Guest Post by RAMA SRINIVASAN
Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
― Jane Austen, Persuasion
Austen’s words, a searing commentary on how patriarchy controls the narrative, remains relevant today despite tenacious efforts by women to wrest authorial control from men and narrate our own stories. Even as the struggle to find one’s voice and to be heard continues, we might also ask ourselves what we will be left with after we have successfully challenged male authority and supremacy in our stories, the idea of heroes and villains, of chaste wives and women of disreputable characters. In the moment of triumph, is there also a need of introspection? The MeToo movement, in India and elsewhere, opens our world(s) up to these and many other questions that do not have easy or ready answers. A standard reply, reproduced in several platforms when questions like ‘why now’ or ‘what next’ are raised is illuminating of the problem societies face when women tell stories: “For now, we should just listen to the women who want to speak up.” It not only represents the struggle to tell our stories on our own terms but also tell them without a fixed agenda or plan.
The current moment in Hindi cinema has been complementing these societal struggles, perhaps even foreshadowing the MeToo challenges to patriarchy by both wresting authorial power to tell stories of relatable people, especially of women, but also displacing plot devices and narrative arcs familiar to stories that end up reaffirming patriarchal authority. Perhaps, one of the biggest challenge to patriarchy is to just tell stories of women who do not want to be like men but such trends have also provoked a backlash. This article seeks to unravel some of these tangled webs of struggles witnessed in our popular, mainstream story-telling medium.
Subverting the Narrative
Veere di Wedding was promoted as the revolutionary film with four women play its leads but it rather represented a normalisation of a marginal trend in Hindi cinema, which has now become commercially viable. I cannot comment on Veere for I have not watched the film but I want to reflect on what it meant to have four-five women as leads in two other films, Lipstick Under my Burkha and Angry Indian Goddesses.
Angry Indian Goddesses started the trend with an account of privileged women, whose privilege is accentuated by the inclusion of a domestic maid in their sisterhood. It is sisterhood with an asterisk. In this film, men are included primarily as sexual predators and the only solution against them is presented as the ‘final solution’. One that many vigilante films have adopted before and after its release but there is one crucial difference – in Angry Indian Goddesses, the murders are not planned in cold-blood. It’s a reaction that comes from several women who are successful or accomplished at what they do but are frustrated with the world they live in. They realise that despite their merit they are never seen as more than sexual objects and, in fact, resented for the success that is never seen as rightfully theirs. They are angry not only because they have had enough, they also know that end to this struggle is not in sight. The film closes on a meta note with one of the characters espousing the hope that one day we will be able to tell our own stories.
Lipstick Under my Burkha is also a tale of frustrated aspirations. But unlike Angry Indian Goddesses, these women do not have the privilege or the platform to nurture their talents. The younger women know what they are capable of and aspire to a life different than the one they see around them. Those who hold them back are not unknown sexual predators, as in Angry Indian Goddesses, but people close to them (who also indulge in sexual abuse). Both films are about women struggling to make a different life for themselves and realising that the pushback from patriarchy can be swift and brutal.
MeToo reflects this very frustration, in India and elsewhere, that while women’s lives have phenomenally transformed through the opportunities now available to them, men have been slower to adapt. By this I am not just referring to sexual predators and sexist family men – in the struggle against the patriarchy, an attack on individual patriarchs is much easier for men, who believe in equality, to support. When it comes to addressing patriarchy, the pushback appears inevitably. When I read reputed film critic, Baradwaj Rangan, on Lipstick Under my Burkha, I could see this disjuncture clearly: “It’s not that these men don’t exist. It’s that we’ve seen them far too often in far lesser films, and it looks like a cop-out when a brave new film of today opts for the same black-and-white imagery.” Rangan’s specific complaint against Lipstick was that all the men in it were ‘cads’. As opposed to Arth or Parched, he continues, there are no sympathetic men in Lipstick Under my Burkha. This complaint did not find its way into the review he wrote for Angry Indian Goddesses, which had almost no redeeming men in the story. The review for Veere gets extra points from him for finding a guy as well as a (heterosexual) couple to root for. The larger question is, do films on women owe men a sympathetic male character to identify with? A hero, even if in a minor role?
it is true that Lipstick is perhaps a tad indifferent to its men (except for the photographer Arshad’s character). The men are peripheral to the women’s story and their struggles and in this aspect, it is a mirror image of Dil Chahta Hai or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, made by the Akhtar siblings. In those films, it is the women’s roles that are superficial, some bordering on the offensive, and they have been criticized for this. But when your sample size of multi-starrer films with women in leads is a total of three movies, complaining about how under-written male parts are seems a bit unfair.
The stories were about showcasing women’s aspirations, sexual and otherwise, and the factors that hold them back. Men and women around the women are patriarchal agents if not patriarchs themselves; they can be fleshed-out characters but their purpose here is to highlight the way patriarchy functions. Their roles are driving the plot symbolically rather than via embodiment. Buaji’s (the character played by Ratna Patak) swimming coach, for example, is a respectful and even sympathetic character who refuses to see a middle-aged woman as just another ‘aunty’, demands to know her name and adds a respectful ji to it. He encourages her to learn swimming, coming across as a warm, caring young man, ironically from ‘brute Haryana’. He is not perfect but considerate. That he wanted a mate of his own age and felt betrayed by Buaji’s actions does not make him a ‘cad’ but his character was not given enough time to dwell on this complexity. The movie was about these four women and taking attention away from them would be akin to weakening the subversive element. It might be interesting to know more about the coach but it is not owed.
The success of Lipstick Under my Burkha and Veere, along with many smaller movies without proverbial heroes, filmed in non-metro settings (Bobby Jasoos, A Death in the Gunj, Masaan, Bareilly ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Savdhan, in fact the whole sub-genre of Ayushmann Khurrana films), hints at a larger trend in our consumption patterns – perhaps, we no longer need masculine heroes to drive plots in good, successful cinema. Khurrana appears to have realised this as he has been stating in interviews given ahead of Badhai Ho’s release that movies where he was cast as a larger-than-life protagonist have not worked and he has now decided to pick projects where his roles are defined in relation to other characters in the story.
Khurrana is not a card-holding revolutionary but his successful challenge to patriarchy lies in the refusal to accept emasculation in situations that may underline a crisis in masculinity (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Badhai Ho). Re-interpreting both femininity and masculinity is a thread that connects these divergent attempts at subverting cinema but a patriarchal backlash has also emerged somewhere between the hits and misses.
The Patriarchal Backlash, Violence and the Hero Image
Pink is a particularly well-crafted film in the context of subversive cinema. The story of three young women out of their depth as they fight against powerful sexual predators could have easily turned into an anthem for the male saviour complex. With a simple plot-tweaking, the filmmakers gave us an aging lawyer with manic depression who agrees to provide legal aid. The depression had no particular role to play in the film other than take the edge of hypermasculinity off. Consequently, unlike Damini, survivors of sexual assault in Pink no longer needed muscular heroes who will fight in the mean streets and scream in the courtrooms to protect and defend their honour. Amitabh Bachchan clearly did not understand this narrative subversion as he tweeted a picture in celebration of this unusual film, excluding the gutsy women from the frame. He assumed that he (and the filmmakers) were heroes although the film itself did not provide us with any.
We live in an age of cynicism where heroes in many of our stories have been replaced by real-world, complex and often flawed people. This can be frightening for some and I am not referring to the oppressed and the vulnerable who need hope – I am referring to those who watch Bollywood films to elevate themselves from their own insignificance. If male authors have used every advantage to write stories that cast men as heroes, there are other men who have sought solace in these plots, those who project themselves in the role of a hero.
Violence is integral to the image of a hero but can violence, once subverted through the lens of gender, caste or class, be reclaimed in service of a testosterone-fuelled hero? It has been reported that in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra had not planned an action sequence as its climax but Shah Rukh Khan had insisted on one because the role had otherwise appeared to him ‘too girlish’. Twenty years later, when shooting for Chennai Express, Shah Rukh again sought to include a final action sequence although, in this film, he was supposed to be a timid guy (who called himself ‘a common man’ while shaking with fear in the face of burly thugs), slightly vulgar and bigoted towards South Indians. He was far from perfect but had some endearing qualities that made a much younger woman fall for him. The plot twist that turned this common man to a violent rampage against his rival represented an inability to accept the resonance the larger film plot of a timid man, alternatively insensitive and caring, held in the context of current Bollywood films. It was a bone thrown to aspirational and insecure men – and perhaps, the star himself – who could not accept a story where the hero cannot reclaim violence from the thugs. After the extended brawl, he also proceeded to lecture the thugs on women’s autonomy and choice, a move that would likely make the Angry Indian Goddesses angrier. Ironically, Shah Rukh had insisted that Deepika Padukone’s name to appear ahead of his own in the opening titles of the film – he just did not want her to speak for herself.
Over a period of time, there is one star who has harvested this masculine insecurity with more convincing stories than Chennai Express, appropriating tropes from subversive cinema more seamlessly in service of a larger-than-life protagonist. The erstwhile hypermasculine Khiladi, Akshay Kumar, has found a winning formula to reinvent the regular guy into a hero in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Featuring in a series of films where his masculinity is threatened, he often emerges as the ‘mansplainer’ par excellence who lectures women (and men) endlessly on how to save themselves – from themselves. With Padman, this agenda is no longer a secret. He wants to be a superman without using violence or intimidation and his method is simple and effective – he just tells women repeatedly that they are wrong. No wonder the insecure men with fewer role models flock to his films. (As they do with Salman Khan, who is at heart an anarchist.) Kumar’s films cleverly obscure their goals for domination, especially of domination over women.
Kumar is, in one sense, the quintessential neo-hero of the Modi era. In one of his recent films, titled Gabbar is Back, he brutally murders ordinary people who happen to be in positions where they could corrupt the system. A more nakedly fascist plot can only be seen in the Shankar’s Tamil films (South Indian action film plots, incidentally, work very well for our ‘Hindu stars’, Kumar and Ajay Devgn). According to Gabbar is Back, fear is an instrument to keep the society in check. The iconic villain of all times, the outlaw Gabbar Singh, is recast as a hero who can clean up the system by rejecting the rule of law.
The resonance of such a plot in post-2014 India is fairly apparent as lynch mobs, Hindutva terrorists and rapists are garlanded, celebrated or defended, respectively. Gabbar is Back is to India’s lynch mobs what Toilet-Padman is to Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – they are two halves of the same whole. Attractive slogans for ‘a clean-up’, created for the middle class to rally behind a pretend reformer, who challenges hierarchies and uses shame as an effective tactic. He encourages self-loathing as the means to demoralise and destroy you till you submit to his rule. This is a hero who emerged from the ashes of subversive cinema that had once successfully challenged dominant narratives. The neo-hero is vying for a renewed life among stories like Toilet and Padman, set again in small town India, with multiple, competing voices, seeking to push the simple narrative of a superman who is here to rescue us from ourselves but also to deny us control over our own stories and struggles.
The challenge to hierarchies that the right-wing ostensibly poses is also designed to displace the more liberal aspects of the mainstream society where women’s stories are shared and heard, replacing them with the patriarchal authority of a man who takes care of women’s needs because they are apparently incapable of doing so. Dismissing MeToo stories as liberal and elitist even as the right wing celebrates violence perpetrated by ‘son of the soil’ underdog men elsewhere highlights how central maintaining patriarchal authority is to our homegrown fascism.
Kumar, in short, is making fascist films by both appropriating from and indirectly delegitimising the subversive cinema at the same time. More disturbingly, he – and the anarchist Salman Khan – have been more successful in reclaiming violence than Shah Rukh has. Kumar’s films are a product of a crisis of masculinity created by a world where authorship of tales has finally been wrested from the monopoly of men. This has led to the popularisation of dictatorial men who privilege male supremacy over the rule of law. We are, consequently, caught between the utopic potential of subversive tales and cathartic MeToo narratives, on the one hand, and the dystopic popularity of fascist heroes, on the other. Modis of the real world or Gabbars in the reel world will keep returning as long as insecure men need heroes, even if they are fascist heroes. The struggle to control the narrative continues.
Rama Srinivasan is an anthropologist based in Germany.