Sunday, February 03, 2008

Patriarchal equations

Source: The Hindu

The portrayal of women in cinema and the reality are, often, miles apart.


In a patriarchal society women are predestined to play a fixed number of roles. What happens when a filmmaker tries to change this?

The most striking example is Shekhar Kapur’s “Bandit Queen” (1994). The real Phoolan Devi surrendered, had a book written on her and shortly after a biopic. She became a celebrity, was elected to parliament, then shot dead by a page from the balance sheet of her past. Could she have escaped this destiny had a movie not been made on her life?

New wave

What strikes you about Indian cinema is the ocean that separates the portrayal of women from their immediate reality. This is true for all kinds of cinema. Shyam Benegal’s women in the ‘Indian new wave’ of the 1970s and early 1980s — Shabana Azmi in “Ankur”, “Nishant” and “Mandi”, Smita Patil in “Manthan” and “Bhumika” — are earthy and sensual but their patterns of behaviour would have been difficult in the reality of the social milieu and time in which they were placed and would have alienated them from their moorings.

Bipasha Basu’s dance in the badlands of a U.P. bar hall in “Omkara” (2006) is wonderful for Bipasha the actress, but a real dancer would have been in grave danger had she actually performed that gyration in that costume. Similarly, in the freakishly wonderful film by Sudhir Mishra, “Hazaaron Kwaishein Aisi” (2003) — freakish because he never has come up with anything near that good — a woman like Geeta Rao (Chitarangada Singh) is too miraculously free-thinking to exist in the Naxalite-inspired Delhi University coffee houses of the 1970s.

When a Hindi film is shot with an actress in minimal western clothing on a Delhi street, there are a dozen assistants and spot boys to keep the onlookers out of the frame and out of touching distance of the girl. Molestations can and have taken place on location. A comparison between such a film shoot and the final film, with edited and cleaned up effects and music track, is really the difference between the position of woman on that street and the multiplex where the film is screened.

Popular films


Mainstream Hindi cinema cannot present women revolting against patriarchal society because of what Noam Chomsky describes as the function of media in manufacturing consent. Popular film is a consensus between the filmmaker and audience expectation, it is an agreement between people who finance a film and their expectation of recovering that money by entertaining an audience without offending their ‘sensibilities’. This includes their individual understanding of the position held by women in families and extended social groupings.

This is why domestic violence in the heroine’s home is rarely or never shown, even though, according to surveys, it takes place more frequently than on the street. Instead, in Indian films, it is the man in her home who, in the nick of time, saves the heroine from street harassment.



The exception proves the rule. That is why Shimit Amin’s “Chak De India” (2007), a film ostensibly about hockey, is the most unconventional film about women. All the hockey players are characters with opinions; they express themselves openly, are more articulate, more real, and have bigger roles than any conventional heroine in recent years.

The oppression in their homes is shown by their struggle to play the game against all odds of parents, boyfriends and harassment on the streets (the restaurant scene where the women beat up men who tease the girls from the North East). It is even implied that one or two of the players have survived domestic violence. Indeed, it may be the most progressive film about Indian women in recent times and one of Shahrukh Khan’s few intelligent contributions to cinema.

The interesting thing is that if we examine the career graphs of the girls who have worked in “Chake De India” not one of them has got significant work since. They acted well, have got terrific exposure through a ‘hit’ film, but are unemployable. This is because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.

A mainstream heroine today has to come from the ramp. She has to come from consumer India. She must either be a Miss Universe or Miss World like Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Priyanka Chopra and Lara Dutta, or a model like Priety Zinta, Amrita Arora, Neha Dhupia, Bipasha Basu et al. In other words she has to be a movie star by consensus, not by talent. Skill, such as it is, is learned by these girls on the job. The first half-a-dozen films by the ‘non-actress’ of them all, Aishwarya Rai, is testimony to the market’s persistence in keeping faith with the most reliable ‘consumer durable’.

So how can an actress in mainstream cinema, even given the miracle of a brilliant script and a strong-willed director, turn turtle on her own entrance qualifications and act convincingly as a woman struggling against patriarchy?

In truth it is the Indian documentary film that can and frequently does portray women in an accurate light. The most brilliant and entertaining film on the position of women in a patriarchal system is Paromita Vohra’s docu-drama “Unlimited Girls” (2002). In this film the director discusses the issue of feminism in India, using an internet chat room as anchor, and explores women in all sections of society in Mumbai and Delhi. The film is cinematic, challenging, has terrific interviews, juxtapositions that are hilarious take-offs on male pretensions, and tells urban women exactly where they stand and where they can go.

More effective

Brilliant and entertaining: “Unlimited girls”.

That a documentary is often more effective than fiction to portray the position of women in India tells you about the power equations of patriarchy. A Hindi film is budgeted in crores; non-fiction can be made in a few lakhs. The system has to grant the crores, not an NGO run by women. The distributors, who represent male-dominated viewership, have to buy and exhibit the film. These are some of the factors that determine the depiction of relationships between the sexes, behaviour of women in Indian social hierarchy and female sexuality in mainstream Hindi fiction film.

Meanwhile, it might be interesting to revisit Sharmila Tagore in Satyajit Ray’s “Devi” (1960), a film about how a zamindar in 19th century Bengal (Chhabi Biswas) dreams one night that his daughter-in-law (Tagore) is the incarnation of the goddess ‘Kali’. He acts on the dream, declares her a ‘devi’ and shortly destroys her personality, her sexuality and her soul. The woman who plays that extraordinary ‘devi’, via a direct route from Bengali tradition to Hindi mainstream cinema, is now Chairperson of the Censor Board, certifying, literally, Indian patriarchy!

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