By Neha Basnet
It is fashionable to talk about feminism and women’s empowerment these days. Everybody seems to have an opinion on how a woman’s life could and should be lived. Social media, classroom debates and political agendas are the latest battlegrounds of the sexes. ‘Feminism’ has been branded as a marketing tool to sell the ‘manhood’ in female. There are a group of women who want to be like men and call themselves ‘feminist’.
These ‘feminist women’ encourage and spread ideas that women can be liberated and will be considered equal only if they participate in every sphere of life that men have been part of. Men have been framed in a particular paradigm of masculinity – which is another debate – and these feminists believe that portraying themselves like the male partners or participating in activities like males could give them an equal position in the society.
As everyone holds an opinion and jumps into this debates these days, I thought of exploring Hind cinema, one of the key cultural influences on the Indian society.
It is hard to enjoy Bollywood movies if you are a feminist. However, I find the whole ‘idea’ of ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’ elusive. Feminists in India are critical of Hindi movies in which women/female leads act out emotional scenes, rape scenes, or hypersexual dance numbers, such as in the movies of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. On the other hand, these feminists acclaim those movies that are women-centric or where women beat up their male leads, such as in the movie, Revolver Rani.
The ‘heroic’ characters are always played by the male leads; the female leads merely fill the gaps and entertain people with their beauty and hypersexual dance numbers. The Hindi cinema industry claims that there are movies in which women play the role of the “hero”. Take, for example, Mother India or Sita aur Gita, where the main protagonists are women.
However, if you look through the ‘feminist’ lens, you will find that the female lead in Mother India, Nargis, portrays the role of a mother within the ‘traditional cultural’ norms, who would do anything to protect her family. Sociologists Emile Durkheim and Pierre Bourdieu have stressed that the ‘traditional cultural’ norms are the opposite to the values of the ‘modern industrial society’, where along with economic empowerment women, too, have the right to enjoy the sun out in their bikinis. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has termed such societies as ‘cold societies’. In the Indian context, the ‘traditional society’ denotes the one where women are ghar ka laaj (pride of the house). While they have no real power whatsoever, they are expected to sacrifice themselves to save their family. In Mother India, a woman, despite hardships, raises her three children. She is bound to follow the same household rituals that her mother and grandmother followed. She is bound to live the life that men have decided for women long ago. The concept of the ‘ideal mother’ or ‘mother India’ has overshadowed and limited the value of ‘woman’ in this movie. So, according to the self-proclaimed ‘feminists’, this is not quite a ‘female-centric’ movie at all. But we could ask the question: why can’t we consider women who function with a traditional framework,and yet assert their power, feminist?
In the film, Sita aur Gita, Sita and Geeta are older versions of Meera and Veronica from Cocktail, 2012. The difference lies in the fact that Sita and Geeta are twins and one is a victim of her extended family. In the case of Meera and Veronica, Meera is more like the character of Sita. She is not actually a ‘victim’ of just any domestic violence. However, her husband turns out to be a crook! In both the movies, one is very ‘conservatively’ dressed and is soft spoken, while the other one is free-spirited. The ‘feminists’ are definitely in love with the ‘rebel’ versions in both the movies because they seem to enjoy those female versions. They choose to become the kind of women they want to be.
The ‘rebel’ versions of the female leads in both the movies rebel against the ‘traditional society’. However, I wonder why they are not assigned any professional roles such as that of a police officer or a lawyer, who could help the other ‘victimized’ version of the female lead. Why are they shown as drunk, outgoing, tomboyish kind of females? Does that imply that if one is outgoing, can hold up a cigarette and go to discos, that person is more empowered than the ones who choose to stay home and become religious? It resembles the debate between those who think veil as oppression versus those who insist on veil as a choice.
In recent years, ‘feminists’ have claimed that there have been groundbreaking movies where there is masala (entertainment) but not misogyny. The 2012 movie featuring Sridevi, English Vinglish, was highly acclaimed by the ‘feminists’. While watching the movie, my mother was literally in tears. The story is woven around women who have never been to schools and who give up everything to educate their children for a better future. This is the reality in many Indian homes. However, when the children learn to speak English, they feel ashamed of their mother because of their ‘non-English speaking skills’. In the film, Sridevi is mocked by her husband for her inability to speak English. Despite coming from an educated middle-class family, she decides to take up an English language class. Although the movie tries to impart that we mustn’t underestimate anyone’s ability, the idea that the skill of speaking and comprehending English can make one feel proud and derive respect in her family betrays our colonial hangover.
The 2014 movie, Queen, created quite a buzz in B-Town. Many ‘feminists’ proclaimed it as a ‘coming-of-age’ movie. The movie narrates the story of a young conservative woman, whose fiancé calls off their wedding because his love towards her changed over time. Heartbroken, she decides to go alone for their pre-booked honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam. The ‘feminists’ think that Kangana Ranaut’s portrayal in the movie normalizes the idea of a girl doing things such as solo travelling, gambling and dancing in the public that are still looked down upon. Further, many claim that the movie has managed to foreground that there’s nothing wrong in being boisterous, fun-loving, and outgoing.
If this outgoing, gambling and boisterous nature of women is what it means to be a ‘feminist’ then I am not a ‘feminist’. If being a ‘feminist’ is to fit this particular paradigm, then the concept of ‘feminism’ deserves a re-look. Earlier only the males were considered to be sexist thinkers, who believed women’s bodies and their actions must operate within a particular framework sanctioned by society. Now ‘feminists’ have flipped the table. In the new definition of ‘feminism’, women are expected to be exactly like their male counterparts, which is equally problematic.
Neha Basnet is a graduate from the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University, The Netherlands. She writes about development, child rights, and youth.
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