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Why These ‘Women-Centric’ Movies ‘Convolute The Idea Of Empowerment’

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By P.V. Durga

The number of women-centric films that have released in the past few years has come like a breath of fresh air. Their success shows Indian cinema’s capability to challenge male-centric narratives, and that a heroine can carry a film on her shoulders too. Needless to say, the nuanced performances of the actors in the movies were outstanding, and each film had a concept that struck a chord with the issues that women from all backgrounds face.

english vinglish 36 vayathinile

I recently watched Roshan Andrrew’s Tamil movie ‘36 Vayadhinile‘ (the Tamil remake of the 2014 Malayalam film “How Old are You?”) and couldn’t help comparing it with Gauri Shinde’s 2012 hit ‘English Vinglish‘. Apart from serving as comeback vehicles for yesteryear actors Jyotika and Sridevi respectively, these films had a common baseline. ’36 Vayadhinile’ was the story of Vasanthi Tamizhchelvan, a woman who rekindles her dynamism and pursues her dreams to prove her worth to her husband and daughter, while ‘English Vinglish’ was about Shashi Godbole’s pursuit of learning how to speak fluent English to earn the respect of her spouse and daughter.

What impressed me about these films were the simple plots, sans over-dramatization. Their protagonists were not devoid of independent identities, and their husbands were not vilified. Shashi had a successful laddoo business and Vasanthi worked with the Revenue Department. Yet, their contribution to the lives of their spouses and children was being taken for granted and belittled. However, in the end, both Shashi and Vasanthi succeed in earning the respect of their families – Shashi learns English and boosts her confidence, and Vasanthi becomes a path-breaking entrepreneur, thereby proving to the audience that these women were empowered, and capable of standing on their own feet. But it was here that I had a problem.

Like other movies, in these had happy endings – these women were triumphant in their respective pursuits, and met the expectations of the rest of their family members. Their spouses and children developed new found love and respect for them, and the audience, including me, left the theater in very high spirits. Later, my mother asked me a question which set me thinking – “What if they hadn’t been successful?

Would Shashi have been valued as much, had she decided to quit English classes altogether and listen to the mother in her, the day her son Sagar hurt himself? What if Vasanthi’s organic vegetable business had not taken off as well as she wanted it to? Would her husband still respect her? In addition, the benchmark for their empowerment was success. This convolutes the whole idea of empowerment, because there is no standard for judging the achievement of the multitude of roles that a woman takes up in her life. The idea that empowerment comes only when a woman makes a mark in the outside world is faulty, because we are undermining the contribution of housewives who voluntarily take up the unrewarding job.

There is no doubt that these films were great. But with this new wave of actors and films challenging notions of patriarchy in the film industry and society in general, writers and directors in future need to take care not to equate empowerment with success, because that runs the danger of reducing the protagonists to validation seeking entities. It would mean that the whole purpose of empowerment has been defeated, because on one hand, we are encouraging women to rekindle their self-respect and value their individuality, and on the other hand, we are showing that such pursuits are successful in their true sense only when these women impress others. Given the far reaching impact that such films have had in the past, it is important that films in the future celebrate the grit displayed by their female leads, with success being a part of the journey, and not the destination itself.

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  1. Avinesh Saini

    Well, an empowered woman will always be successful. It is an axiom. Not even other women take notice of women who are deemed failures by the society. They just cease to exist and their plight is probably worse than male ‘losers’.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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