By Aditya Sharma:
The relationship media and women share, precedes the age of Raj and Simran. It is older than “Sholay” and more dramatic than, “Basanti, inn kutto ke saamne mat nachna” (Basanti, don’t dance in front of these dogs). This relationship has no definite origin, for media has constantly evolved in medium and reach. Cinema and the social media currently are the most popular assets of the media family. India is home to the biggest film industry worldwide and is one of the largest consumer bases for social media in the world. With over a billion eyes glued to TV screens, mobiles, tablets and computers at every second, the information that these mediums provide is sensitive to our formation of opinions and ideas.
Popular media has constantly sexualised women, created gender roles and reiterated patriarchal norms. Objectifying women on popular media is the everyday silent violence that goes unnoticed and unaccounted for. As Dr. Jean Kilbourne says, “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step in justifying violence against that person.” Thus, Bollywood is no stranger to portraying misogyny and sexism where female leads are denied ‘love marriages’, wives are treated as husbands’ property and men are supposed to ‘control’ women.
In all its grandiose, “Devdas” (1955 and 2002) is at the peak of being misogynist and sexist. Paro (female lead) is conditioned into marrying someone who is 30 years older to her. She leads a life within the boundaries of her marriage. Her bold attempts to personal freedom are seen as deviant. However, “Devdas” stands to be one of India’s most celebrated films both in domestic as well as the international market. Films and filmmaking that is regarded as a liberating field of work, hasn’t been able to rub off the dirt of misogyny and sexism from itself.
Feminism as an idea and a movement faces a bipolar reaction in India. This is owing to changing meanings attached to the visual media that the masses consume. I am particularly intrigued by the way films like “Queen” (2014), “Parched” (2016) and “Pink” (2016) were received, and the reaction that Vogue India’s “My Choice” (2015) film faced as part of their social awareness campaign #VogueEmpower. All these four forms of visual media define the way feminism changes meanings. Sometimes it becomes a good word: lauded for its attempts and practices, and sometimes a bad word: criticised for its uncalled male bashing, if at all. The ‘good word, bad word’ practice represents the general opinion of the masses, one that is dictated by the media they consume.
Actress Deepika Padukone was the lead in the 99 women starrer film “My Choice”. It was directed by Homi Adjania and produced by JSW and Sangita Jinda. Among the 99 women are director Adhuna Akhtar, film critic Anupama Chopra, model/lawyer Scherezade Shroff, actor Nimrat Kaur and other women who are successful, and have made a difference in their respective fields. The black and white film asks women to take control of their “body, mind and choices,” for women are the “universe, infinite in every direction.” The film is eccentric in performance and boldly calls for the personal as political. The choices that the film talks of, spans from the choice of the kind of body she wishes to have, the marriage she wants to share, the sex she wants to indulge in and the kind of love she wants to reciprocate. The words are gallant and unconventional in every detail. Every frame of the film displays women of vigour who speak their mind and politicised their private. However, to my much surprise, the film received a lot of criticism. The film still waits for irony to surface that struck its fate.
It was the early hours of March 8 2014, when I had read the thunderous review of the movie “Queen” in the Indian Express. The review called Kangana Ranaut, lead actress of the movie, “the queen of hearts.” It further continued to say that the movie was “intensely local and gloriously global.” In summation, it was ‘women-centric’ in every detail. The film is about a girl, Rani (meaning queen) who is dumped by her fiancé on her wedding day but dares to go solo on her honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam. It is a coming-of-age, discovery-of-self story where Rani learns to be “independent, bold, and assertive, and takes her own choices.” She is both the queen in her life and the “queen of hearts” of the Indian masses. The film went on to win 2 national awards, 6 Filmfare awards, 5 IIFA Awards to name a few and earned 10 times its budget at the box office. Feminism became a household good word, brimming in everyone’s daily diction.
Exactly a year later, the negative response that the “My Choice” film received sounded louder than most voices under male oppression both at private and public front. The internet broke open with hashtags, spoofs, memes and reaction films. The Vogue campaign drowned in the same path of ’empowerment’ that had made “Queen” a success a year ago. All of a sudden the India that campaigned for her daughters to be ‘independent, bold, assertive and free’, was apprehensive of women urging other women to make their own choices. People did not like bold assertive women talking their minds out. Feminism had all of a sudden become a bad word looming the Indian media.
Passivity, compliance and docility are words that are often attached to the behaviour of women in India. Gender being a social construct, it becomes customary for women to follow a certain code of behaviour and response that are tailored to their particular communities. Indologist Wendy Doniger explains Manu’s ancient and famous text, “The Laws of Manu” to describe the characteristics of the ideal Indian woman: “a girl, a young women or a old woman should not do anything independently, even in her house. In childhood, a woman should be in her father’s control, in her youth under her husbands and when her husband is dead, under her sons’. A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges her lust, and is devoid of any good qualities.” The matrimonial column in newspapers and films is a magnificent site to witness how Manu’s ideas are reciprocated even today.
Feminism as a bad word finds it origins in opposition to everything that the so-called ideal Indian woman is not. Customary to be passive, compliant and docile, the Indian women, when voiced out through mediums such as the “My Choice” film are ridiculed for radicalising the very movement of feminism and thereby hampering woman’s empowerment.
An opinion article in The Hindu said that film did nothing but “misunderstand the term empowerment, (and) speak of women’s choices within the personal domain rather than the public, and package feminism in a seductive manner causing more harm to the movement than good.” Therefore, to be bold, assertive and eccentric in expression is to be seductive is what the writer hinted. In nearly within a week of the release of the film, response films by the title of ‘My Choice – male version’ were flourishing on the internet. Even if many response films were for strictly humour purposes, such that of the response film by Brat House Films, the whole integrity of the ’empower’’ campaign is lost. Men have for long exercised their choice, and now when a woman becomes the face of the same choices that he took, how could men be far behind to react to it. After all, men have to walk hand-in-hand with women, if not lead them but cannot lag behind at any cost. It only took 99 women in a black-and-white film to pinch the male ego of an entire nation to an extent of bad wording an entire movement.
The anti-498A campaign too gathered momentum around the same time as the “My Choice” campaign in March 2015. It only further added fuel to the fire. Section 498A of the India Penal Code, states that, “Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. The offence is cognisable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.” The law also includes attempts of dowry harassment on women. The anti-498A lobby claims that women are misusing the law and are filling false cases of domestic abuse and violence. Men are now becoming ‘victims’ of ‘gender bias laws’. This lobby of people grew so strong that they bad worded feminism heavily, leading to proposals to amend the bill in the legislation. The Supreme Court too in 2010 stated that this law had become “a weapon at hands of disgruntled women.” Lack of knowledge and efficient operation of the judiciary may cost the women who in reality face domestic abuse and have IPC 498A to their protection. The number of genuine guilty cases outnumber the false cases heavily.
On the other hand, “Queen” projected feminism as a good word because it partly ran parallel to the ideas of Manu. Rani in the movie was docile, passive and compliant in the first half of the movie, only to discover she has a spine after all. In the second half of the movie, she is dawned with a lot of courage and takes upon an adventure into sex shops, co-ed dorms and red light districts. She is everything that “My Choice” exemplifies. I am not of the opinion that transformations are unwelcome. I simply am perplexed by the reaction of the same Indian mass who consumed “My Choice” into being absolutely radical. Just because the woman in “Queen” is the “dilli ki chori” (Delhi girl) from Rajouri Garden and the women in “My Choice” are “Mumbai ki mem (maam)” doesn’t mean they have differentiated aims. I agree that the Vogue campaign could have opted to feature women from our everyday lives or so to say more middle class backgrounds to make the experience of watching the video more relatable. But just because they did not do so, does not mean that the film cannot ask the million other queens in India to take control of their choices. Feminism as a movement should not be warped to the fancies of the masses.
Recently, I also happened to have read works of Kaja Silverman (“The Acoustic Mirror” and “Dis-Embodying the Female Voice”) who looked into how women contribute to their own objectification on screen. His research stated that the female voice is more closely tied to her body than her male counterpart. Thus, male actors may sound exactly like they’re own self, but female actors may have to lower to a sexy purr to sound more a mistress or hitch the tone up to sound bubbly. Voice, therefore, becomes an important tool of characterisation in media. You will be surprised to know that Bond girls have been secretly dubbed over by women with more sensual voices. What we can carry forward from Silverman’s work is that, the bubbly Rani from “Queen” fit her character’s docile and passive behaviour which made her more acceptable to the masses as a symbol of empowerment. In contrast, Deepika Padukone sounded very blunt and straightforward in “My Choice”, making her deviant from the usual assumption of women to be soft spoken, docile and passive.
Feminism as a good word marked its return with the release of “Pink” in 2016. It has received heavy appreciation by the masses and critics. It has already become a symbol of women empowerment. I am sure “Pink” will take away more than awards than “Queen”, considering it has a rising number of zeroes towards the right of its box office collection figures. The movie is a story of three women who file a law suit against four boys who sexually assaulted them. Consent, and specifically sexual consent, is the central theme to the story of “Pink”.
The dictionary meaning of consent means to give permission for or agree to. But what good is a permission or agreement without a choice? The decision to say “yes” or “no” is also a choice equally being made by a person rationally. Therefore, the moment Amitabh Bachchan said, “No means no,” I could hear the “Wows” and “Oh’s” in the movie hall, but I couldn’t help but be appalled at the irony from two years ago with “My Choice”. The arguments “Pink” makes are commendable and makes an individual to think deeper into moral and ethical values and virtues in practice. But didn’t “My Choice” too do the same thing, perhaps in black and white?
My main intention to present to you these comparisons of opinions and reception of films is to project the way the Indian audience sways without an understanding of firm notions of academic discourses such a feminism. Feminism is treated like a staple Indian meat dish available at every possible place with a kitchen. The only difference being that the real recipe is unknown to most and the dish cooked is unworthy of taste.
In February 2016, I had written an article in the Assam Tribune titled ‘The Moody Nation’. It spoke of the moody character of the Indian mass, one sunken in irony. Crowd swaying is the term Shakespeareans would use to explain this moodiness. The conceptualisation of feminism in India too is a result of this distinct characteristic. Bipolar opinions are formed when there exists commonsensical knowledge and feminism is its long standing victim. The practice of forming opinions without having rationally thought about it through the lens of scientific understanding results in knowledge that does more harm than good.
Lack of rationale is a like a half-baked cake because in the 21st century everything under the sun and moon has a deeper political significance. But we do not like half-baked cakes too, do we? Thus, the choice of remaining politically correct effects not only the political sphere but also finds its reach to values, virtues, practices and traditions, as in the case of attaching meaning to feminism. Citizenry, therefore, must be exercised based on careful individual thought and not bandwagoned on what is fed to us through the media.