ByÂ Rovel Sequeira:
Since the last year or so, before the beginning of movies in cinema halls, among the run of ads about desi brands of toothpaste and turmeric powder and the standard ‘smoking-kills’ shots, a certain social awareness short film campaign has been making the rounds. Entitled M.A.R.D. (Men Against Rape and Discrimination), the campaign, created by the popular film star Farhan Akhtar, attempts to instil respect towards women among Indian men by trying to change what it means to be a ‘real’ mard, or man. In the light of daily reports of sexual assault on women, including the brutal gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus by six men on December 16, 2013, which led to the popular renaming of Delhi as ‘Rape City’, one cannot deny that such campaigns are necessary. There are, however, various arguments from multiple sides about the content of such campaigns and their effectiveness in tackling this deep-rooted problem.
The M.A.R.D website reads ‘’I want to see a man whose mother, sister, wife and daughter are proud to call their own’’, taking Farhan Akhtar’s words as the guiding line in the conception of its short films. The quote, in essence, demonstrates the problems in the content of the campaign and marks a key difference from campaigns generated by women’s movements such as ‘One Billion Rising’ and ‘Reclaim the Night’. Directed towards men, the campaign asks them to respect women as mothers, sisters and wives, not as women, conveying the message that women deserving of respect are always those who are in some relation to men, either as caregivers or as entities deserving the protection of good and strong men. This, in turn, creates a big brotherly mentality among the films’ male audience, often used to justify restricting and policing women’s movements under the pretext of respecting them.
Showcased most often before the screening of films addressed to a metropolitan audience such as Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (which sets the cosmopolitan rootlessness of the hero against the ‘modern’ rootedness of the heroine) the message of such ad films could then be more easily adapted by Indian patriarchy as it often “embrace(s) other imaginations of gender introduced through global media flows because they can be combined with existing gender arrangements”, as Steve Derne argues in the broader context of Bollywood cinema in his book Globalization on the Ground: New Media and the Transformation of Culture, Class and Gender in India. The problem with such a film campaign is that it fails to address specific patriarchal attitudes such as those blaming women’s cell-phones, or their partying or walking around after dark, or their dress, for rape. Besides, the rhetoric of the campaign, directed at the emotions rather than at reason, arouses a sense of outrage among its male viewers, always seeming to posit the ‘fake’ mard as someone outside oneself, as someone who must be rejected. It fails, thus, to generate introspection about one’s own complicity in patriarchal attitudes.
Having said this much, one cannot merely dismiss such campaigns on the grounds of their use of emotional rhetoric. Among those who already do not discriminate against women or have a certain degree of awareness and education, arguments directed only to one’s reason may reinforce such attitudes but there is a space for arguments based on emotion. Emotional talk-shows such as Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate (modelled on The Winfrey Oprah Show), tackling various gender-related issues ranging from female foeticide to dowry to ‘honour killing’ have produced genuine testimonies of real conversions or changes in attitude among Indian men. Khan’s testimony to the media about a man who wanted a boy and admitted to crying after watching the show and apologizing to his wife, saying that he just wants her to be happy, is a case in point. In addition, the show was praised by celebrities including Farhan Akhtar, Salman Khan, and Shabana Azmi, for striking an emotional chord with audiences due to its rawness. There is an audience for such a television show and more often than not, it is the same audience that watches Ekta Kapoor serials or Karan Johar’s movies religiously. (Again, these movies or serials are often proclaimed ‘groundbreaking’ for bending the slightest stereotype, whether in the portrayal of women as modern working individuals, or in depicting finally, in mainstream cinema, a closeted gay character). It is such audiences that need major conversion but such conversion will always be generated by a process and continuing dialogue not what will amount to a cultural shock that will be dismissed immediately. It is in this context that Tanishq’s new advertisement endorsing widow remarriage (legalized in the colonial era) can still be seen as revolutionary. It is revolutionary for multiple sections of the Indian population which sees it as such, sections which still believe in the sanctity of arranged marriages and in joint-family systems and which put up matrimonial ads exempting LSR (read, feminist) girls from applying.
Although India is a major economic global power today, it has not been affected by globalization uniformly, creating huge disparities not just in income, but also in education as seen in metropolitan and rural divides. India thus, is not just an amalgam of multiple cultures and languages but also of multiple time periods simultaneously, and cannot have a uniform strategy to address gender inequality. It is this varied Indian audience that M.A.R.D. attempts to address by making its campaign multi-lingual and by roping in local and mainstream celebrities like Telugu cinema actor Mahesh Babu and cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and other IPL stars. The large number of Indians who attribute deity-status to both film-stars and cricket-players would actually be influenced by gestures made by such superstars. Voting campaigns undertaken by multiple celebrities and the presence of actor-politicians such as Govinda and Dharmendra in the Parliament and State Assemblies are emblems of the enormous power they possess to influence attitudes. In the absence of a long-term solution such as systematic sex education in primary and secondary school, and in the gestation period for the formulation of such a program by the State, such ‘limited’ gender-sensitizing campaigns, therefore, are needed and will be for at least, some time to come. Thus, Akhtar, himself admits that ‘what we are hoping for is some kind of a trickle-down effect of the message’ (as reported in an interview with DNA).
Finally, however, for such campaigns as M.A.R.D. to succeed on a large-scale, the nature of male-oriented Bollywood itself needs to change. It matters little if a Shah Rukh Khan or a Salman Khan endorses respect for women in a two-minute short film before going on to star in a feature film with multiple ‘item numbers’,Â subjecting leading film actresses to an intensely objectifying ‘male gaze’. Films like ‘Saawariya’ or ‘Anjaana Anjaani’ with their much touted scenes of Ranbir Kapoor in a towel being subject to a female gaze, and others like ‘Kahaani’ with strong women protagonists who break the vamp-wife binary are positive steps in this direction.
In the meanwhile, for those men who claim to already be liberated from chauvinism, the Tarun Tejpal case should be an eye-opener where several of his friends and other male ‘intellectuals’ justified and still condone his behaviour as a harmless ‘pass’ at an attractive woman employee, thereby demonstrating the endemic nature of sexism and patriarchy at the very highest level. For these men, a recent French video which has been doing the rounds on social media forums should convey the extent of sexism even in supposedly advanced societies. The video portrays a world in which men become the objects of sexism and of sexual harassment by a women-dominated world. Beginning with ludicrous reversals in which men are ‘adam-teased’ for wearing bermuda shorts and for opening the top button of their shirts on hot summer days, the video crosses the line from funny to disturbing when the sexually assaulted man goes to the police to report the crime, only to find that the policewoman in charge makes ‘passes’ at her male subordinates as a matter of routine and insinuates that the man has fabricated the incident of assault. This, if nothing else, should convey the daily realities of sexism and harassment that women undergo and the need for a multi-pronged approach to deal with such ground realities.