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Opinion: Indian Cinema Has Cut Through Taboos To Spread Social Awareness For Decades

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“This is a story of desire, a desire to choose your own gender.” The line quoted above is from a movie called ‘Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish.’

A still from the movie ‘Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish.’

The film is an insight into the daily struggles of a queer man, his relationship with the parents and the society around. The film revolves around how same-sex couples cannot adopt children in India and therefore, the protagonist chooses to undergo sex-change surgery. It educates the audience about the difficulties and dilemma faced by the LGBTQ+ community and their families respectively.

Cinema in India is very romanticised and glorified and therefore certain directors, producers and actors take this magnificent perception to another knot to bring in social change through unconventional stories. Now, cinema is the voice of voiceless, power of powerless in a society which tries to silence down the ones who go against its norm. Cinema has the power to move the hardest stone.

Cinema: A Mirror Of Society?

Through its subtle satire and sarcasm, it represents the reality of society. It invokes the deepest emotions of individuals. It is the un-sanitized and explicit portrayal of reality.

Take movies like ‘Super Deluxe’, ‘Lipstick under my Burkha’, ‘Aligarh’, ‘Ardha Satya’, ‘Jane Bhi Do Yaaro ’, ‘Peepli Live’, ‘Article 15’ that are masterpieces dealing with homosexuality, women’s sexual desire and eroticism, police brutality, politics, and marriage. They have the power to influence the masses towards a particular trend, thought and ideas in the most subtle way. They have the ability to bring in the hardest topic on the table, the conversations that are either brushed under the carpet or talked in hushed voices, weaving stories and narrating them through its cinematic marvels without any moral posturing.

A still from the movie ‘Lipstick under my Burkha.’

These films talk on topics surrounding same-sex love, menstruation, mental health, discrimination, human trafficking, child abuse, sperm donation, impotence etc. These “woke films” break taboos around social issues, exploring lives, stories, experiences of marginalised people. They are a tool through which people can connect with themselves; these are stories that have existed in reality in the audience’s life, stories that is their own.

‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ or ‘Padman’ for example portray issues faced by women are brought in public which leads to conversation forward around women’s health issues leading to a significant change in the society.

Movies like ‘Nagarkirtan’, ‘Qissa’, ‘Moothon’, ‘Aligarh’ are stories revolving around same-sex love, normalising the concept of queerness through their natural portrayal of the character and breaking the stereotypes about how gay men are assumed to look like or behave. These movies break open the forced gender identities, sexualities and showcase how it is normal to be gay and is a real insight into the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community.

Mental Health is an issue that Indian society is not well equipped to handle. They will turn to exorcism, brush it off, poke it, make fun of it, but will not address the issue or have a one-on-one conversation over it. So a film like ‘A Death In The Gunj’ took on the responsibility and portrayed the mental health implication of toxic masculinity through the horror genre. There are other movies too covering mental health issues like depression, anxiety, panic attack, schizophrenia such as ’15 Park Avenue’, ‘Kaasav’, ‘Dear Zindagi’ and many more.

A still from the movie ‘Dear Zindagi’.

It should not be mistaken that ‘wokeness’ is a recent thing in Indian cinema. Rather it goes back before the 90s. The evergreen saga like ‘Mother India’ transcends beyond time and space. It depicts the stark reality of the socio-economic-cultural life of the people living in villages and the glorious representation of Indian woman through the character of Radha. ‘Pakeezah’ is yet another marvellous movie that focuses on prostitution as a career.

We are aware how difficult the society is for the sex workers, and hence, a movie like ‘Pakeezah’ tries to show the inside world of sex workers and their lives and tragedies in a different era from today when they were looked at very differently. It changed the mindset of people towards the profession. We all remember or are probably are a fan of the dialogue, ‘tareekh pe tareekh pe tareekh’ from ‘Damini’? It is a hard-hitting movie that that has conversations around rape, its victims and the social structures around the legality of social justice which hits viewers at the right spot on their conscience.

A still from the movie ‘Paakeezah.’

On the other hand, ‘Prem Rog’ touches upon the sensitive issue of widow remarriage in times when they were boycotted and widows were pushed out into a life of misery. ‘Achhut Kannya’ is a film that deals with the social position of Dalit girls and is considered a reformist period-piece. Movies like ‘Kya Kehna’, ‘Salaam Namaste’ are based on premarital sex, live-in relationships that were and still somehow a mystery for Indian society.

In India, there are countless movies made on social awareness and on breaking taboos which have been breakthrough moments for the Indian society. Cinema has played a huge role in changing the social structures of our society because of its ability to impact the minds of its audience through its visuals, seeping deep into the emotions and conscience of the viewers. Cinema is the most effective and efficient way to send a message to society.

Films like ‘Badhai Ho’, ‘Shubh Mangal Savdhan’, ‘Highway’, ‘Massan’, ‘Udaan’, ‘Manthan’ address one or the other social issue that poses a challenge in the holistic development of the society and human civilization. Though these movies face a lot of obstacles like censorships, protests or blockage through commercial movies, they overcome all these obstacles and do what they ought to do to appeal to the conscience of the audience.

I will end with a dialogue from the movie ‘Roti’ which depicts Mangal’s struggle for a piece of bread to make his living, revolving around the struggle to earn and survive in this world: “Insaan ko dil de, jism de, dimag de, lekin ye kambakht pet mat de” (Give a person a heart, brain, a body but don’t give them a stomach to fill)

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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.

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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

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.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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