Dirty Picture Project: Dangal- A truly dhakkad biopic

By Sthavi Asthana and Anushka Sachdev

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Watching Dangal was a truly memorable experience, from the high adrenaline wrestling scenes to the rush of pure pride during the last scene, where Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh) wins the first gold medal in wrestling for the country. It showcases how Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) trained his daughters Geeta and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) to become competitive wrestlers in the backdrop of patriarchal Haryana. The film is a refreshing feminist breakthrough especially when compared to the unfortunate state of contemporary Bollywood cinema. It brings to the fore struggles faced by Indian athletes, especially women athletes coming from a society where sports are seen to be the forte of boys.

Humari betiyaan chhoron se kam hain kya? (are my daughters any less than boys?)

Mahavir was a National level wrestler himself, but had been forced to give up the sport to earn a living, a common enough phenomenon in our country. He had to forego his dreams of winning a medal for his country, but consoled himself with the hope that his son would continue the legacy. But his hopes are dashed when despite several attempts, he fails to father a son. This is where the film so succinctly captures how normal it is to covet sons over daughters, with just about everyone in the village lining up to offer a fail proof ‘totka’ (superstitious remedy) that would guarantee the couple a baby boy. People who brought sweets to offer congratulations would make sympathetic noises and turn away when it is revealed that the baby born was a girl. Even his daughters never questioned why their father wanted a son, why they were not good enough.

However, things change one day when Geeta and Babita beat up two boys for calling them names. Mahavir suddenly realised that even his daughters could carry his dream forward and decided to train them to become wrestlers. This is where we get to see a shift from the ingrained patriarchy. Conditioned to accept established gender roles, Mahavir, and indeed everyone in the village, simply could not imagine that girls could also wrestle. However, once he got the idea, his commitment to their training made him set aside all notions of orthodox ‘modesty’ that was shared by most of the village. This ranged from insisting that his daughters wear the appropriate clothes for their training- t shirts and shorts, to making them wrestle with boys, something that would be considered taboo because of the amount of physical contact required between the contestants. He started to ask “why not” when people told him girls could not become wrestlers, announcing to the world that his daughters were no less than boys.

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In such a situation, would it be right to call him sexist for wanting a son in the beginning? Or was he simply unaware, as is seen when he told his wife “maine toh socha hi nahi…medal toh medal hai, chaahe ladka jeete chaahe ladki” (I never realised, a medal is a medal, whether won by a boy or a girl). The film captures a transformation of perspective in its true sense, when a man from orthodox rural Haryana who was desperate for a son to fulfil his dream, dared to think that why not my daughters!

The haanikarak (harmful) training regimen!

The strenuous training that Geeta and Babita were subjected to by their father has faced a lot of criticism. Some claim that it was borderline abusive, while others questioned the right of the father to foist the burden of his dreams on his daughters, forcing them to endure physical hardship as well as social ridicule.

But the message behind the movie must be kept in mind while critiquing the film. Growing up in such a patriarchal social setup, the concept of opportunity as experienced by the girls would be automatically limited. Their aspirations would be restricted to areas which are traditionally considered appropriate for girls, and it is very unlikely that they would seek to achieve glory in sports on their own, especially a completely male dominated sport like wrestling. In such a situation, some amount of direction would be necessary even if it looks forceful initially.

As for the exacting training, it was no more than the training involved in making any other athlete fit enough to withstand the rigours of competition. The girls eventually began to enjoy the sport and became famous for beating much stronger boys in a sport where physical strength would play such a major role. This would obviously require discipline and commitment on their behalf, something that would be unpalatable to most young children. We must also account for the fact that women seeking to make their mark in a male dominated field must often work harder than men to gain the same amount of respect; they cannot afford to be average. Had the girls not been so proficient in their sport, they would likely have been ridiculed throughout and would not have had a very bright future at all. So, if Mahavir wanted his daughters to break the moulds of society and become wrestlers, he had to train them to win, and winning does not come easily.

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Papa khush nahi honge (Father won’t be happy)

One thing that stood out in the entire movie was the domineering role played by Mahavir, being the father figure in the family. Although a heavy- handed approach might have been acceptable, even necessary when it came to the girls’ training, such behaviour would be less than ideal when it extends to other aspects of the family. Mahavir was the centre of every discussion, had the last say in every argument. He represents the stereotypical father; his daughters are afraid to discuss things with him, opting to approach their mother to act as mediator instead. Their mother too, was seen to defer to his decisions in every matter, and tries to smooth things by telling the girls to avoid acting in ways that would displease their father. The family would literally stand at attention when Mahavir enters the room.

This male centric view does perpetuate stereotypes, but if considered in the context of the type of society the film seeks to represent, it is unfortunately true. The transformation from one generation (their mother- Daya, played by Sakshi Tanwar) to another (Geeta and Babita) -where the mother hardly spoke against her husband, to Geeta wrestling her father, is truly phenomenal. It went from the role of the mother being confined to bearing children and cooking for the family, to the daughters leading independent lives. All of this was solely possible due to the motivation they received from their father and this is what makes the film revolutionary. Mahavir, despite being a stereotypical father and husband, is extremely revolutionary in his actions. However, it was essential to express the original mindset of the family to highlight the transition in his perspective.

The movie successfully passes the Bechdel test. Geeta and Babita have many conversations centred around wrestling which have little or nothing to do with their father. However, it would not meet the requirements of the Makomori test, since the entire narrative of the movie is centred around Mahavir Phogat’s dream of his child winning an international medal in wrestling for the country. But the Makomori test is only a basic test indicating the representation of women in a movie. Passing the test does not automatically make a movie feminist, and similarly, failing it would not make a movie sexist. Dangal may not pass the test but it takes a major step forward by showing women as professional athletes. Such a representation of strong, independent women is of great significance, especially considering the current scenario where most films only portray women in a romantic narrative, or in traditional roles as the mother or wife of the hero.

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Civil Society and CCWG-Accountability: a report from IGF 2016

By Aarti Bhavana

The 11th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was held earlier this month in Guadalajara, Mexico. Established as a result of the Tunis Agenda, the IGF provides a space for discussing issues relating to the internet, where stakeholders can engage on an equal footing. Though it is not a decision-making forum, the IGF provides stakeholders the opportunity to share their work with others working in the same field.

CCG and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group (NCSG) organised a workshop that brought together active civil society participants from the IANA Transition to reflect on the process. The discussion was mainly centered around the Cross-Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability (CCWG-Accountability), which has been summarised in this post. With a long line-up of panelists, this workshop touched upon issues that were important to civil society, as well as successes and failures that could help develop strategies for future engagement. While the transcript for this workshop is not available yet, the video recording can be viewed here.

It has been a little over two months since the IANA Transition was successfully completed. The CCWG-Accountability, formed to make recommendations on enhancing ICANN’s accountability, completed the first phase of its work before this. Known as Work Stream 1 (WS1), this phase dealt with all the topics that needed to be completed before transition could occur. Now, CCWG-Accountability has shifted its focus to Work Stream 2 (WS2) and is busy with 9 subgroups working on different issues that were left to be discussed after the transition. However, the IANA Transition was a historic event that brought with it a treasure trove of experiences, invaluable as a guide for future work. Drawing lessons from this experience would require taking a step back and looking at the process as a whole. Luckily, the IGF provides just such a space.

Key issues for civil society

When the IANA Transition was announced in March 2014, civil society was among the voices that demanded increased accountability and transparency of ICANN. As Robin Gross summarised, routine violations with bylaws, top-down policies, mission creep, staff interference and opacity were just some of the reasons for this push. The call for enhancing ICANN’s accountability received support across the board, and was something with which the US government also agreed. The concerns raised had more to do more with the accountability of policy-making processes than of the IANA Functions, Milton Mueller explained. Accordingly, the CCWG-Accountability was created where civil society actors from NCSG and (At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) were very active. As Gross stated, it was critical to get strong community powers in order to hold the Board of Directors accountable (such as right to recall board members, oversight over the budget, approval for bylaw changes, etc.). Accordingly, there was a constant push from civil society for stronger accountability measures, be it for the structure of the Empowered Community, the Independent Review Process (IRP), role of governments, human rights, staff and community accountability, or transparency. Many of these issues are still being discussed in WS2. However, as pointed out by Alan Greenberg, it must be remembered that civil society being a large collective of stakeholders with diverse interests, does not have a single agreed position on these issues.

Failures and successes

The various accountability issues are nuanced and complex, and require external experts to join the process. For example, transparency and human rights. However, joining these discussions pose their own set of challenges. As Matthew Shears summarised, many barriers to participation often seen at ICANN were also reflected in the CCWG-Accountability process as well, such as the high time commitment, language of acronyms, and the quick learning curve. Since this process required an understanding of how ICANN functions as a whole, these challenges became all the more significant. As a panelist, I noted that discussions often tended to be centralised around the same few people, which made it difficult for people to join the conversation. Additionally, Jan-Aart Scholte observed that the civil society participation was mainly from North America and Europe. He continued to discuss another significant challenge- the lack of complete openness. While the IANA transition and the CCWG-Accountability are lauded for proving that multistakeholderism can work, we must not ignore the politics involved. He highlighted that crucial discussions and deals took place behind closed doors, and were later presented at the publicly recorded calls, meetings and mailing lists. He also pointed out that civil society was on the sidelines when it came to these private discussions, which reduced its ability to influence the outcome, unlike the other stakeholders involved.

One of the biggest takeaways from this process was observing the bridging effect of a common goal. As Shears noted, this process saw diverse stakeholders talk through options when there were conflicting opinions, perspectives and interests. However, with the completion of the transition, the common goal has gone away and he observed that participants are now falling back into their stakeholder group “silos”.

Strategies for the future

While it may be a bit early to take a call on successes and failures, WS2 is still ongoing. It may be useful to try to replicate what went well, and learn from the challenges seen in WS1. Greenberg pointed out the utility of having regular informal discussions with members from other stakeholder groups in order to reach a compromise, something he recommended should be continued in WS2. The nature of the work being done by CCWG-Accountability requires finding a way to continue to work together, beyond just “looking for the lowest common denominator”, as Klaus Stoll suggested. Further, the range of issues being discussed in WS2 is diverse, and continues to require experts from outside the ICANN community to get involved. The strategy of clearly dividing the topics into separate issues was appreciated by Marilia Maciel, as it allows for easy identification of the different areas. She also pointed out that even though most of the discussion has been documented, it would be impossible to go through the tens of thousands of emails exchanged and hundreds of hours of calls. Drawing parallels with the effort required to understand the NetMundial Initiative retrospectively, she emphasised the need for documenting this process while it is still recent. CCG has attempted to do that over the past year, but the sheer volume of the discussions require more active participants to pen down their experiences and analysis to allow for a closer study later.

 

CCWG ploughs on with WS2: ICANN57

By Aarti Bhavana

With 3141 participants in attendance, ICANN57 (held from 3-9 November 2016) was the largest public meeting in its history. It was also the first meeting to be held after the successful completion of the IANA Transition. The transition greenlit the enforcement of the provisions of the IANA Stewardship Transition Proposal, which consisted of two documents: the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) proposal and the Cross-Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability (CCWG-Accountability) Work Stream 1 Report. Our previous posts analysing these recommendations can be found here.

The meeting week was preceded by a full day face-to-face meeting of the CCWG-Accountability on the 2nd of November. The group met to continue its discussion on Work Stream 2 (WS2), which officially kicked off during the previous meeting in Helsinki. Rapporteurs from many of the WS2 Drafting Teams and subgroups presented updates on the progress of work in the preceding months. This post captures some of the key updates.

Jurisdiction

ICANN’s incorporation and physical location in California has long been a source of contention for governments and other stakeholders. Jurisdiction directly impacts the manner in which ICANN and its accountability mechanisms are structured (for example, the sole designator model arises from the California Corporations Code). Greg Shatan, co-rapporteur of the Jurisdiction subgroup presented an update document on the progress of this group. While the current bylaws state that ICANN shall remain headquartered in California, stakeholders were interested to see whether the subgroup would look into the matter of relocation. It was stated during this meeting that the subgroup has determined that it will not be investigating the issue of changing ICANN’s headquarters or incorporation jurisdiction. However, should a problem yield no other solution in the future, this option will then be examined.

A substantial issue found to be within the scope of this subgroup’s mandate is that of “the influence of ICANN’s existing jurisdictions relating to resolution of disputes (i.e., “Choice of Law” and “Venue”) on the actual operation of policies and accountability mechanisms”. The group’s working draft analysis of this issue can be accessed here. Another mandate from Annex 12 of the WS1 report requires the subgroup to study the ‘multilayer jurisdiction issue’. This has been discussed in some detail in the draft document, which can be accessed here.

One of the concerns raised during the discussion was that the subgroup would not recommend any change and conclude in favour of the status quo. Reassurance was sought that this would not be the case. The rapporteur stated in response that one cannot predict the outcome of the group as there are no internal preconceptions. It was also pointed out that since the discussion ran the risk of being purely academic, it was important to get external opinions. Accordingly, it was agreed that a survey would be sent out to hear from registries, registrars, and others. Advice will also be sought from ICANN Legal.

Transparency

ICANN has often been criticised for a lack of transparency in its functioning. This has largely been attributed to its hybrid structure, which is argued to not have the necessary active, passive, and participatory transparency structures. WS1 of the CCWG-Accountability attempted to address some of these concerns. The inclusion of inspection rights is one such example. However, a significant part of the work has been left for WS2.

This subgroup has made significant progress and shared the first draft of its report, which can be read here. This document discusses the right to information, ICANN’s Documentary Information Disclosure Policy (DIDP), proactive disclosures, and ICANN’s whistleblower protection framework. A suggestion was made to include requiring transparency in Board deliberations, which will be considered by the subgroup. There was also some discussion on increasing the scope of the proactive disclosures for greater transparency. Suggestions included disclosure of Board speaking fees and requiring disclosures of contracts of amounts lower than $1 million (the current threshold for disclosure) as well. There was also a discussion on ‘harm’ as an exception to disclosure, and the need to define it carefully. A revised draft of the report will be shared in the coming weeks, incorporating the points raised during this meeting.

Supporting Organisation (SO)/Advisory Committee (AC) Accountability

With the SOs and ACs being given greater powers under the Empowered Community, it is essential to ensure that they themselves do not remain unchecked. Accordingly, SO/AC reviews need to take place. This subgroup is tasked with the mandate of determining the most suitable manner of enhancing accountability. During this meeting, four identified tracks of activities were presented: (i) SO/AC effectiveness; (ii) evaluating the proposal of a ‘mutual accountability roundtable’; (iii) developing a detailed plan on how to increase SO/AC accountability; and (iv) assessing whether the Independent Review Process (IRP) should also apply to SO/AC activities.

Preliminary discussions have taken place on the first two tracks. It was decided that track 3 could not begin without some input from the SO/ACs. Accordingly, a list of questions was developed with the aim of better understanding the specific modalities of each organization. After a brief discussion, it was decided that this list would be sent to the SO/ACs.

Apart from these updates there was also a discussion on the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT) 3 and an interaction with the ICANN CEO.

ATRT3 and WS2:

During the Helsinki meeting, it was pointed out that the 3rd review of the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT3), scheduled to begin work in January, would have a significant overlap with WS2 topics (6 out of the 9 topics). After some discussion, it was decided that a letter would be sent to bring this to the attention of the ICANN Board. This letter also laid out possible ways to proceed:

  1. Option 1- ATRT3 and WS2 work in parallel, with a procedure to reconcile conflicting recommendations.
  2. Option 2- Delay ATRT3 until WS2 is completed.
  3. Option 3- Limit the scope of ATRT3 to assessing the implementation of ATRT2. ATRT4 can then make a full assessment of accountability and transparency issues before 2022 (preferred path).
  4. Option 4- ATRT3 continues with its full scope, with CCWG focusing only on the remaining issues. The ATRT recommendations could then be discussed by CCWG.

The Board’s response stated that while this was of concern, it was a decision to be made by the larger community, and brought it to the attention of the SOs and ACs. In Hyderabad it was decided that CCWG-Accountability will continue to follow up with the Board on this issue, while the SO/ACs deliberate internally as well.

Exchange with ICANN CEO

ICANN CEO Göran Marby’s meeting with CCWG-Accountability was arguably the most engaging session of the day. Central to this discussion was his recent announcement about a new office called the ICANN Complaints Officer. This person “will receive, investigate and respond to complaints about the ICANN organization’s effectiveness, and will be responsible for all complaints systems and mechanisms across the ICANN organization”. It was also stated that they would report to ICANN’s General Counsel. The last provision was not received well by members of the CCWG-Accountability, who stressed on the need for independence. It was pointed out that having the Complaints Officer report to the General Counsel creates a conflict of interest, as it is the legal team’s responsibility to protect ICANN. Though this was raised several times, Marby insisted that he did not think it was an issue, and asked that this be given a fair chance. This discussion was allotted extra time towards the end of the meeting, and there seemed to be a general agreement that the role and independence of the Complaints Officer needed greater thought and clarity. However, this remains the CEO’s decision, and any input provided by CCWG-Accountability will merely be advisory. It will be interesting to see whether he decides to take into account the strong concerns raised by this group.

The substantial discussions in WS2 are only just kicking off, with some subgroups (such as the Diversity subgroup) yet to begin their deliberations. The Transparency subgroup is making good progress with its draft document, on which CCWG-Accountability input is always welcome. It will be worth keeping an eye on the Jurisdiction subgroup, as this remains a divisive issue with political and national interests in the balance. Much remains to be done in the SO/AC Accountability subgroup, which is working to better understand the specific internal working of each SO/AC. This is an extremely important issue, especially in light of the new accountability structures created in WS1. CCWG-Accountability remains an open group that anyone interested can join as a participant or observer.

 

Dirty Picture Project: Parched

By Aditi Prakash & Sthavi Asthana

Parched is a story of four women: Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a widow getting her 17 year old son, Gulab married to a young girl, Janaki (Leher Khan), who does not want to marry him. Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is a woman who is unable to conceive, and stuck in an abusive marriage. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a prostitute who is pimped out by the owner of the local ‘Dance Club’. The story is one of sisterhood, and shows the journey of these three women as they experience life in rural India. It shows how they turn to each other for support, while men in their lives continue to disappoint. It is also shows a slow realisation amongst the women, of their own capabilities and their belief in themselves as agents of change.

Dowry as Bride Price

In an interesting deviation from popularly-seen tradition, the movie depicted a region in India where dowry is paid by the boy’s family. And yet, this too is a custom rooted in patriarchy. While dowry is usually considered a sum paid by the girl’s family for the burden of accepting the girl into their family, here, the boy’s family seemed to see it as buying the woman for a certain price. In a scene where Rani and Lajjo went to see Janaki as a prospective bride, her family highlighted her beauty and accomplishments and then went on to negotiate the dowry amount. The entire scenario was reminiscent of a shopkeeper marketing his wares and haggling over the price with prospective buyers. There are several comments by both Rani and her son Gulab about how the bride should be worth the money they paid for her, bringing in the idea of the woman being bought as a slave – to do the household work, take care of her mother- in- law, provide sexual satisfaction for her husband, and of course provide him with a son. This was again highlighted by Rani’s anger when Janaki revealed her short hair; she felt cheated out of her money.

The cycle of abuse

The movie showcases how it is often very difficult to break out of the moulds women are cast into through the web of patriarchy. Janaki’s life is a repetition of the abuse that Rani suffered but Rani seems helpless or even unwilling to change this. She is initially quite harsh to the 15-year old girl, constantly scolding her for small errors in household work- teri maa ne kuch nahi sikhake bheja kya? (Did your mother not teach you anything before sending you here?) and even accusing her of theft. It is as though she has come to believe that this is the only way of behaving with one’s daughter-in-law.

The movie shows her being disturbed when Gulab rapes Janaki on their wedding night. She gets up and leaves the house, unable to bear the sound of the girl’s screams, but does not stop him. However, even here she blames herself for not choosing a good enough girl for him, and puts it all down to frustration on his behalf. It is interesting to see the lengths to which a man is not held accountable for his actions.

Later however, the film shows the development of a bond between the two women. Rani stops Gulab from beating up Janaki one night and helps her to get together with her secret lover.

Technology – the corrupter

Technology is considered a corrupting influence in the hands of women. At the village panchayat when the women of the village make a demand for televisions in the village, it is immediately dismissed by the sarpanch as being a bad influence on women (as evidenced by a nearby village where women have started wearing jeans). A phone in Rani’s hands is looked at with disbelief and she excuses herself as having the phone on the grounds that it is her son who bought it for her.

Women: as sexual creatures

The movie must be lauded for its frank portrayal of sexual desires of women. Women as sexual beings in their own right are often not depicted in movies. They are supposed to be the object of desires of men. Many movies show men pursuing women for sex and initiating sex, but don’t seem to realise that women might also have sexual needs.

There was an intriguing scene showing possible sexual attraction between Lajjo and Rani, where Lajjo enters Rani’s house, having been beaten up again by her husband. She takes off her blouse so that Rani could apply medicine on her wounds, and it appears that the two share an intimate moment as Lajjo pulls off Rani’s blouse as well and the two embrace each other. They were interrupted by Janaki suddenly entering the room.

An amusing scene shows Lajjo when she realises that phones can be used for more than just communication (read: as vibrators). Rani’s dialogues often show her desire for sex and her worry about not being sexually attractive. Later in the film, Lajjo has sex with another man, in a desperate attempt to get pregnant. The scene is beautifully tender and shows a direct contrast to her experiences of sex in her marriage.

Testing the Movie

The movie passes both the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests. Since the movie deals with various abuses by men, it is inevitable that men are going to be the main topic of discussion; however the focus in this regard is on their own desires and needs. It is seen that the movie has strong female characters who at the end are able to achieve their emancipation on their own.

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The reality shown by this film is played out in thousands of homes across the world but masked, as on-goings inside the family often are. The movie highlights women’s desire for sexual autonomy and them being their own saviours from their horrible circumstances. The conclusion of the film shows the three women driving away on a bike, with renewed confidence that together, they will look after themselves without needing any man for support. This is a refreshing change from most Bollywood movies which follow the man being a knight-in-shining-armour trope.

IANA Transition completed

By Aarti Bhavana

The much-discussed IANA transition has finally been completed, now that the U.S. Government’s contract with ICANN for IANA Functions has expired. This brings to an end the governmental oversight of these functions, a plan outlined back in 1998, and transfers it to a global multistakeholder community. The Centre for Communication Governance’s coverage of the transition over the last two years can be accessed here. In addition, our recent report on multistakeholderism discusses the role Indian stakeholders have played in ICANN over the last 5 years. It is a useful introduction to the way policy is made in ICANN’s multistakeholder model.

In March 2014, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce announced its intent to transfer the oversight of key Internet domain name functions to a global multistakeholder community. In the months that followed, working groups were set up to develop proposals both for the stewardship transition, as well for enhancing ICANN’s accountability. Both proposals were finalized and sent to the ICANN Board of Directors to be transmitted to NTIA. On 9th June 2016, after careful evaluation, the NTIA announced that the proposals met the criteria outlined by the NTIA in March 2014.

Despite meeting all the requirements set out, the weeks leading up to today have been far from smooth. Last week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Sub-committee held a hearing on “Protecting Internet Freedom: Implications of Ending U.S. Oversight of the Internet.” The opposition from the Republicans, led by Sen. Cruz, has also been supported by Donald Trump. There were also attempts to delay the transition by including a rider in the U.S. Government funding bill. This was ultimately not added, leaving the path clear for the transition.

However, in a dramatic twist two days ago, four U.S. states filed a lawsuit in Texas to block the transition. The motion for a temporary injunction was heard by the federal court a few hours ago, and denied. This officially brings a two year long process to a successful end. Many Indian stakeholders participated in the transition process as members of the multistakeholder community. However, as our report on multistakeholderism shows, there is scope for greater Indian engagement with ICANN and its policy processes.

In the midst of this celebration, it must be remembered that the work is not over. Efforts at increasing ICANN’s accountability are still ongoing with Work Stream 2, and consist of several critical topics like transparency, diversity and human rights that require the same level of effort as the transition. As discussed in our report‘s on ICANN Chapter, accountability is an issue on which ICANN has faced serious complaints in the past. The next stages of the transition offers stakeholders an opportunity to address these questions.

 

Dirty Picture Project: Pink

by Suniti Sampat and Aditi Prakash as part of the Dirty Picture Project.

With Pink, Bollywood has made a bold attempt at making a movie about women and the way society treats them. In a lot of ways, women’s lives in most parts of India have been circumscribed by the dangers the sex faces. Should we venture out at this time? Why is he smiling at me? Why is that car slowing down? Is this dress too short? As women living in Delhi, these are questions we have grappled with all too often. Sometimes, the looming threat of sexual harassment or rape forces us to alter our choices.

This fear has been masterfully captured in the film- showing just how easily harmless fun can turn into a waking nightmare, if women test the invisible boundaries that have been set for them. And society always, always finds a way to affix moral responsibility on the ‘fairer sex’. In this case, three women (Minal, Falak and Andrea) accept an invitation to have dinner with men they meet at a rock concert. Unfortunately for them, these men assume that their acceptance is indicative of their willingness to have sex with them. Completely disregarding her protests, one of the men even proceeds to try and have sex with with one of them. In response to this, she attacks him with a beer bottle. With a wounded ego and eye, the man in question tries every trick in his bag to make life difficult for them.

A Comfortable domesticity

Our protagonists – Minal (Tapsee Pannu), Falak ( Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Taring) are ordinary working women leading a peaceful life in the metropolis. These women are fighters in their own right, living away from family for the independence that such a life affords them. It is revealed that Falak is also paying for the treatment of her sibling, who suffers from a medical condition. But such a life is not exempt from the judgement of prying neighbours. Even Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachhan), who ultimately turned out to be a concerned neighbour, would stare at the girls with a discomforting fixed gaze. However, the camaraderie and comfort the women share is heartwarming. In many a nail-biting moment, they support each other and stand up to the world quite defiantly. In a particularly tear-rendering scene, the girls chase after a police van which takes away their friend. Disturbingly, the calm of their lives was shattered by an extremely shocking incident which took place after a seemingly innocuous interaction at a rock concert.

The Bechdel test would not serve as a fair tool to judge how the women in the film have been portrayed. While the women are primarily seen discussing the men, the discussion revolved around how to deal with the ramifications of the incidents from the night of the concert. However, the film passes the Makomori test (which looks at whether the women in the film enjoy an independent personality of their own) with each of the three women having strong, well-defined personalities.

Trial of morals

The misogyny of the men is put to open display in court. The manner in which the women are questioned highlights society’s double standards. Women’s personal lives undergo intense scrutiny while men are excused from suffering this indignity. It is also seen that these women lose so much in the fight- relationships, jobs – all is sacrificed. This drives home the point that women can be harassed in so many ways when men control a system steeped in patriarchy. In such a situation, it might not always be possible for a woman to possess the resources to put up a fight. Another telling instance is when even the police officers are reluctant to register a complaint on behalf of the women and the character assassination that starts from the police chowki and continues well into the last stages of trial. The film also gives a glimpse into the use of sexual molestation by the boys to get back at her and put her ‘in her place’.

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In the film, the women’s counsel (Deepak Sehgal) speaks about certain rules of conduct that women must follow to ensure their own safety. Through these rules, it is evident how women are constantly de-humanised, being forced to refrain from even seemingly harmless conduct such as laughing and making any kind of physical contact with the other sex, lest it be taken as an invitation to be assaulted. The idea of law as an objective tool is dispelled by the film, which shows how the women are constantly harassed by the functionaries of the legal system.

While the examination-in-chief of Minal was going on, it was being purposefully established that Minal had had sexual relations with men in the past. In doing so, the movie drove home the point that the fact that a women is sexually active does not make it okay to subject her to any kind of unwelcome sexual advances.The beauty of the film lies in how realistically situations have been portrayed. The manner in which the women were judged for drinking and having dinner with men they had just met, is accurately reflective of prevailing attitudes. At the same time, the men themselves found nothing wrong in indulging in the same acts.

Consent 101

Pink starts a discourse- one that has been avoided so far, coloured and diluted by social conceptions of morality- a discourse on Consent. Is it rape if she was drunk? What if she was smiling at him? What if she is his wife? What if she was a prostitute? What if she said yes and later said no? The answer is an unequivocal NO MEANS NO. Kudos to the film for focusing on the concept of consent. While lawyer Deepak Sehgal was saying and doing all the right things, the film could have gone a step further by having a female lawyer defend the three women, instead of sticking to the old knight in shining armour trope. When Minal spoke emphatically of her feeling of utter disgust at being touched against her will, we knew that the film was making a strong political statement. However, it is the male lawyer who ultimately hasthe last word on the topic of consent. As his baritone resounded across the courtroom, I couldn’t help but wonder whether a woman speaking about the same issues would be taken just as seriously?

Pink is a telling story. It shows that India has progressed – women can enjoy the freedom of living alone and having an independent lifestyle- but this freedom always comes with certain conditions. While the city may be able to boast of the snazziest buildings and the trendiest bars, the ugly reality of a society still mired in patriarchy continues to haunt us- ask the women, we all have stories.

Dirty Picture Project: Sarabjit

By Devdutta Mukhopadhyay and Vidya Dronamraju as part of the Dirty Picture Project. 

The Leading Ladies

When we decided to review Sarabjit, we looked forward to a break from the typical mindless masala entertainer that Bollywood is notorious for churning out. Moreover, examining the ordeal faced by Sarabjit from the point of view of his sister seemed like an interesting take on the heart breaking affair.

For the unaware, Sarabjit Singh (Randeep Hooda) was an Indian farmer who was arrested by Pakistani authorities after he inadvertently crossed the border. After prolonged torture, he admitted to being responsible for terrorist attacks against Pakistan and was given the death penalty. The film follows Sarabjit’s sister, Dalbir Kaur (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), as she fights against all odds to secure her brother’s release. Besides Dalbir, Sarbjit’s family consists of his wife, Sukhpreet (Richa Chaddha) and their two daughters.

Dalbir: The Crusader Sister

The film begins with a search party frantically looking for Sarbjit who has gone missing. When their efforts prove futile, Sarabjit’s family approaches the Panchayat and seeks their help in filing an FIR. The Panchayat members are dismissive, and one of them even insinuates that Sarabjit may have another illegitimate family in Pakistan that he has gone to visit. When Dalbir objects to aspersions being cast on her brother’s character, the village elders taunt her because she is childless and does not have a family of her own. This becomes a recurring theme through the movie, and Dalbir’s inability to conceive a child and consequent separation from her husband are used to silence her at several important plot points.

In flashbacks, it is revealed that Dalbir’s daughter was stillborn and her husband blamed her for the child’s death. As the child’s body was being taken away, he cruelly remarked that her womb is cursed because it has no place for a child to thrive. Their relationship takes a turn for the worse, and two years later, Dalbir finally leaves her matrimonial home after her husband refuses to let her visit a hospitalised Sarabjit. Dalbir’s face is visibly bruised and it is abundantly clear that her husband is physically abusive. However, it is concern for her brother that ultimately convinces her to call it quits on her marriage, rather than the violence that she has been subjected to for years.  The underlying message is clear: as self-sacrificing creatures, women will only prioritize the interests of one man over the other but never their own.

After returning to her parents’ home, Dalbir adopts the role of the doting but responsible elder sister. She good-naturedly indulges Sarabjit’s love for wrestling but locks him out of the house when he shirks his duties and forgets to pick up his daughter. After learning about Sarabjit’s conviction, she runs from pillar to post trying to clear his name. Her persistence earns her an appointment with the Prime Minister but she is sent back with hollow platitudes. When she tries approaching the Chief Minister after the 2001 Parliament Attacks, she is attacked by his commandos. Finally, a dejected Dalbir sits down in the middle of the road in protest, and slowly, many other people join her. Media outlets and several human rights group eventually take notice of the plight of an innocent man who has been rotting in jail for decades, and it becomes a national campaign.

In a very telling scene, a male politician tries to hijack the agenda and talk on behalf of Sarabjit’s family. However, Dalbir refuses to remain voiceless and grabs the mic. She quotes verses from the Quran and pleads with the Pakistani government to release her innocent brother. She does not want to create a false binary between Hindus and Muslims, and though well-intentioned, the speech sounds superficial and preachy. Unfortunately, Dalbir’s moralistic sermonizing becomes a recurring problem with the film.

When Sarabjit’s execution date is set, Poonam (Ankita Shrivastav), his younger daughter, tries to burn all his photos and belongings. She is tired of living a half-life, and wants to symbolically finish his funeral rites so that they can all move on. She lashes out at Dalbir and accuses her of prolonging the inevitable because she does not have a family of her own.

In a last ditch attempt, Dalbir blocks a minister’s car and gets visas for the family to go to Pakistan. The women are accompanied by Dalbir’s ex-husband and his 180 degree turn from abusive partner to gallant escort is disconcerting to say the least. With a single kind gesture, the film effectively erases his history of violence and allows him to redeem himself.

Dalbir’s spirit finally breaks when it is discovered that the prisoner who has been released is “Surjeet”, and not Sarabjit. She attempts to commit suicide but is saved at the last moment. The women go on a hunger strike to save Sarabjit but it is too late because shortly thereafter, he is attacked by fellow inmates as a part of a larger conspiracy, and he succumbs to his injuries.

Sukhpreet: The Half-Widow

By contrast, Sukhpreet is a far more flawed and human character. One of the initial scenes show her putting up missing posters across town with an infant strapped to her back and another child clinging to her leg. She loves her husband immensely, but years of waiting have taken a toll on her resolve and made her bitter. Compared to the indefatigable Dalbir, she gets very little screen time perhaps because her own struggles and disappointments do not serve to advance Sarabjit’s story. After Ajmal Kasab’s mercy petition is rejected, there is major backlash in Pakistan and only Dalbir gets a visa to meet Sarabjit. Sukhpreet is sick of being second to her sister-in-law, and remarks that as far as her husband is concerned, she and her daughters have no rights but merely a duty to wait. When Dalbir tries to commit suicide, she accuses her of trying to be a martyr. She tells her that she has contemplated taking her life on many occasions too. However, she did not go ahead with her plans because she had faith in Dalbir.

The emotional challenges that Sukhpreet faces are much more realistic but sadly, they are not theatrical enough to make the cut. Her wavering devotion to her husband and her ability to criticize the perfect Dalbir provide a much needed break from Dalbir’s forced martyrdom. She is more grounded, more rough around the edges and more real but her pragmatism is cast negatively instead of what it really is; a narrative that a lot of women can relate to.

Put To The Feminist Test

Dalbir’s over the top struggle and high-pitched calls for universal brotherhood make it difficult for the viewer to relate to her. While her devotion to her brother is admirable, she doesn’t have an identity beyond fighting for his cause. The saving grace of the movie is the realistic tension between Dalbir and Sarabjit’s wife and daughters. Women fighting among themselves and being unable to get along is a common trope used by many filmmakers. However, it works in this case because it showcases a range of different but equally legitimate reactions that women can have when faced with difficult choices.

The movie does not pass the Bechdel Test because the entire plot revolves around Sarabjit, and consequently, every conversation between the female characters is about getting him justice. Since the Bedchel Test has its own limitations, we decided to put the movie through the Mako Mari Test which looks at whether a female character gets a narrative arc that is independent of a man’s story. Unfortunately, the movie even fails this test because Dalbir’s sole purpose in life is to save her brother from the gallows, and we learn little about her beyond that.

The film’s questioning of nationalism is superficial at best and it remains loyal to the dominant narrative about terrorism. In one of the later scenes, when posed with a hypothetical situation, Sarabjit’s daughters boldly declare that they would not accept their father’s release if it came at the cost of freeing a terrorist like Afzal Guru. What is conveniently ignored is that even a “terrorist” like Afzal Guru is someone’s father, and much like Sarabjit, could have very well been scapegoated by a broken criminal justice system.  With its shallow progressivism, Sarabjit is a disappointing watch that we would recommend you skip.