashtag, included some gems like ‘My favorite professor and he doesn’t show any inappropriate gesture’, or ‘When my parents are not around, my uncle doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable’.
This is a rather unfair trend. In fact, it has just aggravated gender inequality. You never get to see pictures of men holding boards saying ‘I saw a woman today and she did not invoke me to harass her by dressing provocatively’. Or ‘I have a female colleague and she doesn’t voice her opinions in public.’

I’m Menstrual and I Know It

“So what are your plans for the weekend?” he asked me.

“No plans. I’m just staying in,” I replied.

“Why, are you ill?”

“No, I have my periods and I’m in pain.”

“Oh. Um… Let’s just call it ‘being in pain’ from the next time. I don’t quite feel comfortable talking about this.”

“IT’S A NORMAL THING THAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN EVERY MONTH AND I AM NOT EUPHEMISING IT, SO WHY DON’T YOU GROW UP!”

“You’re just getting so worked up because it’s that time of the month. It’s ok, I understand.”

 

Yes, this is an actual conversation that I had. With a fully grown man, not a teenage boy.

 

When I was 13, all the girls from my class were asked to get up and leave the regular classroom for a special lecture. I didn’t know whether to feel special or not. This was where we were informed about the red monster that would visit us every month for many years now. Since some girls had already gotten their periods, this brand new information shocked them. Yet, most of them were too shy to say ‘periods’ in front of a classroom full of females.

 

It’s called menstruation.

 

Over the years women have tried coming up with cover-up names for this phenomenon, periods being at the top of the list. But since it became common knowledge, we came up with dainty terms like ‘chums’, ‘birthday’ and so on. And up until the time I actually got my periods, I did not know what menstruation was. So the prior knowledge I had about this was through TV advertisements of Whisper or Carefree, and theories that my friends and I came up with, or vague parental answers. The most popular theory was that sanitary napkins are an equivalent of adult diapers for young girls who want to play tennis after school and can’t hold it in till they get home. (This made complete sense to me after considering the state of school toilets.)

It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that boys are alien to the concept and men are uncomfortable with it. Even autocorrect is hesitant to suggest the word ‘menstruation’. I still have female friends who won’t / are not allowed to cook, wash their hair while menstruating and much more. Also apparently, God and all things holy issue a collective restraining order against menstrual women. (This one I won’t protest against, mainly because I’ll take any excuse to stay away from religious ceremonies and temples).

But if you aren’t comfortable and prefer to hide behind black plastic bags and newspapers when you’re ‘in pain’, I am no one to stop you. I will, however, sneak up on you and scare you. Only, instead of ‘boo!’, I’ll say ‘menstruation!’

How to be a Good Indian Woman

It has come to my attention that many women have been demanding to be treated as humans. It’s not their fault, sometimes they aren’t educated about how they aren’t. Which is why I have prepared this guide, so that women know how to behave at every stage in life. 
 
1. When you are a child, you need not worry about this. Being a female child is in itself an accomplishment, since you were allowed to live. Concentrate on regular childhood things such as toys, food and hating school for a while.
 
2. As you grow older, you will begin to notice that society has begun molding you into the non-human that you are. Go with the flow. Remember that the position of Class Clown is reserved for boys. 
 
3. As you hit puberty, you must undergo the harshest training. You can communicate with boys, but the ratio of boys to girls you hang out with should never be 1:1. But if the number of boys exceeds the number of girls, run for your sake. And never be alone with unrelated males, because that means you are developing sexually. Do not argue about this; live in denial. Remember that this is your responsibility. Not the boys’. 
 
4. Pick a gender appropriate career, especially in the field of humanities. You may be forced to read about women’s liberation, but let that roll of your back. If you do pick something else, it is easier to avoid independent thought, but it is not lady-like.
 
5. At some point you may feel the need to date someone or be in a relationship. You must avoid these thoughts if you care about your future, and your reputation. Do not take the term ‘your reputation’ at face value. It is the collective reputation of your living, deceased and ancestral family. Only you can save it—by denying your natural urges. 
 
6. Remember to always smile and be bubbly and vivacious, but in a controlled manner. Being shy and ill-adjusted to your surroundings is helpful. Remember to not be too friendly towards males, because then you may be labelled as a slut. This counters the reputation we talked about in the previous point. 
 
7. If you do feel like giving in to dating, always pick from the men who are interested in you. It is wrong to decide who you like and then go for it. When agreeing to date, always date someone who pledges lifelong commitment. Whether that is followed through or not is irrelevant. Casually getting to know someone before you get into a relationship is not an option. Physical relations outside the bonds of holy matrimony without the purpose of baby-making aren’t permitted. 
 
8. In your early twenties, you will either have the option of an arranged marriage or to magically pop out a boyfriend whom you wish to marry. The second option is only available to girls who have not followed Rule No. 5. Even so, make sure the man is from your religion/caste/sub-caste, just to avoid unnecessary complications. 
 
9. You must undergo a painful ceremony called a ‘wedding’ where you will be hidden under make-up, heavy jewellery and flashy clothes. You must be nice to everyone here. Your husband’s family now owns you so you better suck up. Your late twenties are the alarm zone to get married. If you aren’t hitched by the time you hit thirty, you are required to waive off ownership of your breasts, vagina and other feminine parts. (Oh wait. They were not yours to claim anyway.)
 
10. After your marriage, you are required to live a life of servitude. You must try your best to produce a son, because he can marry a girl for you to torment. Sorry, I mean educate.