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Films and femininity

By Lalitha Sridhar

The conventional view that Indian cinema does nothing but reproduce patriarchal ideology is in itself a stereotype, says filmmaker and film researcher Venkatesh Chakravarty. In fact, our films are replete with female characters who bring the mightiest powers to their knees

Venkatesh Chakravarthy, formally trained in the discipline of philosophy, has served as a Lecturer at the Department of Direction, Film & Television Institute, Chennai, for several years. Taking a break from his academic life, he turned to professional film and television production to direct 90 hours of programming for national and regional channels. Later, he returned to teaching at the Department of Screen Studies, School of Communication, Science University of Malaysia, Penang. Since 2002, he has been engaged in independent research and is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Alternatives, Chennai. He has co-authored a book on French New Wave cinema,and writes for the mainstream and alternative media.

How has Tamil -- and for that matter, Indian -- cinema interpreted femininity so far?

There can be no simple and direct response to such a broad historical question. An answer to the effect that Tamil or Indian cinema does nothing but reproduce patriarchal ideology is in itself a stereotype. The great danger with such an analysis is that it gives no space for female agency and turns female spectatorship itself to a helpless victimised viewing position.

Until recent times and the emergence of television and its proliferating soap operas, women constituted the principal audiences for matinee shows. No cinema can afford to ignore them. Since the advent of cinema, therefore, many films have been made in many genres to address this female audience. These films, which may resolve their conflicts eventually within a patriarchal framework, do at the same time crack the patriarchy open in many ways to accommodate fantasies of empowerment for their female audience.

Take for instance the genre of Amman films, which mainly addresses lower-middle class and working class women in the city and women of subaltern castes and classes in the villages. They are replete with scenes of domestic violence in which the victimised woman finally asserts herself with the timely aid of the goddess she worships. The evil husband is ultimately subdued or symbolically castrated and the in-laws who are instrumental in reproducing such violence are silenced or taught a very harsh lesson.

Then we have the contemporary 'avenging women genre' wherein female stars like Vijayashanthi become embodiments of masculinity, bringing even the mightiest of powers to their knees.

The problem with most of these films is that the female protagonist initially occupies the position of the victim in the narrative. In other words, victimhood is posited as an essential and eternal feminine quality, which then needs miracles of some sort to redeem the situation. As against such essentialist descriptions of femininity, and to assert and recover female agency, feminists have put forward the idea of masquerade as the principal quality of a woman. What this means is that a woman is someone who can slide from a masculine position to a feminine position or vice versa at her own will and pleasure. In a world in which men dominate, women masquerade, wearing masculinity or femininity as a mask to resist their power. They would forge ahead with their talons but if threatened, they assume the most seductive feminine postures. In such a description if there is a female essence, then it is in her fluidity which cannot be arrested or frozen in any domain. The great advantage with this understanding of femininity is that it keeps alive female antagonism, exposing the misogynistic templates of patriarchy that always attempt to subdue or silence it.

In many films, the femme fatale or the dangerous woman is violently eliminated or totally drained of antagonism. However, the concept of masquerade helps us to read them against the grain to point out the tension that cracks such a narrative. The femme fatale is eliminated because she threatens the patriarchal order in her ability to slide between both the registers of masculinity and femininity. Moreover, however much cinematic convention may turn her into an object of desire, she bounces back as a subject of desire.

Similarly, some female stars have the ability to exceed the roles they perform. For instance, if you take Banumathi, even in a typically taming-of-the-shrew kind of narrative like Arivali where she is paired against Shivaji Ganesan, her final gesture or smile to the effect, 'So you think you have tamed me, eh?' resists the impositions of patriarchy. If one were to write the feminist history of Tamil or Indian cinema these slidings and excesses need to be identified.

Having said this, the point remains that many of our cinematic conventions are embedded in the patriarchal unconscious and thereby do a great deal of violence to the representation of women, both in terms of their body and character. They are subjected to a series of gazes, whether voyeuristic, investigative or medical, in all of which the controlling look remains with the male. Otherwise, women who challenge the system are often seen as hysterical or abnormal; as if normality and abnormality are natural categories instead of being historically produced social categories. To make things worse hysteria becomes a natural quality of women. Balu Mahendra's Julie Ganapathy is a case in point. It legitimises the violence with which she is eliminated by the male protagonist. The film is a virulent exposition of misogyny and many more could be added to the list.

Popular cinema also indexes the transition of patriarchy from a feudal joint family mode to that of capitalist nuclear family mode. Many films can be taken as illustrious examples of such social and historical transitions. In this context, V. Shekar's films like Kaalam Maari Pocchu are important to the extent that they open up a space for women and gender equality within the genre of socials while mapping the change that is taking place in the gender landscape when more and more women enter the workforce or various services. However, simultaneously, his films -- like most others -- have no place for female desire or the vicissitudes of female sexuality. Somehow a woman cannot assert her desire beyond the patriarchally defined boundary of the one man who contains it. In the case of a film like Fire, the two women desire each other not because they choose to do so but because their husbands cannot function for some reason or the other. Once again, initially, they are victims of a social order rather than subjects of their own desire.

Does stereotyping have a tangible influence on the psyche of audiences?

This is a loaded and problematic question suggesting what we call in media theory the hypodermic model. The media injects messages like a drug into our veins and we simply respond without any control. This absolutely negates the agency of the audience. 'Monkey see! Monkey do!' becomes the epithet for explaining audience behaviour. If media were ever that powerful then not only would no film flop, we would be behaving like those prisoners in the Platonic cave who cannot tell the difference between appearance and reality. The fact of the matter is that every time we step into the film theatre and out of it, even the most non-literate member of the audience disproves Plato.

The problem with stereotypes is that they eternalise and naturalise what are historically or socially constructed representations. In this, formal mechanisms or conventions of the media often close the gap between representation and perception. Beyond that, stereotypes legitimise the existing order of things instead of opening it up to a process of interrogation. Nonetheless, there is always a space for resistance.

Stuart Hall, for instance, identifies three ways of reading media messages. The Dominant Reading takes what the film says for granted. The Negotiated Reading questions the minor premises but accepts the major ones. The Oppositional Reading completely subverts the narrative. All these positions are available to any spectator. Psychoanalysis adds a further caveat to this; we read something the way we do because we want to read it that way. This implies that the dominant reader cannot absolve herself of her responsibility for reading the text in terms of its preferred or privileged meanings. It only goes to prove her complicity in saying 'yes' to the ideological configurations of the film; however, tacitly the whole operation may occur.

Moreover, the audience itself is not a homogeneous category. It consists of heterogeneous people coming from different ethnic backgrounds, class, caste, gender, sexuality and generation. To complicate issues, audiences never remain the same. A study of audiences in the 1930s would produce a different result from a study of audiences in the 1990s.Instead of speaking of media effects we should historicise media forms and conventions to locate the social causes that produce transformations in the media against the backdrop of political, economical, social, cultural and technological changes. That would tell us more about the media as well as the people who consume its products -- and about society.

We have to draw people's attention to the fact that popular culture is worthy of serious attention. I believe in highlighting the fact that popular films are documents of social experience -- with all its contradictions and tensions.

InfoChange News & Features, December 2003