Women should not have to adopt masculine traits in order to succeed. You should be able to stay as a woman, and in tune with your femininity, and still be equal. – Isla Fisher
After having watched Zero Dark Thirty multiple times for Kathryn Bigelow’s stellar direction, it starts dawning in on what this genius has done to her protagonist. This is of particular significance because, Jessica Chastain (Maya: a woman, as ideated in the script, which could have easily been a man) plays a CIA officer who is traditionally supposed to be pulled off with an air of masculine charisma. You would find the character of Jessica to be absolutely uncompromising. Simply put, she was what she was. There was no male-materialism attached to her aura, she didn’t have to roll her sleeves or weigh her voice at times, among the group of well-built SEALS she was standing just as confident and undisturbed. Maybe that’s what Maya (her character) was like, or maybe it’s the feminist in Jessica Chastain that has spoken vehemently about the oversexualization of women in hollywood. Whatever it was, it was eccentric and definitely something we don’t notice very often in the world of cinema.
Indian cinema on the contrary, is a place where women are not just objectified but are made to internalise that objectification as a career lookout. But that’s not what we are here to talk about – we’re here to talk about the invisible masculinity or ‘celestial objectification’ a female protagonist is forced to wear while she is the one playing the “hero” in the movie. A thin film of virility along with the foul mouth male-bashing, spitting street roller that we so loudly cherish for her uniqueness, but we misunderstand what we are cherishing and applauding is the same patriarchal accentuation of a male machismo simply expressed in a women’s body.
For some reason, the Indian audience find it difficult to fathom the possibility of a female protagonist to be elegant and still be the heroic lead that the story wants her to be. With characters like Meera (Anushka Sharma in NH10) and Shivani (Rani Mukherjee in Mardaani) we have sure built a strong panel of masculine female characters who don’t take a second to thump a male villain sidekick but we have flunked to reach a standard where women wouldn’t have to take a masculine vigour to make herself look indestructible in the film. For the likes of Meera and Shivani the problem persists because, a need of a ‘male character’ to bolt that energy in her. Of course, it will be silly to say police officers won’t use physical power to get things under control, but the portrayal in the film is outrightly ‘male-ified’!
Although Hollywood too is not fully immune of sexism but some of its movies delineate the right character of women while smacking the system. The character of Charlize Theron in the movie ‘North Country’ is a clear illustration in which, while being in the working class she is still administered to beat the patriarchy by filing the first lawsuit of sexual harassment. The question here is about the action, about defeating the system while being in the system. The question is of how ‘real’ can it be?
A second example can be cited from the gutsy supremacy of Erin Brockovich who fought relentlessly against the California Energy Corp. for contaminating city’s water supply while being a single mom. It shows in them and somehow you don’t feel like somebody is pushing you to appreciate their valor. It comes naturally and it comes clean. It is to be noted that, both North Country and Erin Brockovich are based on real incidents, but it is still worthy of a mention for the very fact that the filmmakers decided to make a film out of it.
We can even come back to the “Desi Naris” and their directors who defined the accuracy while flashing women empowerment in their films. Starting with the sublimity of Smita Patil in ‘Mirch masala’ and her character of Sonbai is an incredible example of the discussion here. Sonbai is shown to have simmered in the Rajasthani age-old culture while also staying adamant on her toughness as an independent woman, which we can clearly observe in the scenes. The thing is, women in cinema do not really need a man’s mask to appear resilient and rigid, they have their own symphony of gritty disposition and their own feminist persona to break the gender stereotype. There is a sheer need to realise what is exactly drilling the hole here, the traditional taboos broken in the ‘Elements Trilogy’ or the commentary and critique of the class, caste and gender dynamics that existed pre and post partition, through the life of Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara, do the job much better than a female actor kicking the bottoms of a mob in a market. It sure serves the purpose, get the applause, but it doesn’t breathe in the same world as a normal strong woman does.
The situation is south India isn’t largely different either – on the contrary, directors of mainstream commercial cinema now seem to adopt a lot of ‘Bollywood-isms’ into their filmmaking process. The grand embellished sets, exaggerated and cosmetic camera movements, absolutely derailed plot lines and of course, objectified heroines and female characters! So this clingy attitude of south, hasn’t got just Bollywood to blame. Notice how the portrayal of a woman has constantly been misguided – let’s take Tamil literature for example: the Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ (The Five Great Epics) have portrayed some female characters that appear to be powerful superficially, but are heavily subjected to patriarchy. Kannagi (a “chaste” woman) burns Madurai to ashes only to seek vengeance of her husband’s life, who she forgives despite his illicit relationship with Madhavi. Or Kundalakesi, who compelled her father to give the equivalent of Kaalan’s weight in gold to free him from being hung, later he decides to kill her because male ego, ouch!
The mythological epics are equally horrible and to be honest, almost all of Indian films (a lot of south Indian films) have been inspired from this flawed piece of work. Ramayana and Mahabharata are epitomic misrepresentations of women, they reek of patriarchy and misogyny. Sita, the symbol of ‘perfection of womanhood’ an impeccable personification of ‘wife’, had to walk through fire to “prove” her chastity. And Draupadi, whose character exemplifies in portraying ‘female power’ (celestial of course) had to turn a virgin every time she is in bed with her husband, owing to the fact that she was going to be ‘shared’ by five husbands and she didn’t even have a say in it (Gee, Kunti! Thanks).
Right from the time of Subramanya Bharati, who albeit had progressive notions about empowering women, did so ONLY by making them ‘shaktis’ or ‘devis’, a pedestal one is forced to succumb to – a pedestal that alienates real world problems and sufferings of an average woman.
From the other end of the spectrum, the opinions advocated by Periyar on how trivial the concepts of virginity, marriage and cooking etc., would have made for some historic characters in cinema that would set a victorious precedent for upcoming filmmakers. But of course, they were seldom considered as a source of inspiration. The gargantuan irony is the diabolical co-existence of portrayal of actresses who either is objectified (dancers, damsel in distress etc.) or those who play the roles of ‘goddesses’.
This industry is the very definition of befuddlement because there are also characters like, say Nilambari from Padayappa – portrayed as an independent and free spirited woman who knows what she wants, only to be eventually “taught a lesson” by the male protagonist for daring to not conform, and to draw comparisons of how an ‘ideal’ woman must be through the contrast portrayal of Vasundara. So much so that, her (Nilambari) character exists to prove the very essence of patriarchy but not to smash it – how incredibly convenient! So many more examples, each one more shudder-worthy than the other!
During the time of K.Balachander however, specifically around the 70s, he had made a paradigm-shifting change in the industry, that the films during that period are talked about even now. The only satisfying pattern with his films; even though it is drenched with melodrama and misery, is the fact that – his films’ women were ‘real’ characters. Their lives were those of everyday people, nothing extravagant but actually quite ordinary.
The only and very obvious problem with his characters is that, his notion of feminism was quite obscure, in the sense that, though the women seem to be taking control of the household or their lives, they are shown to be so utterly bitter, angry and frustrated. This has now imprinted that image to the generation and even now, anybody calling themselves feminists, are presumed to be angry and frustrated.
Clearly, his films were received with a lot of trepidation and shock but he was relentless in his portrayal of female characters. He had a golden opportunity to reform the perception of that generation through cinema, but he didn’t go all out. The singular thing so enjoyable about these characters is that these women are neither goddess nor damsels in distress – they are women who are independent and learn their way through lives by making mistakes – if only they weren’t made to look so bitter all the time.
The distance KB didn’t go to, Rudhraiya did through ‘Aval Appadithan’ belonging very much in the KB era, 1978 to be specific. Aside from the revolutionary ways of breaking stereotypes in the style of making the film, subtly, it became a game changer in the portrayal of women in Indian cinema. Too bad, he didn’t make more than two films and one can only almost figure why!
Overall, a much denser impression has been formed that needs to be countered from the very beginning and that is how, despite being a door-breaking rugged protagonist, she still needs a male counterpart to calm her down and make the rest right at the end of the day because she is still “just a woman after all”. A very recent example would be that of the film Piku. Beautifully written and filmed sequences, if only Irrfan Khan didn’t have to come to save the day, in the end – belittling all that Piku has been doing to calm a tantrum-throwing father and have a peaceful life. And the apparently revolutionary self-proclaimed feminist advertisement, oh sorry, film: Ki and Ka – na uh!! As Paromita points out in her column: The title implies that Ka and Ki should be seen as types in a film which wants to be, not a narrative, but a thought experiment: what if men did what women do and women did what men do? Like a nukkad natak, or rather, a corporate training video, the film keeps presenting us with scenario upon scenario for this behavioural discussion. But it ends up informing or intriguing us about as much as a bad street play or training video. Queen of the other hand, was so much more promising because the power of choice entirely vested in Rani and she didn’t need a man to complete her life. The penultimate moment when she walks out of the nonsensical relationship is perhaps the most elegant, unconventional and feminine way devoid of melodrama, possible. One could not say it better than the history-making Tribeca alumnus Meera Menon:
“Strong” is kind of a tricky word because it’s not necessarily what I personally am looking for but it’s what other people are looking for in those female characters. I think they’re just looking for female characters that are making active choices. So much of the history of film has relegated women into roles where they are supporting or reacting to the sequence of events that have been generated or initiated by male protagonists. What I’m interested in, in terms of my feminism in film, is seeing women at the heart of the movie, making choices that impact the sequence of events… That’s a very simple way of looking at it, but I think that’s a simple enough exercise as it is.
You see, there is a long way to get cinema rid of a lot many things that we need to, but there will be rapidity in that if we start from the blood itself. This article is merely scratching the surface of the world of cinema and there are so many films that are phenomenally good in living up to the stature of portrayal of strong women.
It is also interesting to note how a woman would portray another woman on screen and turns out, there are writers/directors who are actually making the case for all of us – Aparna Sen’s Parama, Paromitar Ek Din are films that stand testimony to that statement (Elements of trilogy as quoted earlier, made by Deepa Mehta, also a woman).
From what we are writing and showing on the screen, achieving equality via a feminist portrayal of women is the only way forward. Not the angry, misguided, male bashing, ‘goddess type’ strong – but the real, regular strong, who just so happens to be comfortable in her own skin of femininity. Simple and no-nonsensical, don’t you think?
This article is co-authored by Vaishnavi Sundar and Prateek Sharma.
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