Growing up in the kitchen of an upper-caste orthodox family, if there was anything I learned other than cooking, it was the fact that men are powerful. The whispers, the marks, the occasional manly voice of “Kaha reh gayi, khaana nahi laga (where are you, why is the food not served yet?), which would suddenly shake everyone in the house, filled my nights with questions.
I wondered the power that lay in the voice that orchestrated the entire kitchen. That voice would make my aunt check on the gravy immediately, forcing it to get ready even though it was to take another 10 minutes. Mom would burn her hand while trying to make rotis without the help of pincers as it’s faster, and I would start setting the plates just so I don’t get any scolding from my mom for being not so girlish.
Everyone would forget about the late-night demonic voice of my uncle and my aunt’s whimpering plead; they would behave as if everyone was sound asleep in the ‘temple of love’ that my house was, and the agenda for the day was “serve the men”.
Thappad, a movie about how a woman decided to file for divorce because of one slap, was recently released on a digital platform after being screened nationwide in cinema theatres. I saw it, and yes, without a doubt, the film did show a glimpse of my household as well. The same voice — selfish, egoistic, authoritative — echoed in my room, and I felt overwhelmingly understood.
However, after the interval, I suddenly felt the voice coming back at me like a slap on my face, and as I lay on the ground it told me, “In the name of feminism, you may go out and ask for a divorce. But in the process, the reputation of the stereotypical ‘Indian woman’ shouldn’t be touched.”
The movie left the ground of our domestic reality, and slipped into the realm of an oversimplified and acceptable Indian narrative of a ‘wife’, at the very moment the lead character decided not to ask for monetary compensation. Her argument — “The deal was fair, he will take care of the office and I will take care of the house. What was unfair was the slap.”
Till when are we going to go after abstract rights and concepts? How many thinkers, feminists and intellectuals will it take for us to finally accept the fact that while we demand respect and dignity, we hardly ever take any step towards having something tangible. Why can’t we accept that the first step towards equality and respect in the world of gender oppression is financial stability?
As stated in a chapter of an Indian history book,
“The status of women in society is determined by the role, work and control of economic activities. Their job (of a homemaker) is not counted when it comes in terms of economic activities. The CSWI (Committee on Status of Women in India, 1974) report also noted the neglect of women’s participation in economic activities. In addition to their household jobs, women are working in the informal sector. There they neither get any job security nor is their job counted as work. In Indian society, women perform more work, shoulder double responsibility of the household job, and working in agricultural fields or other informal sectors. But their presence in the decision-making processes at household or community level is not seen.”
Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir in her classic The Second Sex said, “Here is an important fact that recurs throughout history: abstract rights cannot sufficiently define the concrete situation of women; this situation depends on the great part on the economic role she plays; and very often, abstract freedom and concrete powers vary inversely.”
By denying the economic aspect of the divorce in the name of love and consent, the movie validated a lot of women who never went to the court to ask for their share of investment in a marital relationship, and was simultaneously a slap on the face of women who do ask for it.
There is a reason why women can and should demand money. Asking for money is not a question on the morality of any woman. This will eventually create a space where men realise that disrespecting their wife is not an option even if she is a homemaker, because it will cost the husband tangibly (not just make him feel that he lost his perfect bai (maid)).
Anubhav Sinha made yet another film where the heroine never goes beyond the moral compass set mostly by the standards of men in society; unlike Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach, where the lead character Nicole never flinched even once from seeking monetary compensation, which cost the husband enough to make him realise his loss.
I ask the entire team who wrote this movie, when your heroine said that she transformed herself into someone who can be slapped, what did she mean? And then, how did she change it? She just asked for a divorce, but that is not the point. The point is to change from within. For a character who has been sacrificing her own life because she believed that a divorce would make her happy, would she not do it again in the name of love and won’t turn into someone who could be slapped, again?