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Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan: A Movie That Needs To Be Revisited This Women’s Day

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New does not mean that something is modern, or for that matter progressive. Most among our generation believe that Netflix shows like ‘Sacred Games’, ‘Lust Stories’, ‘Ghoul’ or movies like ‘Lipstick under Burkha’, ‘Pink’ etc are path-breaking. We believe, or are being made to believe, that it is the first time that Bollywood is opening up to the progressive modern ideas of ‘women rights’ and these filmmakers are a sort of revolutionaries. While truth being that the present Bollywood has yet to catch up with the progressive elements of the 50s or 60s in Bombay films.

India has a gender pay gap of around 20% (Monster Salary Index, 2017) and its Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) is one of the worst. With 27% of FLFP India ranks 121st out of 131 countries surveyed. Still, we find a deafening silence regarding these issues in mainstream cinema. In movies, with A-line star cast, we rarely find mention of these gender issues, either overtly or covertly.

It is true that we have Padman or few other propaganda movies but these films don’t talk about Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP), gender pay gap and sexual harassment of women at the workplace.

Most of us, from the current generation, are quite unaware of the fact that Bombay Cinema was dominated by progressive filmmakers, with Marxist leanings, from the 1940s to 1970s. Progressive people like Majrooh, Kaifi, Manto, Balraj, Raj Kapoor, Shailendra, Dhawan, and others dominated cinema during that era. Movies were themed around the class struggle, exploitation of peasants, corruption and other social problems of the time.

Among these, a movie which needs to be revisited is ‘Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan (Eleven Thousand Women)’ directed by KA Abbas. Script and dialogues of the movie were written by two progressive writers KA Abbas and Ali Sardar Jafri, who also produced it. It was under the direction of Abbas that Bharat Bhushan and Mala Sinha played the protagonists, where the society played a villainous role.

Released in 1962, the movie is a reflection of a society which locks its women inside the boundary walls of a house, and when a woman steps out to work, she is exploited. Lower wages, certain gendered employments, and sexual harassment at the workplace were a few of the themes this film looks closely into.

The movie opens up with a courtroom sequence, where a woman, Asha Premchand (Mala Sinha) is being called into the court. She has been charged with a murder, a charge that she accepts. There enters a journalist Pooran Chand (Bharat Bhushan) asking for permission to defend her as a lawyer. When asked, by the judge, if he has any witness to prove the innocence of the accused he replies that there are eleven thousand witnesses. Eleven thousand women, who work in Bombay are witnesses to the conditions in which Asha is living, and which led to the ‘crime’.

The movie, after it, moves to flashback-in an office, a few women workers are reading an article written by Pooran Chand. Titled ‘Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan (Eleven Thousand Women)‘, the article was an account of economic exploitation that the working women face in Bombay. According to the article, approximately 11,000 women work in Bombay and these are modern day Chand Bibi and Jhansi Rani. These women who work in offices, schools, shops etc are the future of the nation. Yet, these women are highly underpaid. For teaching, a woman is paid 80 Rupees/month while Mala herself at Rationing office gets a meagre 110 Rupees/month. Many jobs are deemed unfit for women.

Most of the women, including, Asha are appreciative of Pooran and his writings. She calls him to her office on the pretext of some discrepancy in ration card account. A minor confusion exchanges her salary envelope with his application and they meet again. It is at the second meeting that he asks about her views regarding his articles.

Here she raises a very important point and criticises his writings on account that while he is talking about the economic problems and is well aware of those, Pooran is oblivious of the social stigma, and personal problems that a working woman faces. In a way, through this movie, Abbas and Sardar have actually raised the issue that while writing about women how much aware are the progressive writers themselves. Kaifi, Faiz, Makhdum etc have written a lot about the conditions of women, but still, a woman’s perspective was missing. Experience of a woman is must, in order to understand the problems, that she faces.

So, Pooran interviews her in order to publish her views in his next article.

During the course of the movie, Asha goes jobless and her younger sister Uma (Madhavi) joins a night-club as a dancer. Manager of the night-club tries to molest Uma on gunpoint. In self-defense, Uma shoots him dead and Asha takes the responsibility of the murder as police arrive.

Back in the courtroom, prosecution lawyers ask that if Uma is ‘shareef (Innocent)’ why was she working at a night-club. Pooran calls in three women to prove the point that as a society we do not pay adequate salaries to educated and skilled women. Once at a workplace, ‘employer tries to sexually exploit them and do harass them’. Women are exploited twice, first by not letting them work at equal wages and then through sexual harassment.

Pointing towards Uma, Pooran says that her eyes reflect ‘the temptation of future, desperation to survive, and fear of stepping out’. This is not the story of  Asha or Uma, but the tale of each one of those 11,000 women who step out to work. Neither Asha nor Uma, but society is the criminal and we need to punish this society.

Like any other Abbas movie, songs convey crucial social messages. At the outset of the movie, title song, gyarah hazar ladkiyan (eleven thousand women) sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Penned by another progressive poet Majrooh Sultanpuri, the song was sung by Mahendra Kapoor while Datta N composed the music. Song celebrates working women as the future of the nation. It eulogizes the fact that women have started reading files like they were supposed to read only love letters in the past. Picturisation of the song includes the women working as typists, air-hostesses, nurses, soldiers, teachers etc. and marching down the Rajpath at republic day parade. Song defines women as ‘’sare jaha pe surkh-roo (red coloured face for the world)”. With the leftist leaning Abbas, Majrooh, and Sardar at the helm, it can be safely assumed that they saw the liberation of women through the communist lens, of which red was the symbol.

Another song that stands out, and should be mentioned was penned by Majrooh but inspired by a famous poem Aurat(woman) by Kaifi Azmi. The song goes like-“Meri mehboob mere sath hi chalna hai tujhe,Raushni le ke andhere se nikalna hai tujhe”(My beloved you have to walk with me, With torch in hands, you have to break through the darkness)

The song was a perfect ode to working women. In the voice of Rafi, Pooran asks his beloved that she should accompany him at every step of their lives. She is not a sexual object meant only to be loved but a comrade in life. Capabilities of a woman are in no way less than a man.

Though Majrooh penned the lyrics for the movie but ideas for two songs were taken from the heavyweights of progressive writers- Movement Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Kaifi Azmi.

Presently when women are voicing their concerns about sexual harassment at workplace through #MeToo campaign Bollywood remains largely silent on the issue. Filmmakers should look back at the rich legacy and films like Gyarah Hazar Ladkiyan to understand what actually needs to be shown to the viewers in theatres and cinema halls.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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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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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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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 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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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