Monday, September 25, 2017

Not feminist enough?

As I went out on the town declaring my love for Lipstick Under My Burkha, quite unsurprisingly I met people on social media who seemed underwhelmed by this story of four women living out their forbidden fantasies in the heart of India. The most baffling criticism I came across was someone on Twitter saying the film isn't feminist.

I wanted to look past my bias and understand this comment. What about LUMB wasn't feminist, or not feminist enough for this Internet person? What does a film about four women, directed by a woman, dealing with desires of women have to do to be considered feminist?

The answer came to me today while browsing some old reviews by one of my favorite film critics, Baradwaj Rangan. In an adulatory article about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas, he mentioned the word "feminist" in context of SLB's Chandramukhi and Paro. Yes, the same Chandramukhi and Paro, divided by social status, united by hopeless affection for an undeserving asshole.

Now Baradwaj Rangan is not the same person as the LUMB-denier, but something about calling LUMB not-feminist and Devdas feminist reeks of a similar logic - that's equating triumphalism with feminism.

Bollywood has a time-honoured tradition of excusing all kinds of crimes under the name of triumphalism. The common man that our great and learned stars make movies for, they say, comes to the theatre to escape the drudgery of reality. They come to see the superstar play the common man play a hero, punch the baddies, obliterate smuggling and terrorism and corruption with one song in the villain's lair and one big fight. It's a good way to deal with the fact that these evils in real life are far more overbearing and far more complex to be dealt with a few punches.

Somewhere along the measly history of films about women, we have come to expect the same kind of triumphalism in the name of feminism. From super Bahus slaying domestic abuse with some sharp dialogue to fighter girls manning up to take revenge/justice in their own hands, our feminism has always been an impractical fantasy that exists in the cinematic universe only.

Indian films of a certain vintage are quite adept at putting the right words in the character's mouth. An honest policeman encountering official level corruption for the first time (it's always the first and only time) knows exactly how to shame his superiors with the right words. They feel the shame alright, just before drilling some bullets into his righteous head.

SLB's Chandramukhi and Paro belong to this vintage in a certain sense. Chandramukhi the courtesan smartly ticks off a rude patron. Paro the housewife confidently confronts her husband, a zamindar, about his double standard in being still attached to his deceased wife, while he judges Paro for harbouring feelings for her childhood sweet heart. Because you know, that's just how 19th century Bengali housewives roll.

It can be very cathartic to watch such confrontations in film. We all fantasize about confronting the villains in our life with some saucy lines, to hold up a mirror to them, to put them to shame. We don't, because unlike film, you don't cut right after the saucy dialogue. You're still in the same room with your corrupt boss, chauvinist husband, testy client. You know you'll have to meet them again tomorrow and the day after, and even if you choose not to be pliant or a pushover, you can't also afford to tick off all the people all the time.

I don't resent SLB his articulate heroines, but sometimes you wish for a film that would address that empty, helpless feeling of NOT saying out loud the things you want to say to people around you. Besides, in Devdas and many films that pay some lip service to feminism, those lines of dialogue exist for their own sake, as side notes that don't add to the narrative. Remove those lines, and the fates of those characters would still be the same.

Not so with Lipstick. It is that rare film that celebrates a spot of rebellion, even as it makes you confront its full cost. It is full of unspoken words, confrontations that will never happen. Its women want the very things that men are celebrated for pursuing - money, respect, freedom, and some good old sex. Consider the case of Lila. A man in her place would be appreciated and encouraged for having a business idea, and his mother would egg him on towards his dreams, instead of trying to sell him into a marriage alliance. In their internal lives, these women are in every way a man's equal, having the same desires and the same drive to go after them - isn't that the very definition of feminism? Yet in the real world that they inhabit, they are punished for those pursuits, because they are women.

I don't know if this makes LUMB feminist enough to everybody's satisfaction, but I was almost waiting for a feminist narrative that takes a hard look at the yawning gap between aspirations and reality. I would love to live in an India where someone like Shirin could simply step out of her house and go to work because that's what she wants to do. But in the meanwhile, Shirin Aslam is the India we have. My feminism cannot deny her reality.

No comments:

Post a Comment