Last week, I woke up to an extremely articulate piece in The Wire by actor Swara Bhasker against the glorification of sati and jauhar in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Padmaavat”. Bhasker explains in a detailed manner, how such regressive practices denied women the right to live, and makes a larger comment about responsible film-making. Nowhere in the piece does Bhasker malign the film-maker or the film’s actors, nor does she mention that the ending should have been changed. She emphasises on how, while making such a film, we can’t afford to forget the context of today’s India, where FGM, honour killings and rampant sexual violence are a reality.
This is probably the first time that a female actor in Bollywood has put forth an honest and thought-provoking perspective on a big-budget mainstream film that has captured the imagination of the whole country. I purposely say “big-budget” and “mainstream” because these are the films that no one from the industry dares to call out, and this is a usually a category which includes sexist, regressive narratives that make hundreds of crores. Therefore, this act should have been encouraged – celebrated even. It is crucial to create safer spaces for actors from within the industry to speak up, without fear of judgement. Bhasker used her power and position to create a healthy dialogue, but for the last few days, she has only been incessantly trolled.
The response to her article shows the cost of speaking up in India, especially for women – vulgar abuses, character assassination, haww-ing over the usage of the word ‘vagina’, and more. In a country where regressive cinema has been making lakhs and crores of rupees, this act of speaking up should be encouraged, and not shut down. People with influence, as well as trolls, have all tried to pull Bhasker down, but she has continued to shut down the hate. Many have applauded her for this, including me. But I ask: How is it fair that women in India today have to spend so much time shutting down hate, abuses and trolls, for just speaking their mind? It has disturbingly become a ‘culture’ that we have almost normalised.
With so much chatter over Bhasker’s article, it is so ironic that no powerful, influential and relevant voice from Bollywood stood up against the Karni Sena. Imagine if the entire industry had come together to take a stand – our disturbingly silent government may have also been forced to do something. But the fear of the fringe is so real in our country, that there was no collective furore over Karni Sena’s death threats and violence – perhaps other actors know too well that the same could happen to their films too.
And so, we continue functioning as a society where sexism and misogyny continue to win over powerful acts of speaking up. Where Hollywood says #TimesUp, we continue to shut down people like Bhasker and others like Sona Mohapatra and Parvathy who take bold stands against misogyny (toxic hero worship FTW). We continue to label people as “fake feminists” for speaking about taboo topics like sex, virginity, menstruation and more.
We forget day after day that in today’s time, speaking truth to power is an act of rebellion, and archaic ‘systems’ can only be overthrown if rebellions get support. So here’s to Swara – for fighting the trolls, for staying true to her truth, and for saying “Vagina, vagina, vagina!” to all those who can’t digest how women can continue taking bold stands in the face of misogyny.