Telliscope: The contradictions of femininity
By Ashley Tellis
Zeenat Aman, almost 70, announced in April that she was raped for years and duped by a businessman in Bombay. This is not the first time Aman has been brutalised by a man. She was beaten black and blue by Sanjay Khan and his wife Zarine Khan at the Taj in Bombay in the 80s. Married to him, pregnant, she lost her child and almost lost her eye. Mazhar Khan wiped her clean of all her money and also beat her black and blue. He even got their kids to join the party. Now Sarfaraz, half her age, raped her for years and has decamped with a lot of her money.
That she was married to Sarfaraz for years has now come to light. That she was living with him for years before the official (some say the nikahnama is fake) marriage is lesser known. That he was always a beast, terrorising her children for years, is even lesser known. We might well discover that he has another wife tucked away somewhere. After all, Aman was second wife to both Sanjay and Mazhar. It only made the abuse of her easier.
Since the late 80s when she went into retirement, Aman has been portraying herself as happily domesticated, then unhappily domesticated (as she revealed to Simi Garewal in Rendezvous or Vir Sanghvi on his show) and since her semi-return (clearly running out of liquidity), she has been portraying herself a happily single mother, looking after her children and waiting for them to grow up before she would “think of settling down” again with someone.
The audaciousness of the idea of thinking of settling down with someone new at 70 should have given us a hint. There was a man in the wings of her privatised life. Is the fact that he turned out to be another monster (Aman clearly has a thing for loutish Muslim men) just bad luck or does this say something about the faultlines of contemporary feminism?
Zeenat Aman was one of the most successful women of the 1970s in Hindi cinema. She brought to the table a Westernised oomph, a glamour quotient, and a body to die for. The nation drooled over her. National pipes were clogged by the nation’s men jerking off to her. She worked really hard, made serious amounts of money, and had a Mercedes Benz in the 1970s. She edited magazines like Super and Savvy, wrote columns about women needing to be independent and self-sufficient, and gave women readers mostly sound advice on their love lives. She was clearly intelligent, bright, cosmopolitan. She studied in California, read books, used phrases like savoir faire (for Raj Kapoor). Yet none of that came in handy in her own life.
In her own life, she was naïve, brittle, and easily trusting of the stupidest of men. She paid huge amounts of her own money for Sanjay Khan’s Abdullah, funded Mazhar Khan’s dud of a film Gang and, clearly now, the property deals of this no longer current lover/husband. Mazhar Khan wiped her coffers clean in the 80s and early 90s before he died in 1998 (Vir Sanghvi asked her back then if she was totally broke) and so has this man. But, more importantly, she actually loved these losers. Where did her good sense and her good advice to other women go?
What is it about women who give themselves to completely undeserving men, subsidise those men’s lives, and get abused for their pains. Sridevi, the Zeenat Aman of the 90s and the one woman who dominated them, did the same with Boney Kapoor, who used her fame, her money, and her life to boost his sagging non-career after Mr. India. She paid with her life for it in the end.
If Zeenat Aman and Sridevi used femininity to build their careers and fortunes, it is precisely that femininity that did them in in their personal lives. But how does one explain their naivete, their utter, utter stupidity when it came to men and love? It is one thing to say one can never know the internal logic of a relationship between two people but another to justify the sort of violence that Zeenat Aman faced then and is facing at this age.
Think of the courage it must have taken her to come out with a complaint against this incredible and intolerable violence (being raped for years) after decades of pretending to be the happy, domesticated, single mother and much talk about settling down and marriage once her kids had grown up (and they have grown up now). Think of the horror of having to lose such a large amount of money saved for old age.
The facts are that Zeenat Aman could not live without a man ever and, more disturbingly, perhaps could not live without abuse from men.
The difficult questions before us are: what is it about the culture of femininity that makes women take this sort of violence for years, take it over and over again, seldom come out of it alive?
What does one do when the myth of economic independence being the foundation of women’s independence is blown apart with a case like Aman’s?
What is the psychic cost of the need to project one’s marriage or domestic life as successful at any cost?
What happens when the worst violence is perpetrated on you by the one with whom you are most intimate?
These are questions that Zeenat Aman will be thinking about for the rest of her days. And so should we. For they simmer at the heart of contemporary feminism: in the 70s and today.
Ashley Tellis is an LGBH, anti-communal, feminist, child, Dalit, adivasi, and minority rights activist. He lives and works in Hyderabad.
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3 Responses to “Telliscope: The contradictions of femininity”
Scurrilous, pompous writing. Had it some insightfulness (“contemporary feminism”? pshaw!), the distastefulness could be tolerated. “Telliscope”? Derridean puns provide the asbestos lining for muddled thinking.
Thank you for writing this. It has been helpful knowing im not the only one out there.