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Reel space: Engendering difference

By Suparna Bhattacharya

A comparative reading of selected Indian films (Hindi and regional) that address issues of gender and sexuality turns out to be an interesting and stimulating exercise, for the sheer range of standpoints they come from and the responses they evoke

As in all cultural spheres, cinema too is controlled by power dynamics working from within and without, that directors have to contend with. In conforming to societal mores or rejecting their validity, filmmakers are always engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the world around them.      

The films taken up in this piece are a selection of documentaries and features made in India span differences in time, language and ways of life, but are linked by certain assumptions about gender and sexuality, either endorsing or refuting them.    

Constituting selfhood -- the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ 

An exceptional film made by an exceptional director, Mandi (director: Shyam Benegal) foregrounds the forbidden world of prostitutes, placing them at the centre and thus reversing the gaze. The lens, trained in an unbroken manner on the humdrum of a brothel, keeps away from moralising superiority. The barbs on the hypocrisy of the ‘normal’ world outside cannot be missed. The women are unabashed about their bodies and their sexuality and empowered by a keen awareness of their ability to use them. The film is overtly subversive of conventional notions -- pointed examples being the joyous outburst when a girl-child is born to one of the prostitutes, and the final sequence where a hapless young woman prefers to escape the confines of the rehabilitation centre to seek asylum with the bordello, a matriarch in a sequestered world of women.

In K P Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro’s documentary film Odhni, a group of women from similar social locations come together to explore their identities and assumptions, seek answers, articulate feelings and misgivings and examine the relationship between their bodies and their idea of ‘self’. Being with other women makes them drop their guard, which they have to keep up within the family, and enables them to revel in their unique identity as women. Initial hesitation gives way to delight in simple things like using swear words, the prerogative of men in all times and social spheres. Politics of the body, and means to contain its use, personal spaces, and language-use are brought home in the dialogue and experience-sharing format of filmmaking.

The much-touted Marathi film Saatchya Aat Gharaat (Home by 7 O’clock), on the other hand, is distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of the self as a physical entity. Somewhat confused in its premise and the ‘message’ it seeks to get across, it falls into the trap of laying the onus of rape on skimpily clad young women and the general depravity of a westernised generation. Tiresome metaphors, of unchecked female sexuality being likened to an ‘opened vessel’ lying open for ‘use’ by justifiable male desire, are used. Further politics may be read into the fact that the victim of rape is an outsider who has come to Pune to study -- in that the Hindi-speaking outsider is responsible for the morally corrosive influences pervading a traditionally ‘good’ and ‘strong’ culture. Also, that bringing the victim/rabble-rouser closer home is a rather uncomfortable prospect.

Many films like Anaahat have used historical distance to speak about a difficult and taboo topic like female sexual desire. Critics claim that this is also a buffer to justify such ‘excesses’ and muzzle voices of self-righteous indignation, often from self-proclaimed feminists. This is just a pointer at the intolerance and right-wing politics that is on the rise in our times. Bringing sexuality to the fore in modern times is too difficult to digest.

A whole new genre popularly called ‘crossover’ films has evolved in the recent past, which have their moorings in India as well as the adopted countries of expatriates/NRIs. These films are more comfortable talking sex in an Indian setting. They have a very limited appeal to middle and upper-class urbane Indians, most of whom aspire to such a lifestyle, some who identify with it. However, the setting is either completely hyper-real in an Indian context or representative of too minuscule a population group. It’s more ‘them’ than ‘us’, or so many would feel.

Dance like a man, darn like a woman?

Gender constructions with respect to the idea of Nation have come to the fore in numerous films in an industry that feeds on patriotism and jingoism. Aggressive nationalism is a concept that has, over time, been irreversibly intertwined with ideas of aggressive maleness, patriotism and war. The stupendous success of movies like Gadar is explained with reference to this psychological construct. Benegal’s film Junoon also uses the masculine-feminine dichotomy as a motif in a pronounced manner.

The submissive, helpless woman (abala nari) who must be protected and whose honour is equated with that of the Nation is an ideal image that has evolved in a similar manner. The violation of the woman is thus a violation of the sacred concept of Nation, both being an affront to male duty and pride. The contentious idea of the Nation’s women has been explored in films like Pinjar, where a national commission for the recovery of abducted women was portrayed (reflecting an actual commission set up after the partition of India). It ended up bringing back a lot of women simply as national property, though their families would not accept them. Agency is not given to the woman in any way.

In fact, the infamous reel vamps are also portrayed as diametrically opposite to these ‘good’ women. Unlike their male counterparts who plot and scheme unscrupulously against the nation or against the hero, these women are guilty simply of being power-hungry (a most un-feminine trait), lustful, ‘forward’ and generally westernised (the ‘Other’) in manner and taste -- attractive for their poise and confidence and also completely unacceptable for the very same reasons. These women are a threat to the status quo and are inevitably punished at the end of the narrative.

Queer politics

‘Indian and Lesbian’ -- thus read a poster at a rally for queer rights organised by a Bangalore-based association called SANGAMA. The message is clear but the implication is disheartening -- sexuality deviating from the norm is also viewed as dangerous and sought to be alienated. This struggle for visibility and equal rights for alternative sexualities, without threat of punitive action, is documented in the film Many Faces, Many Desires.

As Upendra Baxi puts it in a report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties: “At stake is the human right to recognition of different pathways of sexuality, a right to immunity from oppressive and repressive labelling of despised sexuality.”

Queer sexuality comes to be discussed more often, and with less discomfort, in the genre of documentary films. Mainstream films, barring a few like My Brother Nikhil, rarely touch upon such subjects with dignity, and tend to moralise or create the most unkind caricatures even when they do.

There have been films like Daayra and Tamanna, though few and far between, which had sexual minorities dominating the narrative. In Daayra the central characters are a man and a woman who cross-dress (whether by choice or by circumstance). In Tamanna, a eunuch finds an abandoned female infant and brings her up as his own daughter. What is heartening about both representations is that not only are people with alternative gender/sexual identities brought to the centre but their right to love, parenthood and family also finds legitimacy and unquestioned acceptance.

Rights claims for sexual minorities through cinema has been a more difficult process than those for eunuchs and sex workers because the latter have historically been linked with certain social roles, though kept at the fringes of social opportunities and benefits.

In purely relative terms, gender seems a less contentious issue for hardliners, while sexuality and its expression seem far more threatening.

Able-ing representation

Even in thinking about the body and sex, one rarely tends to think beyond the ‘normal’ body and its cravings. Sexuality and sexual desire in the disabled body and mind tends to be sidelined in films because it seems to be problematic in terms of general acceptance as well as representation. In a culture of shame that we have come to be, sexuality is a taboo subject anyway, and unthinkable of in context of the disabled body and mind. Reproductive rights would come up as a part of the whole picture, and pose a further problem for the ‘normal’ world. Societal attitudes de-link physically/mentally challenged people from the natural right to sexual desire and reproduction, and this spills over into the realm of filmmaking. Only a few films like Sadma, Sparsh and the recently released Black have spoken of this need, which is generally not allowed to be expressed or fulfilled.

By and large though, the exercising of gender/sexual choices has not been well received in popular perception and portrayal. It is a little difficult to establish direct links, but it seems that the legal framework governed by Victorian sensibilities regarding sex ‘against the order of nature’ and cultural notions of aberrant sexuality/gender identity affect each other in a two-way process. Sexuality and gender roles are perceived as immutable and offering no possibility of deviation from the norm. Thus, in most cases, alternative sexualities are ‘proven’ to be cleanly divorced from the possibility of love and fulfilment in an insidious way, by ensuring that such a character is left frustrated and unloved in the end or is chastised into a ‘normal’ heterosexual existence.

The very fact that most popular cinema tends to be purely commercially driven and has such high stakes offers little room for articulation of unpalatable differences. The margins are pushed back further and only some aspects of social life are accounted for. In the better part of the realm of culture, the perspective is from the centre, the only voice heard is that of the dominant. Subversion then may be one of the few ways to successfully negotiate the divide. Until we learn to interrogate our assumptions and look at ourselves more closely, more complicatedly.

(Suparna Bhattacharya is a student of English Literature at Fergusson College, Pune)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2006