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Voices: Silencing the Body: On Blissful Cinematic Ignorance and Social Insensitivity

A still of actor Divya Dutta from the film 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag'. She is wearing a pink headscarf and bloue jacket, and her right palm is held up to her head in the manner of a salute.

 In one of the most compelling and difficult scenes in 2013’s acclaimed Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a young Milkha Singh is shown visibly disturbed, having witnessed his sister being sexually abused by her husband. Shaken, his sister breaks down and is comforted by her younger brother. I remember seething and feeling deeply upset in the aftermath of this scene and was hugely disappointed when the experience of abuse was left entirely unaddressed for the rest of the film. Some will argue that the film was “Never supposed to be about anything but a sporting hero’s triumph over adversity”. But I was left feeling very unsettled by the fact that the trauma inflicted on a woman’s body did not merit a ‘conversation’, a ‘closure’ or an ‘angry outburst’ in a film that dragged on for more than three hours. The wife ‘moved on’ obviously, and marital rape again became commonplace, routine and banal. The oppression of the female body is used as a clever cinematic instrument here to make the audience feel more profound emotion for the male protagonist’s struggle for sporting excellence.

The most significant image that arises out of this, for me, is the alternating veneration and subjugation of women’s bodies. In her path breaking work, ‘Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo’, Mary Douglas describes the human body as a surface upon which the rules, hierarchies and complexities of a culture are inscribed. The central insight she offers is the idea of the body as a symbolic medium of culture. Her insight on rituals of purity and pollution are an interesting point to assess the social and cultural hierarchical positioning of women vis-à-vis men. Sherry Ortner has addressed the universal subordination of women from a nature-culture paradigm in her very famous essay as well. She opines that women are perceived as closer to nature, while men hinge towards the side that is deemed indicative of a higher level of human consciousness-culture. Reminiscent of Douglas’ earlier discussed work, Ortner delves on the ‘natural’ connotations of ‘pollution’ and states, for instance, that the pervasive idea of equating menstruation with all that is deemed base, polluted and dirty, is a significant move to ensure that the marginalization of women right  to the very fringes of the social sphere, especially that of the ‘polluted’ menstruating female body in religious and ritualistic discourses, becomes a norm for an already sufficiently patriarchal society. Religious or ritualistic rites were an effective way of further cementing the subjugated position of women in society, and propagating and perpetuating the stigma attached to the ‘pollution’ contained in the menstruating woman was a predominant aspect of achieving that subordination.[1]

From menstruation to menopause, women’s bodies have been subjected to shaming for centuries. While the menstruating woman was unclean, the menopausal woman was sexually dysfunctional. Shalini Shah discusses a character, Madayanti in Syamilaka’s ancient text ‘Bhana Padataditaka’ who is an old prostitute and at menopause (rajoprodhata) lost her sexual urges (nivrtakama). For the sake of her family’s sustenance though, she engaged in salacious talk with her clients. At the other end of the spectrum is the notion of virility and masculinity attached to male bodily emissions. While Caraka explicates upon the glory of semen by hailing it as the ‘final and best product of food’[2], it is also noteworthy that in stark contrast to the old, menopausal woman was the old man who was never cited as sexually dysfunctional and had to only undergo virilification therapy, while aphrodisiacs also addressed problems of male sexual desire. Needless to say, attention to female sexual desire and sexuality remained negligible/non-descript.

The control of female sexuality was an aspect implicit in the larger project of oppressing women’s bodies. The woman’s unbridled desire was considered potentially dangerous and most ancient texts accord male sexual desire a high degree of respect and grandeur while female desire was merely an accompaniment to conception. For instance in his Astangasamgraha, Vagabhatta writes that a woman’s reaching orgasm before her male partner could lead to anomalies or birth defects in the progeny since the sukar (sperm) is deposited in the woman but the latter is ‘no longer attentive to its reception due to the ecstasy of sex.’[3]

Ortner identifies three levels at which the ‘natural’ physiological functions of women’s bodies could be grouped: ‘(1) woman’s body and its functions, more involved more of the time with “species life,” seem to place her closer to nature, in contrast to man’s physiology, which frees him more completely to take up the projects of culture; (2) woman’s body and its functions place her in social roles that in turn are considered to be at a lower order of the cultural process than man’s; and (3) woman’s traditional social roles, imposed because of her body and its functions, in turn give her a different psychic structure, which, like her physiological nature and her social roles, is seen as being closer to nature.’[4] Thus, the processes of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing are symbolic of the attachment a woman has to the renewing processes of nature, which indicates that ‘her animality is more manifest.’[5] According to Beauvoir, men transcend ‘life through existence’, that is by meaningful actions or actions beyond mere reproductive processes and creates tangible, meaningful objects while the woman creates ‘only perishables – human beings’ and hence her ‘enslavement to the species’ becomes a structured and systemic reality.[6]

The female body has always been a site for intense social, cultural, political, psychological and structural contestations. The questions raised above give a brief historical insight into the interconnections that have characterised patriarchal attitudes towards women resulting from the taboos associated with female bodies. I fear that our society at large is slowly and steadily perfecting an order of insensitivity and callousness breeding out of our languid sense of inaction and comfort that makes images and sounds like the aforementioned scene in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag to a lot of popular music that glorifies hypermasculinity and misogyny, mostly accepted and appreciated, and rarely critiqued.

The right to possess sexual desire and the right to ‘demand’ consent are apparently exclusively masculine privileges and women are usually straddling the line between being wily temptress and hapless victim, with the latter being forced to render consent to the overwhelming aggression of male desire. Their bodies deserve more than a footnote, more than a fleeting sentiment, more than a fashionable rhetoric and definitely more than a crass pandering to audience sentimentality by mainstream cinema.


*Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Arpita Bohra at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for her thought- provoking, astute comments that helped shape my understanding of the film.

[1] Sherry Ortner, ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?’ in M.Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (ed.) Women, Culture and Society (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1974) p. 68-87.

[2] Shalini Shah, ‘Love, Eroticism and Female Sexuality in Classical Sanskrit Literature: Seventh- Thirteenth Centuries’ (Delhi, Manohar, 2009) p. 99.

[3] Ibid. 1 p. 98.

[4] Ibid. p. 73-74.

[5] Simone de Beauvoir in ibid. p.74.

[6] Ibid. p. 75