A new sensitivity in Hindi cinema takes feminism beyond the comfort zone of victimhood
Shreevatsa Nevatia | 28 Sep, 2016
RECENTLY, AUTHOR Arundhati Roy was irate in an interview she gave The Huffington Post. “I get so annoyed when I hear ‘cool’ young women say ‘I’m not a feminist’,” she said. “If you’re not a feminist, go back to into your veil, sit in the kitchen and take instructions. You don’t want to do that? Thank the feminists.” Feminism is now click-bait fodder. Bollywood’s actresses know this only too well. Roy’s pronouncement may ramify in a wavering society, but for the women of the Hindi film industry, her decree is a reminder. Feminism is the new F-word. Disavowal is damnation, and so is endorsement.
Parineeti Chopra might be the brand ambassador for Haryana’s ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign, but she seemed vapid in October last year. She said, “I am very often confused to be a feminist, but I am not. I am really not.” Things might just get frosty if the 27-year-old bumped into Kalki Koechlin. The Margarita with a Straw star firmly believes that “everyone is a feminist” and a person who does not identify as one is a “bad human being”. Priyanka Chopra, whose survival in Quantico is often cited as a modern instance of female endurance, says her public utterances aren’t necessarily informed by feminism. “That word, [feminist], has been bastardised.
There’s no respect to it anymore. I’m not berating men.” Often reduced to props who buttress male leads, the discomfiture that plagues our actresses is understandable, maybe even forgivable.
For film journalists, feminism has in recent months become a simplistic barometer they use to measure the otherwise complicated politics of our female stars. Their ‘us and them’ formulation, though, is perhaps a little too facile for women who struggle to co-exist in a world where equal pay is not a right, where men are given larger hotel rooms and where bodies are simultaneously shamed and fetishised. But what Bollywood patronisingly puffs up as the ‘woman-centric film’ is today profitable. This commercial viability has meant that in the past two years, Hindi films have told stories that include voices which had until recently been muzzled. The shift isn’t seismic. It is incremental, yes, yet wholly perceptible.
Parineeti Chopra’s repudiation and her cousin Priyanka’s caveats make one thing clear—to examine feminism in Bollywood, we must first attempt to arrive at a definition of the term. British author and journalist Rebecca West once said she had never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat,” she said. The difference between guilt and shame is that the latter requires an audience. Richa Chadda’s Devi in Masaan fights that shame with a gritty resilience, and for the actress, feminism means that men and women are finally equal.
Honour killings, rape and female infanticide still make headlines in India. Women are still barred from some temples, mosques and crematoriums. Though the pitch for equality is an urgent one, it does sometimes undermine the importance of an inherent sexual difference which can be subversive in the end. Feminist film theorist Christine Gledhill writes, ‘We need representations that take account of identities— representations that work with a degree of fluidity and contradiction— and we need to forge different identities, ones that help us make productive use of the contradictions in our lives.’ Aware enough to say that Bollywood includes our society’s prejudices, it is actresses like Chadda who are gradually scripting a change that conforms to Gledhill’s prescription. They might not always escape patriarchy’s co-option, but there’s enough cause to say they may all be feminists now.
If feminism were reduced to an overcoming of adversity, to fighting men who terrorise, to resisting violence, Neerja is a film that seems to have aced the requirements. The 31-year-old Sonam Kapoor, the film’s lead, says she has identified herself as a feminist for over a decade, but that doesn’t mean “that I’m not wearing my dresses or my lipsticks and I’m definitely not burning my bra”.
An object that is both everyday and erotic, the bra mustn’t at any cost be burnt. It is expensive, and the recently released Pink shows that it can also be an instrument of resistance. In a Delhi neighbourhood which typifies its prudery in hushed whispers, three women leave out their bras to dry. Accused of soliciting, they continue to step out of their home in shorts. Molested, then jailed, Minal Arora (Taapsee Pannu) doesn’t internalise an imagined guilt.
Feminists, often stereotyped in India as FabIndia-wearing, man-hating, shrill activists, have sadly been given a bad rap. Psychoanalytic critic Jacqueline Rose remembers being delighted when she realised that a feminist can also wear ‘nice clothes and get her hair done’. The author of On Not Being Able to Sleep, though, did add something a tad more poignant: ‘Victimhood is something that happens but when you turn it into an identity you’re psychically and politically finished.’ Hounded by brutish assailants, Pink’s three female characters never pander to this victimhood. Not going gently into a bad night, they then reclaim their bodies in a public courthouse.
PINK DOES THE impossible. Minal was drinking the night she was first molested. She had willingly gone into her molester’s room. She had even poured him a drink. Her skirt didn’t cover her knees. Not just does the film prove that familiarity is not an invitation, it does so by liberating its women from the expectations of chastity and demureness. Consent is deconstructed by the lawyer Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan) pithily: “‘No’ is not just a word. It’s an entire sentence.” Director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and producer Shoojit Sircar have of course been castigated for choosing a man as a mouthpiece, but such exclusion can only substitute one hierarchy with another.
Police officials and politicians don’t always leave victims of rape unnamed. Udta Punjab, however, did. Confined in a room for many days, Alia Bhatt’s nameless character was raped by multiple men multiple times. She still made weapons of her hockey stick and a nail in the wall, fighting against the violence of her present. In many a review, though, the film’s last scene was blamed for its surrender to the mainstream demand for a happy ending. Bhatt sits on a beach, smiles and calls herself ‘Mary Jane’. Obviously more wishful than realistic, the scene was arguably apt. If cinema, like feminism, restricts itself only to the horrors of a present, that equal future will never be carved.
The film Phobia opens with a Franz Kafka aphorism that is felicitous: ‘A cage went in search of a bird.’ Mehak Deo (Radhika Apte) is seen captivating an all-male group with a ghost story. She is then molested by her taxi driver. As a result of the trauma, she suffers agoraphobia. Tired of her crippling fastidiousness, Mehak’s sister screams, “She wasn’t raped, was she?” Invasion then quickly becomes the movie’s theme. In a film where even the smallest of objects signify something ‘Other’, director Pavan Kripalani demonstrates how perils for women don’t just lie outside, but can be closer home too. More than a damsel in distress, Mehak is Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic. Unlike Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason, however, she keeps herself locked up, rejecting sex and other forms of appropriation that are finally patriarchal. Her paranoid delusions are justified. To understand Mehak, one must first fathom how the female mind comes to feel continuously violated.
Apte, Bollywood’s new arthouse pin-up, seems to portray well the contradictions of the inside and the outside. In Parched, she plays Lajjo, a wife mercilessly beaten and abused by her husband for presumably being barren. But in her little Rajasthani village, she earns her living by working as an artisan. Her friends, Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Bijli (Surveen Chawla), bring escape. For most part, there is no discernible victory they can enjoy. Redemption is found in simple, often hard-fought, fun. Lajjo pokes her head out of a bus window to enjoy the wind in her hair. Rani gets turned on by her vibrating mobile phone and Bijli asks a question many pop feminists before her have contemplated: “Why do cuss words always seem to berate women?” In an act both subversive and paradigmatic, they then shout “beta-chod” and “chaacha-chod” from the rooftops.
By making feminism an exclusive and sometimes impossible ideal, critics and activists fail to factor in the fluidity an actress’ life typifies. Not all women are rebels
Some reviewers quibbled that the politics of Parched was too didactic, too obvious. Strangely, however, much of the film is verifiably novel. Director Leena Yadav uses desire to flatten the urban-rural divide, not pedantry. The abused Lajjo surrenders herself to a night of passion with a stranger almost guiltlessly. The widow Rani flirts with a man who only identifies himself as “Shah Rukh Khan” on the phone, and the sex worker Bijli doesn’t seem to suffer the men in her bed because of any coercion. Until the film’s climax, she owns her body. Feminist writer Hélène Cixous had written, ‘If my desire is possible, it means the system is already letting something else through.’ The desires of Lajjo, Rani and Bijli are not prissy. They are carnal, even revolutionary.
For a film that is never apologetic about its feminism, Parched does include an item song or two, one of whose lyrics can be translated as ‘There will be an earthquake in your bed’. While an audience of lecherous men remains constant, Bijli, like Richa Chadda in the trailer of Cabaret, is well in control of her sexuality and her fate. Her story is one that includes plotlines other than those of objectification. Saddled with chauvinistic sex comedies like Mastizaade, Sunny Leone can sometimes be seen banking on Bijli-like titillation to bolster her fledgling filmography. Bollywood, though, is surprisingly even giving its ‘Babydoll’ some agency. Released earlier this year, One Night Stand saw Leone’s Celina resist the possibility of love and lovemaking after a night of some passion. Some feminists would undoubtedly equate her sexuality with power, but Leone affirms, “I don’t say I’m a feminist. I see myself as a woman who creates her path. If that makes me something, so be it.”
Directed by Pan Nalin, Angry Indian Goddesses seemed intent on ticking every box on an imagined checklist that feminist discourse perhaps makes obvious. The film does submit to many a cliché —the busy businesswoman is a terrible mother and the riled activist is a lesbian—but it also allows its six female protagonists a rare retaliation. Laxmi Gaude (Rajshri Deshpande) squeezes the testicles of an eve teaser, and in the face of sexual violence, Nalin leaves his women with a loaded pistol. For too long, Bollywood has given Jamie the gun. It is time Jenny got it too. She has more to be angry about.
Violence, like sex, always seems to put into question the terms of a gendered representation of power. Released this year, Jai Gangaajal and Akira both promised subversion. In Jai, Abha Mathur (Priyanka Chopra) is posted to unruly Bankipur as its SP. A police uniform levels as much as it asexualises. After a few scenes, it becomes hard to tell the difference between Chopra and the Ajay Devgn of Singham. The choreographed violence immediately looks staged and mechanical. Abha’s body, you always know, will survive its few nicks and cuts. Similarly, Akira, a remake of the Tamil hit Mouna Guru, simply replaces an original male protagonist with a hot-headed woman. Reduced to careful spectacle, nothing about Sonakshi Sinha’s violence is either radical or renegade.
Theorised extensively, cinematic violence is only said to disturb the peace of a status quo when it is perpetrated in a way that an audience does not anticipate. The 2015 NH10 is defined by a violence that is sudden and corporal. Just off the National Highway, Pinky and her lover are murdered brutally. Witness to this honour killing, Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) then spiral down Haryana’s savage rabbit hole, and the thriller culminates with Meera bringing down her assailants with an SUV and an iron rod. Her violence is fierce, and its desperation only derides Arjun’s machismo that makes him chase goons to avenge a slap.
Having produced and acted in NH10, Sharma seemed to cement her reputation as Hindi film’s star feminist. Though in 2013, she had made it clear that she did not consider herself one, Sharma did of course champion the cause of emancipation. In November 2015, she toasted to her seven years in Bollywood by saying, “You feel that discrimination. Not just with money, but in general. Even if you’re at an outdoor schedule, you know the guy is going to get a better room than you.” Calling out sexism in her industry might well have made her a firebrand, but Sultan effectively undermined those reformist credentials. Sharma’s Aarfa had given up on possible Olympic wrestling medals to become a mother. The actress then had to defend her character’s choice and explain Salman Khan’s misogyny— “I felt like a raped woman”— in much the same breath.
If one is to recognise sexual difference, one must, like feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, agree ‘that the refusal of maternity cannot be a mass policy and that the majority of women today see the possibility of fulfilment, if not entirely at least to a degree, in bringing a child into the world’. In Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, Ayesha Sangha Mehra (Priyanka Chopra) resists her mother-in- law’s demand for a grandchild by going on ‘the pill’. There’s something laudable about the entrepreneur’s intransigence, but judging Aarfa by an Ayesha yardstick will only make more independent women reluctant to identify themselves as feminists. Common sites of violence, families can also be fulcrums.
IN PIKU AND inTamasha, Deepika Padukone portrays women who work, have casual sex outside wedlock, and, despite their loyalty to fathers and lovers, aren’t subservient to patriarchal directives. But Bollywood is not at perfect ease with women careerists. Ki & Ka, for instance, was heavily marketed as being gender progressive. As Kia Bansal, Kareena Kapoor plays the part of an ambitious breadwinner. Kabir Bansal (Arjun Kapoor) stays at home, cooks the food and does the dishes. Ironically, Kia and Kabir leave intact the defined roles of provider and housewife. Kia is rashly jealous and Ka is easily forgiving. Their marriage is a stereotype. It certainly is not a lodestar.
Unlike counterparts in other professions, women working in Bollywood often have to contend with the prospect of their private lives being made public. After Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut had washed their dirty linen in open view, the actress confessed, “There was a sudden feminist pressure on me to fight, and talk about the sob story I had. I didn’t have that. I was perfectly capable of dealing with what was coming my way. But I was pressurised to a point that I started questioning what exactly feminism is.” Having played the indomitable Rani Mehra in Queen, Ranaut shouldn’t have to question what feminism means. Admittedly, though, her agency has since been precarious.
Despite being popular and decidedly funny, Tanu Weds Manu Returns had a politics that was downright problematic. Both parts played by Ranaut, Tanuja Trivedi and Kusum Sangwan together show glimmers of a reformative womanhood that they each eventually puncture. Once she has left her husband, Manoj Sharma (R Madhavan), in an asylum, Tanuja discovers an enabling freedom. She meets strangers in her towel and flirts with men. The possibility of divorce forces on her a conservative wistfulness that seems altogether unnatural. She must have her husband back at any cost, and she does. Kusum meanwhile has to contend with Manu’s fickle rejection on the day of their wedding. Her shame has no audience. She cries silently in a room. Ranaut, though, would identify with Kusum’s sacrifice. She recently said, “If feminism does not allow a man to use the prerogative of ‘no’, if it only makes it a prerogative of women, then I’m no feminist. ‘No’ means no.”
Many of Bollywood’s films and an equal number of its actresses seem to suggest that the contemporary moment we inhabit now demands a feminism that doesn’t always insist on a woman’s victimhood. Feminism can help create identities, but the Hindi film industry manufactures them. While some of the characters they imagine are undeniably retrograde, a sizeable fraction of recent films conform to a basic feminist principle— they let their women speak. By making feminism an exclusive and sometimes impossible ideal, critics and activists fail to factor in the fluidity an actress’ life typifies. Not all roles are progressive and not all women are rebels. Though the workplace is a stage for change, films like The Lunchbox show that some rebellions can also start in our kitchens.