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The Curious Case Of ‘Female Gaze’ In Indian Cinema

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Much has been said and written about sexism in Bollywood movies. We can never tire of talking about it because the filmmakers can never tire of making movies with sexist undertones, movies from a ‘male gaze’.

What Is This ‘Male Gaze?’

The male gaze is defined as the perspective of a notionally typical heterosexual man considered as embodied in the audience or intended audience for films and other media, characterized by a tendency to objectify and sexualize women.

Movies, in order to win over or encash on the perspective of their considered or intended audience, portray heroes (men) who are masochistic and decision-makers, and heroines (women) who exist for the pleasure of, or the redemption of these men. Women in such movies are either type-casted in gender roles (as caring or nurturing or silly or awestruck), or are objectified, or not given enough space and dialogues outside the story of the hero.

Representational image.

The movies which show women in positions of power (which usually men occupy, but are reclaimed by women) or movies which tackle the burning issues of violence, repressed sexuality and gender discrimination are considered to be some kind of opposition to the above-mentioned trope. I enjoy the first set of ‘powerful female-led movies’, I root for them in fact! (Mardani, Dangal etc). I also see merit in the second type of hard-hitting films as I do believe that we ought to get a little uncomfortable from time to time if that is what brings our attention to the horrific gender-based issues in our society.

But what I detest is the subconscious binaries which decide that the ‘male gaze’ ones are the entertainers – to be criticized or to be not taken seriously but to be enjoyed nevertheless; and the so-called female-centric movies are some kind of serious genre of cinema, to be seen for education, not entertainment.

The binary, it seems, is not made by the audience alone, but also by the filmmakers. Consider the movies such as Lipstick under my Burkha which have succeeded in opening a dialogue on the injustices faced by women.

Representational image.

Do they focus as much on the lighter aspects, such as the aspirations, the dreams, the hobbies, and the fun of their female characters?

Lipstick under my Burkha tried to incorporate these things while portraying the life of its 4 women, and yet the focus stayed painstakingly on their victimhood. If this movie was claimed to be breaking the male gaze and giving the women their due spotlight, the question is, why did they not focus on celebrating their womanhood and everything that comes with it?

Do we as women really want this – the raw, realistic portrayal of the struggle that we every day go through anyways? Or would we actually prefer movies with ample and accurate representation of women and which are also entertaining and fun?

The Curious Case Of Female Gaze: What Does It Really Offer?

What indeed is the female gaze and how is it placed in opposition to the dominant male gaze? Is it something of the above or something else? Let us take the case of 5 such films, directed by women.

In Raazi (directed by Meghna Gulzar), Sehmat is trained by Indian Intelligence to spy on a Pakistani military family and deduct their secrets which will save the country from going into another war.

Now, female spies are often sexualized or even fetishized in action movies, Hollywood and Bollywood alike. They are typically represented as sexually attractive women and who use their charm and sex as a tool to manipulate men.

Sehmat also charms her way in the family and yet what stands out throughout the film is her abject sincerity to the cause she is leading and her vulnerability in a house full of strange men. The camera follows her movements and her expressions, as she inches closer to completing her mission. When she kills a man for the first time, she cries in the bathroom. Courage and humanity move hand in hand.

In English Vinglish (directed by Gauri Shinde), Sridevi self-helps herself in taking a class to learn English which she thinks will earn her a degree of respect in the eyes of her husband and children. Halfway through her journey though, she learns to respect her own self, above everything. When she stands up to make a speech on her niece’s wedding day, she emphasises just that. Not a lecture on gender equality or desi pride, something I dare say would have been included had this movie being directed by a man.

Also, the fact that she decides to skip her last class and make laddoos for the wedding, which she thinks is her best talent. The filmmaker does not let us condescend her because she turned back to the kitchen – rather she seemed to be reclaiming something which she always excelled at but which she never took real pride in. It is her voice that we hear in the end, and she decides what makes her happy.

In Tribhanga (directed by Renuka Shahane), the focus not only stays on the stories of the three women, but they get to uniquely interpret what feminism is from their own standpoints. They make their own decisions, and also take responsibility for it. The beauty of the movie is that it is unapologetic in its portrayal of women as imperfect human beings tackling their own issues.

Again, in Sir- is love enough? (directed by Rohena Gera), the camera takes us to witness Ratna’s life, not from the perspective of the ‘sir’ but from her own. We see her dreams, her struggles, her friendships, the lone time she takes for her own self, as much as we see her budding relationship with her employer.

In fact, these are the little things that make Ashwin fall in love with her. In spite of the vastness of the difference in their social positions, there is a quiet dignity in her movements and speech, and if she is overwhelmed by her rich employer’s advances or desirous of his company, the charge she has on her own life does not slacken.

While all of the above movies had strong female leads, Gully Boy (directed by Zoya Akhtar) has a male protagonist (Murad) and the heroine (Safina) is only the supporting cast. But, even here, while Safina supports Murad and dotes on him, she is herself fiercely independent in her career and her opinions too. In fact, one of the reasons she is crazy about Murad, in spite of coming from an affluent family, is that he gives her ‘the freedom to be herself’.

In all the movies, we see the female characters, not as the way others see them – but as they are or as they themselves aspire to be. They are all imperfect – we may not even want to befriend a jealous Safina or hysterical Anu in real life – yet they refuse to let the world control their narratives.

So, what indeed is this ‘female gaze’?

Movies where female characters navigate patriarchy, have their own likes, dislikes, dreams, insecurities, friendships, careers, mental issues even; where they love and support the men in their life but not to the point of losing their individuality, women who are beautiful for their minds and their bodies because they themselves think so. Films which are directed with the assumption that men and women both are part of the audience and both deserve equal representation.

One can argue that these films were different because they were directed by women, but then is it really so difficult for a man to understand these nuances?

These 5 films were all super hits (even Tribhanga and Sir, which were released on Netflix did feature in the top 10 list). Needless to say, they did entertain people. These films may have sent out a strong message for gender equality, but they were very much for the mainstream audience without any agenda to further any cause. The way they were crafted, infusing a sense of justice for all its characters which mattered to the story – male or female – is what made them different and so likeable.

We all identify with Sehmat, Shashi, Anu, Ratna and Safeena, they are our stories – right or wrong, good or bad. And they have certainly set a standard – we can only hope that others would follow.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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