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.

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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.

Dirty Picture Project: Two Bollywood Virgins (pro) Take Down Sultan

By Lily Xiao and Victoria Christie[1] for the Dirty Picture Project. For more details on this project, write to Aarti at aarti.bhavana@nludelhi.ac.in

Upon its release, the immensely popular Sultan was screening at our local PVR no less than ten times a day. With Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma at the helm, Sultan is a must see for many Indians this summer. Sultan follows the journey of the titular Sultan (Salman Khan) as he slow motion wrestles his way to glory no less than five times within three hours. After marrying fellow wrestler Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), Aarfa mourns the death of their newborn son while Sultan is in London, winning Olympic gold. To add to their misery, their son died from severe anaemia, and Sultan’s rare blood type was capable of saving him, had he not been away being a cocky, macho scumbag. The movie opens on this devastated version of Sultan, who has separated from Aarfa, and given up wrestling to fundraise for a blood bank in Haryana. Luckily for our hero, Sultan is asked to step back into the ring as the underdog in the fledgling Pro Take Down league, which pits boxers, wrestlers and other fighting styles against each other. After enduring his second Rocky-style training montage, life-threatening injuries, and crippling self-doubt, Sultan overcomes his demons to win the tournament and Aarfa’s heart once again.

While the plot was overwrought and, at times, ridiculous, these two Bollywood virgins had a fantastic time, and despite not understanding most of the dialogue, we were able to follow the narrative. However, as feminists, we took issue with the movie’s representation of Aarfa as merely an obstruction and accessory to Sultan’s path to glory.

Aarfa deserves better

Sultan features a single female character, and although she is the lead, Aarfa is framed only in terms of her male counterpart, Sultan. For example, when Aarfa falls pregnant before the Olympics, dashing her childhood dreams of winning a gold medal, her narrative quickly becomes one of a woman sacrificing her dreams for Sultan, while he is busy becoming a national hero. The movie focuses on Sultan’s journey to Olympic glory, while cutting back to Aarfa watching him win on TV, and little attention is given to Aarfa’s sacrifices and her emotional journey as a woman. Additionally, we were disappointed at the movie’s failure to acknowledge Aarfa as a wrestler in her own right. Although she is shown to be a national, and later world champion, Sultan fails to afford her the same heroic treatment as it does Sultan, with crowds chanting his name. This is reflective of how women are treated in sport worldwide, not just in India, who are paid less and treated as pale imitators of their male counterparts. Lastly, the movie doesn’t even put itself in a position to pass the Bechdel test, by failing to provide another female character for Aarfa to talk to about anything besides a man. These criticisms should not take away from Sharma’s performance, as she injects heart and sass into the one-dimensional character she is given, and utterly shines in comparison to Khan’s overdramatic and brutish performance.

We Salman Khan’t buy this movie’s romance

Although we are Bollywood virgins, we had heard of Salman Khan and his scandalous reputation as a womaniser, so we may have gone into Sultan a little wary of his hip-shaking ways. However, our bias doesn’t make Sultan’s pursuit of Aarfa anything less than harassment. Despite her repeated protestations and outright disgust towards Sultan’s advances, he pursues her aggressively, following her around, telling his friends she was his girlfriend, and stalking her to her father’s training centre. While we immensely enjoyed the boys vs. girls Bollywood song and dance number, it trivialised Sultan’s harassment and romanticised it as part of the inevitable love story between the two leads. It is disturbing how familiar this trope of the woman inevitably giving into the man’s advances is, even as Western viewers we could recognise that Aarfa’s initial rejection was going to lead to her eventually falling for him.

Another problem we have with Sultan’s romance is the fantasy Sultan has of Aarfa. When he first meets Aarfa she literally crashes into his life on her motorbike, and he is smitten because she doesn’t fit his expectations of a woman; she’s different. In a pivotal moment in the film, Sultan sees Aarfa smiling at him when he’s down-and-out in a fight. Her kind smile and encouraging eyes inspire him to get up and win the fight. However, she is shown to be merely a hallucination, a fantasy. She’s his manic pixie dream girl; she’s sporty, doesn’t care about her appearance (but miraculously always looks perfect), and inspires him to be better than who he thought he could be. Unfortunately, we’re not given enough time with Aarfa to know her outside this fantasy.

Sexy Sultan

We went into Sultan knowing that kissing was not common in Bollywood films, and yet were still shocked (and frankly, a little disappointed) that the two lovers were only ever able to touch foreheads suggestively. However, Sultan wins points in our book for sexualising Khan’s body far more than it does Sharma’s. We lost track of the number of slow motion fight scenes or scenes with Sultan looking at himself in a mirror, while the camera poured over Khan’s topless body. Comparatively, Aarfa’s wrestling scenes were shot as a tribute to her athletic prowess, rather than as a male fantasy. Unfortunately, just as there was little sexualisation of Aarfa, there was no exploration of Aarfa’s own sexuality. We recognise that this may be a symptom of Sultan being a Bollywood film made for wide release in India, but we are all for a greater recognition of female sexuality in Bollywood films, and films worldwide.

Overall, we’re glad we popped our Bollywood cherries, and Sultan was an enjoyable movie going experience with a rowdy Tuesday night crowd. However, from a feminist perspective, Sultan left a lot to be desired.

[1] Lily Xiao and Victoria Christie are students at the University of Melbourne. Lily interned with CCG this summer.

 

[Dirty Picture Project] Ki and Ka : Well-intentioned, but not quite there

by Suniti Sampat and Anushka Sachdev

With Cheeni Kum, it was ageism. With Paa, sensitization about degenerative diseases. With Ki and Ka, R Balki attempts to take on gender stereotypes. However, along the way, he seems to forget how multi-faceted the problem really is. While attempting to highlight stereotypes, there is always the risk that one ends up propagating them. Sadly, such is the case with Ki and Ka.

Kiya (Kareena Kapoor), a marketing executive with a promising career ahead of her is married to Kabir (Arjun Kapoor), who seeks to emulate his mother by becoming a home-maker. While the movie is based on the unconventional relationship the couple shares, Kiya’s mother plays an important role in the film.


The Proposal
The movie certainly begins on a good note, with the heroine stating how conventional Indian marriages are unfair to women, who are expected to be extremely sacrificial when in the relationship. So here we have a woman who thinks that marriage is an inconvenience for a career woman and hence steers clear of it. On the other hand, we have a man who is willing to stay at home to manage her home. Seems like a perfect fit, no? So Ki and Ka decide to tie the knot and the awkwardness begins.
Kiya’s mother is portrayed as an uber cool mom, the kind who asks her daughter if she’s had sex with the guy before she takes the plunge. Yet she asks Kabir if he’s in it for the free meals, devaluing household work in a nonchalant manner. She also seems to believe that most women’s love for their husbands is dependent on the financial security they receive from the relationship. If things weren’t going bad already, Kiya gleefully announces that Kabir will be her wife- perhaps it was meant as a joke, but it reinforces the stereotype that household duties are those of a wife.It’s ironic that Kabir has to clarify that he is not gay and likes whisky, after he bravely admits his desire of being a house-husband. Disappointing, yes.

Asli Mard
The film focuses on and struggles with the question of who is an ‘Asli Mard’? In a rather uncomfortable discussion that Kiya and Kabir have with the latter’s father, Kabir’s father attempts to humiliate Kabir for his inability to perform his (socially-determined) gender role. A nuanced discussion about masculinities and gender stereotypes could have followed. Sadly, this did not happen. According to the film-maker, the proof of manhood lies in one’s chaddi (underwear). A classic example of phallic-centrism, the film simply ignores gender identities and deals with masculinity in the most stereotypical way imaginable: with a penis.

Miss-representation
The film is guilty of a grave injustice to women : misrepresentation of the women who work at home. The film would have you believe that all housewives need fitness classes, go for kitty parties and hang out with a homogenous pool consisting of other housewives. Now that Kabir has donned this role, all his new friends are middle-aged women deeply concerned about losing weight and are dependent on Kabir for ‘fitness’ classes.
While mocking stereotypical roles, it reinforces certain ideas. For instance, the notion that the home-maker must always be at the beck and call of the bread-earner, waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare the beverage of their choice without expecting the same from them. God forbid, if they falter in their ‘kartavya ka palan’ (duties), the home-maker would be sent to their ‘maika’ (mother’s home) !
Credit must be given to the filmmaker for the portrayal of Kiya and her mother as independent working women who know their mind. Their comfort with Kabir living with them without contributing (at least, at the outset) to the household income is telling of their comfort to do away with generic notions of gender roles. However, there is a lot of stereotyping that the movie is guilty of, while portraying modern career women. Apparently, such women live in extremely untidy homes, skip breakfast and are unable to take care of their health.
As for the bechdel test, the movie does not pass muster. The female lead has a few conversations with friends and colleagues, but these are either really brief or about Kabir. The long conversations that take place between females are those between Kiya and her mother, which again, are centred on Kiya and Kabir’s relationship. However, It may be noted that the film successfully passes the makomori test. The character of Kiya is well-written. She is shown as having an independent personality, independent of the male lead’s character.

Separating Gender and Roles
The film has highlighted the idea of dominance of one gender over another by showing that even after the so-called reversal of gender roles; one dominates the other in a marital relationship. Despite flipping stereotypical gender roles, they maintain the power equation of the bread-earner over the home-maker. This is reflected when Kiya becomes insecure on Kabir becoming successful, and tries to dictate his professional choices, or when he gets shouted at for leaving her mother alone. While it is fun to see the woman lord it over the man for a change, it’s troubling because it devalues the work done by a housewife. The film completely ignores the struggle undergone by housemakers for a standing at par with the primary earner’s and continues to demean housework and trivialise the person who does it. This continues to be problematic because housework is usually done by a woman, so by constantly demeaning it, the film furthers gender stereotypes.
The movie concludes on a strange note. The filmmaker would have the audience believe that the problem does not lie with gender, but with the hierarchical relationship that exists between the earner and the home-maker.The film-maker does not acknowledge the fact that housework is perhaps not given its due because it is women who are traditionally performing it. Perhaps if men were traditionally performing the same, they may have been given more credit and importance for the same. Even in the film, Kabir’s role as a home-maker is celebrated, with him receiving so much adulation for the same. While this may be due to the novelty of the situation, it’s difficult to miss the irony of the situation, as women have been performing this thankless role for centuries! While credit goes to the film for highlighting the fact that the home-maker never gets her due, the film ignores this gendered aspect of division and valuation of labour. Perhaps, the filmmaker could have acknowledged the fact that Kabir was only receiving so much praise because it is rare to see a man in such a self-sacrificing role. This begets the question – can we really separate gender from these hierarchical roles? Does the systemic subjugation of women to roles that have been undervalued by society since time immemorial mean nothing? Dear filmmakers, please wake up and smell the sexism.

Dirty Picture Project: Hate Story 3

We Hate This Hate Story Too!

By Aarushi Mahajan and Shweta Kabra

Here is a line from the movie to give you a trailer of what lies ahead:

“Tum toh pehle bhi bikao thi, ab tumhari keemat badal gayi hai” (You’re an item whose value in the market has changed).

In a story about rich, powerful and vindictive men, two women find themselves caught in the middle of their game of lies, murder and of course, sex.

Conference on ‘Women’s Empowerment’

The movie begins with Siya (Zareen Khan) giving an interview at a conference for ‘Women’s Empowerment’. Ironically, the first question that is put to her at a conference on ‘Women’s Empowerment’ is about her husband and whether she is the woman ‘behind’ this successful business tycoon. Although she seems to convince the audience that empowered women are no longer behind but ‘beside’ men, this doesn’t change the fact that they are still talking about how the women play a part in shaping their husband’s careers. Through the next question, the viewers are given a glimpse of her ‘scandalous’ past. Aditya (Sharman Joshi) took pity upon Siya and his brother’s child in her womb and married her. Of course, the responsibility or stigma attached to a single mother couldn’t possibly be ‘allowed’ to be borne by Siya. She then tells the interviewer that she had a miscarriage, but everything is okay since she happened to fall in love with Aditya. Thank goodness for that!

Beewi do, paise lo

Aditya receives an Audi from a mysterious benefactor and decides to meet him. Siya does not want to attend, but she must, as the Audi was given to ‘them’ and she must thank the gifter suitably like a good wife. We now finally get to meet Saurav Singhania (Karan Grover), the macho billionaire, who will later be responsible for the mess that Saurav’s Company falls into.

When they go to meet him, Siya is asked by both men to take a tour of the house, because there couldn’t possibly be any need for a woman in such a business meeting. There are many points in the film which objectify women, but this one may be the most blatant. Saurav offers Aditya a cheque to which he can as many zeroes as he wants to, if he ‘gives’ Siya to him for a night. The sheer audacity of this demand reeks of entitlement and sexism. This invokes outrage in Aditya as he is unwilling to share his property with another man. He angrily exclaims that no one is allowed to even mention her name in front of him.

Siya finishes sight seeing, and is of course, told nothing about this furious exchange centered around her. This sequence is repeated towards the end as well where Aditya says to Siya that he would rather risk his life than let her compromise her virtue.

By the end, when Siya gives in to Saurav and lands up at his house, he exclaims that ‘women don’t take money for having sex, they take money for having to leave my bed after sex’. This line describes perfectly what he truly thinks of women. Now comes a song where he keeps touching her despite her crying, cringing and running away in despair. She finally gets some liquid courage and does the deed. We finally arrive at the moment that this movie was made for- the raunchy sex. After all, that’s what the audience is here to see. Let’s forget for a moment that there absolutely no consent, and that this is simply romanticised and sexualised rape.

Kaya, The Sacrificed Lamb

Kaya (Daisy) is an executive working in Aditya’s Company. She seems like a strong female character and Aditya tells her that she has done extremely well in her career and gives her responsibilities to head meetings. She seems uncertain, but, of course, he says that he knows her better than she does. After all, when is a woman allowed to be confident in her ambition and career, unless a man gives her permission?

But for all his praise and encouragement, Aditya doesn’t hesitate in the slightest when throwing Kaya under the bus. When the Company falls into a big mess due to adulterated products in the market. Aditya, our successful man conveniently wants Kaya to take the fall for the entire mess. Kaya objects and is angry, but he does not give her a choice and has already blamed her in the press. She is enraged, she walks out, refusing the money offered. At this point, we are convinced that our strong female character has been wronged by this power-drunk man.

But in reality, Kaya was a trojan horse. She had sex with Saurav to lower his guard, and tells Aditya about Saurav’s ‘real’ identity. There are two ways to intrepret this: either Kaya was in complete control of her sexuality and used it against Saurav to trick him, or that Aditya proposed that she be used as a pawn to throw Saurav off his game. Keeping in line with the songs, it is probably the latter. Even though Kaya was a top notch professional, the only tool to be used in her kitty was of course, her sexuality.

He reveals to Kaya that he is executing this vengeful plan only because Aditya broke his little sister’s heart in college that led her to commit suicide. What we can gauge from this situation is that like all traditional battles, this one is fought by a “Protective brother” on behalf of his sister. (Don’t we all love the values espoused by our age old Hindu festival of Rakhi?)

At one point, Saurav compliments her by calling her ‘beauty with brains’. Thank you for not letting us forget that a woman cannot be complimented upon her talents without mentioning her beauty!

Wait! Sometime later we realize that Saurav is actually the one tricking Kaya. He forcibly makes out with Kaya. He violently kisses her and she falls dead to the ground, He poisoned her. The pawn in the game of chess is now disposed off in some random cover up car accident.

When a woman has an opinion…

Siya tries to give her opinion at various points in the movie but as expected, her wise words are never taken seriously. There are several instances where she expressed sensible, rational opinions, but it’s hardly ever even acknowledged, making one wonder why the writers bothered giving her any lines at all. It’s only when she says that ‘as a woman I have a sense about certain things’, that her opinion is taken with some seriousness. This was rather troubling, as her opinions weren’t taken seriously until she talked about her instincts as a woman.

And the award for the most sexist songs goes to…

Since songs that objectify women have become quite the norm in Bollywood, it comes  as no surprise that the songs not only talk about women in terms of property but also romanticize stalking. However, this movie goes a step further and manages to successfully glorifying rape, with the backdrop of beautiful music.

The Bechdel Test Marker

One would think that a movie which shows a conference on ‘Women’s Empowerment’ could at the very least be expected to pass the already low threshold of the Bechdel Test. But there isn’t a single dialogue in the movie where two women talk to each other about anything other than a man. In fact, the two women can hardly be seen talking! The dialogues allotted to them could be counted on one’s fingers. The film reinforced stereotypes about masculinity and objectification, as the women were relegated to roles in item numbers, or victims of molestation, harassment and rape.

Dirty Picture Project: Bajirao Mastani

By Vidya Dronamraju and Devdutta Mukhopadhyay

Breaking away from the conventional damsel in distress trope, the trailer of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest production enticed us with the promise of a powerful warrior heroine in the form of Deepika Padukone’s Mastani. Walking into the theatre, we had high hopes from what we believed would be an epic tale of star crossed lovers who were truly equal in every sense. The movie began with a disclaimer that the events depicted may not be historically accurate but much to our dismay, the filmmakers certainly managed to get archaic gender roles right.

Warrior Heroine turned Full Time Dancer

The lovers meet against the backdrop of war with Mastani seeking help from the Peshwa, played by Ranveer Singh, to end the siege on her hometown of Bundelkhand. When he refuses to see her, she rushes into his tent swords drawn and takes down all of his guards. Her armour is practical, covering all the essentials, including her hair and face. This powerful scene comes to an abrupt end with one blow from the Peshwa, which uncovers her head gear and shows her flowing mane of hair and defiant eyes. The Peshwa agrees to help her and eventually plays a critical role in ending the siege. She saves his life on the battleground but gets grievously injured and has to be carried away in true damsel in distress style by the hypermasculine and undefeatable Bajirao. Mastani’s skill and determination is remarkable for a woman who lived during the 17th century. She rode into battle at a time when it was practically unheard of women to do so. She even refused to be thanked for saving Bundelkhand as she believed it was her duty to protect her home. Unfortunately, thirty minutes into the three hour long movie, the promise of a strong independent female protagonist is forgotten. For the remaining two and half hours, Mastani focuses all of her energy on making Bajirao fall in love with her. A battle wounded Mastani tries to enthrall Bajirao through song and dance. She even hints at marriage during her performance because regardless of how courageous and capable a woman is, at the end of the day, all she wants is ek chutki sindoor. Bajirao in turn seems to be smitten by the brave and beautiful Mastani who is unlike any other woman he has known. He gives her his short sword as a mark of love and respect but Mastani takes it to be an offer of marriage because of the customary practice prevalent in Bundelkhand. She gives up everything all in the name of ‘ishq’ and follows Bajirao to Poona, much to the consternation of Bajirao’s orthodox mother. She is made to live with the dancing girls and is made to perform at the main palace, something that is clearly beneath her royal station. Yet, she does not protest against this treatment meted out to her and dances beautifully much to the chagrin of Bajirao’s mother. Bajirao finally succumbs to her persistent efforts and takes her as his second wife, warning her that she would never command the respect a first wife would. However, she gratefully accepts his offer of marriage and graduates from being a dancer to an illegitimate second wife. Mastani’s character had immense potential to showcase the difficult experiences of a woman who has to bear the double burden of marginalization because of her gender and religion. But at the end of the day, it is a love story and the strength of Mastani’s iron will can only be gauged through her devotion to Bajirao.

Kashi’s Sorrow

Kashi, played by Priyanka Chopra, is the embodiment of the Sati-Savitri stereotype. In the first half of the movie, she is the loving and devoted wife whose entire existence revolves around her husband. She is unwilling to hear a word against him, and in her eyes, he can do no wrong. When he returns from war, she dances with joy. She welcomes him home with an aarti and a limerick on her devotion. She undoes his armor for him even when he is fully capable of doing it himself. She is ready to go to battle with him the next time even though she doesn’t even know how to straddle a horse! Predictably, when she learns about his infidelity, the truth hits her hard with her image of a loving and faithful husband going up in flames quite literally. In the second half, she is morose and heartbroken, but remains the dutiful first wife who would do anything for her Peshwa. Her interaction with Mastani is limited to a handful of scenes and all of them are in connection with Peshwa. Any attempts to portray her as a multi-dimensional character by having her warn the Peshwa about the threat to Mastani’s life or her welcoming the couple to the new palace fail to add any depth to her character because they are all the actions of a self-sacrificing wife.

The Angry Widow A.K.A Radha Bai

The only other major on-screen female character is Radha Bai played by Tanvi Azmi. She is Bajirao’s widowed mother who serves as an antagonist by standing in the way of Bajirao and Mastani’s love. She cares for Kashi and is a stickler for tradition. Even though she opposes her son at every turn, she clearly loves him as is evident by her reaction to news of his illness. She is caustic towards Mastani, and uses every opportunity to humiliate her and throw her out of the Palace. She cannot tolerate the fact that her son has a second wife who is a Muslim. She would prefer to have him step down from the throne rather than to continue seeing Mastani as his wife. She follows all the traditions of widowhood and is devoted to the Hindu clergy. This devotion, is the only aspect of the movie that is not directly connected to the Peshwa as it is fuelled solely by her spiritual beliefs.

Bechdel Testing Bajirao Mastani

In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel test, it needs to have at least two named female characters discuss something other than a man. But in a movie like Bajirao Mastani, whose sole focus seems to be on the larger than life Bajirao and his relationship with his wives, even a passing conversation about Mastani’s religion between Kashi and Radha Bai seems like an achievement. The only words that escape Mastani’s mouth are all about her undying ‘ishq’ for Bajirao. She stops fighting after meeting Bajirao, and the next time she wields a sword is to protect her son. Therefore, her warrior persona is conveniently used to highlight her maternal instincts. Kashi spends the movie either swooning over Peshwa or crying over him. She is the ultimate martyr who sacrifices everything for the men in her life. The other major female character is Radha Bai who is also the only non-romantic interest. Her repugnance of all things Muslim stems from her devotion to the Hindu clergy, and it is her religious bigotry that allows her to have a conversation about something besides her son. The movie barely passes the Bechdel test but the idea of it being a feminist film is ludicrous. It could be argued that Bajirao Mastani is a period drama, and one cannot judge a movie set in the 1600s based on modern egalitarian sensibilities. However, for a film to be considered feminist, it need not show women constantly defying gender roles and breaking conventions. The only requirement is that it portrays women as full human beings with their own struggles and limitations. Bajirao Mastani is disappointing not because Mastani and Kashi didn’t burn bras or lurch picket lines. The reason why the movie fails is because these women remain love interests, and never graduate to being people who are trying to navigate their lives to the best of their abilities even though their choices are curtailed by oppressive societal structures. The viewer does not even know what happens to Mastani after Bajirao’s death. The film ends with her collapsing on the floor once she learns that her ‘ishq’ is no more, and she ceases to exist in the absence of Bajirao. None of the female characters get their own narrative arc, not even one that supports a man’s story. Overall, Bajirao Mastaani had immense potential to showcase the complexity and consequences of transgressive love but by playing into the same old stereotypes, the filmmakers squandered away an opportunity to prove that women in love need not be solely focused on love, but they can be multi-dimensional characters with their own history and destiny .

[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University is running the Dirty Picture Project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. This particular review is by law students, but anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying the work out is welcome to join in. Please do write at ccg@nludelhi.ac.in with ‘Dirty Picture Project’ in the subject line if you would like to be a part of the project.]