By Sanhita Chatterjee
A film with the best Bollywood stars should primarily entertain, right? But what if it does something more? What if it asks us to pay attention and get involved in the journey of a young independent girl?
Let me first say that this is not a review nor is it an endless rant about how the subject of mental illness was treated frivolously by the director. Though to be honest, I wonder how many of the naysayers have ever plucked up the courage to undergo therapy themselves. But this article is not about that at all. It is about how we were all tricked by Gauri Shinde and how this might just be the beginning of a new journey for women in India.
If you grew up in India, you must have heard about the endless jokes about a woman’s uncontrollable urge to keep on talking. It is safe to assume that we all have been treated to them at some public event or social gathering and we have always thought how very true this observation is, striking even. However, did we ever think or question as to why it was so?
Why is it that women keep on talking, while men are reticent?
Let me share two incidents which will help answer this apparently strange question. Let me try to answer the first part of the question: why do women talk so much?
First, I will describe an incident that happened here in Santiniketan, a small town in West Bengal. It was described to me by my domestic help.
My help was widowed 30 years back and had nothing left from her marriage, except her one-year-old son and a shed to hide her head in. There was no asset to support her, thanks to the practice that exists in Hindu families even today where women inherit neither parental nor conjugal assets. To add to her woes, she was also robbed of all her husband’s savings by her in-laws.
Since then she has worked every single day of her life. Today in place of that shed sits a two storey pucca house, which is located in a prime location here. The way it happens in most elite localities, the residents tried everything to prevent her from building the house. In the end, her determination won. In fact the only thing that remained to be built was the kitchen wall. She asked her son to get a mistri (bricklayer). When the mistri came, she explained what she wanted; he kept quiet. She went out to work and when she returned home in the evening she saw that he had done the exact opposite of what she had asked him to do. She was infuriated. She knew the mistri did it purposely, even though she was the one who was paying for it! It was beneath him to take orders from a woman; so he did as he pleased. Next day when her son ordered him to do exactly as his mother had asked, he obliged. My help came to me and said the only reason the mistri did not listen to her was because she was a woman. It was not something new; she had faced it countless times before. She hoped that some day she would be heard. This is not a singular case that is restricted to a particular social class.
Every woman, especially women who try to get things done on their own, has to go through this at some point in their life. Women bear testimony to the fact that people, men and women, have a very hard time taking direction from a woman. Either they blatantly refuse to take orders from a woman or make snide remarks. This makes me want to conclude that when a woman talks, all she actually wants is to be heard. The main purpose of verbal communication is to convey a message. Is it not natural for a human being to expect their message to be understood when they speak? Not in the case of women, it seems. Even though we hear the sound of her voice, which becomes noisy at times, we fail to interpret the angst behind it. We even make cruel jokes and condition her to participate in it. If she laughs, she is hailed; if she does not, we make her life difficult.
This brings me to another recent event which actually made me revisit the incident that I just narrated.
Last weekend, I went in to watch Shah Rukh Khan-Alia Bhat starrer Dear Zindagi at a multiplex in Kolkata. The experience of watching it with an elite, educated audience – I presume educated or, at least, elite because they have the money to splurge on a newly released Khan-starrer at a plush multiplex – made me feel that I was completely cut off from them. When you watch a film at a single-screen theatre, you watch it along with the audience. The odd mobile phone that does not stop ringing or the odd viewer who feels ashamed at being scolded at for being loud is a part of the viewing experience in any movie theatre. But the entire audience at the multiplex was chatting, completely unapologetic. They did it throughout the entire duration of the film; no amount of reprimand worked. I felt like an island surrounded by troubled waters; the film on the screen was another island at a distance. I had to really strive hard to keep my focus intact to see it over all the noise.
When I was watching this unusual film outside a film and waiting for them to settle down, an epiphany occurred to me. I realised two things: first, the audience would not settle down; second, I had the answer to the question I have been searching for so long. I finally knew why women – Alia Bhat in the film – are never heard. Centuries of conditioning that both men and women had undergone ensured that they never pay attention to what a woman has to say or that she can have something worthwhile to say.
In fact, when I read the reviews for Dear Zindagi, the main point of contention was the use of lengthy dialogues. The film was criticised for the protagonist’s endless and useless dialogues and its superficial tone, a tone that the audience was unfamiliar with. It appeared the members of the audience had never been subjected to hearing a woman’s voice in such a manner before. It felt oddly like a punishment for all of them.
That apart, the reviews of the film also displayed gender bias, which identified and qualified the protagonist with masculine adjectives like “female hero” or “female protagonist”, etc. It seemed that the reviewers as well as the audience were taken aback for having to hear a woman speak for two and a half hours! That too in a mainstream film.
However, for decades, when men spoke and grabbed the audience attention for hours on end in Hindi films, there was no complaint.
The audience, in turn our society, gave the protagonist’s problems the same ear they give to every other woman. Not once did they bother to listen or pay the slightest attention. However, they did not leave the hall without making the occasional remark about the “immoral” character of Kaira (the protagonist). I must congratulate the director, Gauri Shinde, for pulling off a brilliant coup on the unsuspecting members of our society, the bearers of patriarchy.
This brings me to the second part of the question: why are men so reticent?
We have all heard the phrase: “man of few words”. This phrase has never been used to characterise a woman. Men have had the privilege of having been heard for generations, many a time at the cost of suppressing the voice of the significant other. Men have been heard so intently that they ended up having everything handed down to them even before they said a word.
When you see a man rarely speaking, it is safe to presume this is because he has been handed down privileges by his forefathers, who used power and dominance to subjugate women’s voices for ages. Women were conditioned to suppress their own voice and hear a man’s voice, even when he did not utter a word. Every day when a man’s clothes are laid out, lunch neatly packed, he never has to utter a single word to get things done. Almost every household in this country functions by keeping the preference of the man in mind. When a woman demands similar treatment or tries to get things done her way, she is either ridiculed for “wearing the pants in the family” or for being “manly”. There is nothing wrong in getting what you want, if all you want is equal treatment. But the moment a woman demands it, she is either ridiculed or cast aside as a “spoilt” child. In one stroke, she is infantilised and her voice is suppressed. A man is hardly termed as “spoilt” in any Indian family, no matter how difficult it becomes to handle his choices and his demands. Everyone happily goes out of their way to get things done for a man.
Although a woman is ridiculed and laughed at as the “home minister”, when it comes to making decisions that matter, whether it be inheritance of property, children’s education, household savings and so on, she does not get a say. By delegating to her the job of a subservient housekeeper, the patriarchs advertise, even joke, how she is never satisfied. The patriarchs are the best advertisers, who will sell you the worst job and then make sure that you accept it happily and join in the ridicule and laughter that is directed at you.
In this regard, Dear Zindagi has set a precedent and will hopefully be followed by many such pursuits in order to dent the “narrow domestic” walls built by the patriarchs. Hopefully, someday a woman’s voice won’t sound as odd as it does today.
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Sanhita Chatterjee is assistant professor at the Centre for Journalism & Mass Communication, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, India.
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