The women in Parched (2015) are sitting and chatting, seemingly free from their daily oppression for once, when a cell phone rings. Rani laughs as she realises that she is sitting on the vibrating phone. Bijli says, “Who needs a man when a mobile can get us off!”
A joke about finding sexual freedom has sadly been hijacked because of men. The women laugh and enjoy sitting on a vibrating phone because “it will free us from men”, and not for its own sake.
They are conscious and aware of their oppression at all times, even in their ‘happy’ moments away from men. This theme has been repeatedly shown in most recent movies centred on female characters, for example, Sonata (2017), and Angry Indian Goddesses (2015). Women know and accept the reality that they are restrained from exploring themselves and their sexuality – so much so that they are never really happy even in moments when they could be. Ultimately, patriarchy wins.
Alternatively, a film like Lipstick under my Burkha (2016) shows women freely pursuing their interests and exploring their sexuality right under patriarchy’s nose, living in the same houses as the patriarchs, because they do not let the oppression get to them emotionally.
A film like Masaan (2015) shows the struggle of a woman caught earlier by cops in a sexual act with a young man in a motel, who now wants to get out of the smallness of Banaras because she assumes “jitni chhoti jagah, utni chhoti soch” (the smaller the place, the smaller the thinking). But as we see, no place, whether Mumbai or Goa, can offer these women the external freedom they want.
In Angry Indian Goddesses, Suranjana is an over-worked businesswoman and a mother of a six-year-old. Her husband does not help her in looking after the child. Attending a friend’s wedding in Goa, Suranjana says, “You know me, business deals – I go everywhere, show my face, and go back to work the next day.” She continues, standing at a scenic beach with her friend: “It’s the first time in my life I don’t want to go back. Your mad friends, this site… I feel like I am young, and I am free. I feel alive.”
We are instantly made aware that the freedom she feels here is temporary – it is a result of being in this place for an event that, for once, does not relate to her work. We, the viewers and the character, immediately realise that once the wedding ends and she gets back to work, this feeling will go away; that it is only a temporary escape from the daily drudgery of exhaustion that is life.
Sonata even had an apt word to describe this place of being: a “transit lounge”. The place where the women come to escape, albeit temporarily, from their real world of oppression, domestic violence and sadness. And while in this transit lounge, they don’t forget where they came from, and where they have to go eventually.
Men and patriarchy hijack even the freest moments of women’s lives by being ever-present as an invisible antagonist in the narrative against which women’s happiness and sexual freedom are expressed – the women are never truly free.
In Parched, Rani, a 37-year-old widow sexually touches her friend Lajjo. But that act does not come from a place of sexual attraction towards her female friend; rather it shows her longing for a sexual touch from a man.
“It’s been 15 years since I have been touched by a man,” she says, in anger, to an unknown caller just a few minutes later in the film. The person hangs up when she continues, “Tell me, where and when do you want to meet?”
If you are looking for women free to explore their sexuality in the films centred around them released in the last two years – you will come away disappointed. Maybe it is a representation of reality, but I believe it is the influence of White Feminist ideology at work in the minds of writers and directors.
Power to disbelieve
The women in Lipstick under my Burkha are happier and freer than you’d expect. They have what I have personally observed many women in India to have: “the power to disbelieve”.
Coined by Elizabeth Janeway in 1980 in her work Powers of the Weak, it is “the refusal to accept the definition of oneself that is put forward by the powerful”. bell hooks, a Black feminist writer, in her work Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) calls this one of the most significant forms of power held by the weak.
The men in Lipstick under my Burkha do not control women’s (inner) lives, even as they think they do. When Rehana is scolded for dancing freely in public during an engagement celebration, she goes to her room, puts on her earphones, and finishes the dance move on her bed. Usha reads a Mills and Boon book hiding it under a religious book, despite being reduced to the status of ‘buaji’ (paternal aunt) by society. Shirin Aslam finds happiness and life in her work as a sales woman, even if it means hiding this from her husband who rapes her every night. Leela continues to have a relationship with a man she likes even after her mother arranges her marriage with another man.
Shilpa Phadke in her book Why Loiter (2011) quotes social scientist Asef Bayat (2007):”Pleasure is an unknown quantity, which undermines the very possibility of order and control.” Bayat not-surprisingly listed dance, and having sex, among other activities, as what fun might mean.
“Much feminist thought reflects women’s acceptance of the definition of femaleness put forth by the powerful,” wrote hooks in her book cited above.
Lipstick under my Burkha does not do that. It does not show subjection from men as the most defining quality in the women’s lives, weighing down heavy on all of their time, attention, and emotional energy, unlike the other movies discussed above.
Stay put in abusive environments?
A review by Ranjona Banerji calls the film Lipstick under my Burkha “bold, but not feminist.” Banerji writes, “The women may be strong and funny when they are in their secret lives but they make almost no push for empowerment in their oppressive lives.”
“The women behaved the way men for millennia have been telling us women to behave, without courage and honour,” she adds.
But the four women are not necessarily as passive or unassertive as they might seem. Shirin is not unassertive when she tells her husband she knows that he has an extra-marital affair, and that she knows he is unemployed. Usha is not passive when she anonymously phone-calls the man of her fantasies.
There are various types of strength, and theirs is the one that finds the courage to make their life meaningful and happy despite the apparent challenges. It might seem a pseudo-malign way to keep women in their place – by asking them to be optimistic, and happy even when you might think there is nothing to be happy about.
But the representation of women in Lipstick makes sense psychologically. “Inescapable, inevitable and irrevocable circumstances trigger the psychological immune system,” writes Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness.
In Sonata, Aruna asks Subhadra to leave the man who beats her, and come live with her and Dolon. “I don’t think I can live like you, Aruna,” Subhadra replies to Aruna, who has been living with her female friend for the past 15 years after divorcing her husband. “I can’t explain it. It’s a man-woman thing,” Subhadra adds.
The film puts across a pertinent point that if a woman plays by society’s rules for a straight woman, most often she would face abuse from the man she decides to spend her life with.
Usha’s love interest, Jaspal, in Lipstick under my Burkha insults her when he comes to know that his secret caller is a 55-year-old widow. “Rosy toh tum ho hi nahi sakti thhi. Aaena dekha hai kabhi?” (You could never have been Rosy. Have you ever looked into the mirror?) he asks, tearing apart the pages of the Mills and Boon book she had read to him over the phone.
Run to where?
Parched ends as Rani, Lajjo, and Bijli run away from their village. The unknown caller calls Rani, and she tells him, “This time, I’ll listen to my heart.” We are made to believe that the three women have overcome the regressive culture of the village and will now be living a life free of the misery of customs, traditions, and patriarchy of that place.
The whole struggle for Devi in Masaan is to leave Banaras where she feels confined by the ‘chhoti soch’ (small thinking) of society. The film ends when we come to know that she has gotten into a course at a university in Allahabad.
But would the new places where the women in Parched, and Devi in Masaan go to not be equally contaminated by parochial beliefs?
The very educated professor in Sonata, Aruna, is shown to be a “prude”. She keeps correcting her friends to use the politically-correct term “sex-reassignment surgery” instead of “sex-change operation”, but ironically is the only one who does not approve of her friend’s choice of undergoing it. “You are dealt certain cards in life, and you have to play them.” she says.
Pammy, a housewife, in Angry Indian Goddesses decides to divorce her husband she has no connection with, and start her own business. Ironically, the film starts on the low note of all her other working friends facing sexism at their workplace. They fight with their colleagues, or leave the particular photography or acting job, depending on where they are in the workplace hierarchy.
Subhadra in Sonata is fired from her job in big-town Mumbai for “moral turpitude”. So the situation is not much different from that in Masaan where Devi quits two jobs, one after the other, in small-town Banaras as her colleagues make lewd comments to her because of her past.
“In a horrific incident, a white tiger killed a youngster in a Delhi zoo… he slipped and fell into the tiger’s cage… he appeared to be pleading with the tiger with folded hands but the tiger killed him… the youth had 10 minutes in the cage before he was killed…” says the TV news announcer in the background as Devi and Piyush “fulfil their curiosity” in the motel room in Masaan. Minutes later, the cops break open the door, and Piyush commits suicide after fruitlessly begging the police to not tell his father. The director possibly wants to convey that human society is like a zoo; with the cops and the State very much like tigers.
If none of these films show a solution to the problem, it is because none exists.
Fighting back is not a solution when the people you are fighting against are so deeply entrenched in patriarchal beliefs that they will misuse their power to take away all your aspects of your life that you can leverage to live life on your own terms.
When the men in Lipstick under my Burkha saw that the women have a life beyond what they could see until then, what happens to these women? All those aspects of their life are snatched away: Rehana’s father orders her to stop going to college; Shirin’s husband orders her to leave her job; her tenants throw Usha and her belongings out of the building she owns.
Even so, Lipstick under my Burkha did not leave me raging and angry like Parched did (even though Parched had a seemingly happy ending on the face of it). It left me feeling light and okay – as if I were seeing the portrayal of ordinary women, who would do okay, who would get up the next day, happy, and would take care of themselves. I felt that I don’t need to worry about them.
The movie ends with the women laughing, and putting together the pages of the Mills and Boon books that were torn. They literally and figuratively have the last laugh, showing that they have undermined patriarchy in their own way – by not letting it bring them down emotionally.