B 32 to 44: Body Politics or No Body/Politics?

B 32 to 44 is the title of a movie — it refers to the bra sizes of the protagonists of director and scriptwriter Sruthi Sharanyam’s debut film, which has been generating highly positive reviews in the Malayalam facebook world. It has also been highly-awaited  after it received funding from the Ministry of Culture and the Kerala State Film Development Corporation.

In a strong sense, the movie is a culmination of the gender struggles that have unfolded in the space of Malayalam cinema over some years now, including those of the Women in Cinema Collective. Women have demanded equal space and consideration in all aspects of movie-making and have created their own critical discourse of both the content as well as the institutional structures that make Malayalam cinema so disgustingly patriarchal. They have braved both social media troll attacks, loss of job opportunities, as well as the scorn and sarcasm of their colleagues, including female colleagues, to make this voice and space. The funding, therefore, for a ‘woman-centric movie’ both in content as well as in the filming process, is a critically-important event in the recent history of Malayalam cinema.

I hate to be a killjoy, but feminism needs killjoys, and indeed, feminism would be a toothless, if pretty, tame if loudly-barking, little lapdog  of the establishment if it ceases to be a killjoy of patriarchy.  I can’t help it too, when the media conceives of ‘women-centric’ in utterly quantifiable terms. When it says that ‘the film has 75% female participation, on and off the screen’, something is clearly off. I am too familiar with the functioning of the governmental state not to notice the significance of such quantification, especially when it is applied to something that is not quantifiable — in the creative arts, ‘woman-centric’ need not mean the preponderance of women in terms of numbers. Indeed, I have read and seen creative work that has but a single woman which is intensely woman-centric in political terms. But for governmentality, numbers do count. And so it does, it seems, for a movie that seems to serve the interests of apolitical governmentality rather than feminist politics.

A number of reviews have said that the movie is about ‘body politics’ and the reference to the many female and single trans (a transman) characters interms of their bra sizes has been read as an affirmation of ‘body politics’. The movie is about five women and a transman: a woman who has just undergone mastectomy, a junior employee in Kerala’s thriving hospitality sector,  a domestic worker, as aspiring young movie actor, an underage mother, and a transman.

Why a transman is a question I kept asking myself throughout watching the movie. Why not a transwoman, and since this has been proclaimed to be a movie of, not just about, sisterhood, why didn’t this become an opportunity to establish trans-cis sisterhood? Especially when  transwomen actors are active in the Malayalam movie scene? The movie opens by essaying a moment of violation, one that is meant to portray transmale anxiety about breasts. Throughout the movie there are references to breasts — the removed breast, the small breast, the lactating breast, the breast that is marketable, and so on. But not a single of these is developed at any length. It seems as though these mentions are nothing beyond a basic-minimum feminist gesture to claim the status of a movie about ‘body politics’. The urgent need, it seems, is to mark the losses that the woman suffers because of the specific condition of her breast; dwelling upon the experience of it seems secondary.

The large number of female characters makes this impossible perhaps, but that, precisely, is the point. In a world when all of us are neoliberal entrepreneurial selves who are but a ‘bundle of skills’, loss/gain is the commonsense framework of self-evaluation. The question then is, ‘what do you lose/gain from the specific condition of your breast?’ To Malini, who is recovering after mastectomy, it is her companionable conjugality, to Iman, it is her chance for a promotion, to Nidhi, it is her chance to breast-feed. For Rachel, the aspiring actor, it is about the experience of sexual violence — through an underhand ‘deal’ a lecherous director seeks to cut with her. For Jaya, the domestic worker, the saleability of the images of her breast (in lingerie ads) is initially a problem, but the professionalism of the market seems to wipe out the violence.

The general format of ‘women centred ‘ films in Malayalam seems to be that of first posing a problem first and then narrating a solution- (this applies to this movie and also to Asanghadithar, on the retail women workers’ struggle for toilets) with very minimal exploration of inner worlds, dilemmas,  and contradictions. Indeed, the problem-and-solution format seems more governmental than cinematic. Breasts clearly figure in the problem- posing part of the individual stories in this  movie but they do not figure in the resolution, in all stories.  Indeed , at the stage of ‘solution’, ‘body politics’ seems to be replaced by an abiding concern for the family.  Malini resolves her emotional crisis by fostering the underage mother and her child.  Rachel prepares to fight sexual violence with the active support of her family.  Iman loses her job – and I don’t see how this resolves her crisis of losing her own income but she seems fine once she becomes a couple with Ziya. Jaya, once she becomes a model and starts earning well, is shielded from moral police by her mom in law. The underage mother seems to be saved by her assumption of motherhood and reinsertion in a more hospitable family.  In other words,  the reinventing of the family as more hospitable to women takes precedence over body politics for sure. Definitely,  this concern with the family is eminently governmental, in all government, liberal and illiberal.

This struck me with greater force probably because I saw the movie yesterday,  and it coincided with the release of the memoirs of the much-demonised body artist, Rehana Fathima. Her outright defiant body politics had left a few years back had all the defenders of ‘women ‘ in Kerala,  including conservatives of all shades, and much of the progressives and the feminists,  clucking in indignation and fear like an enormous brood of offended fowls. Since then, she has been the target of attacks from both state and civil society, and her very existence was threatened.

The contrast that the persecution of Rehana makes with the media celebration of the anaemic ‘body politics ‘ in this movie is too hard to miss.

The ‘body politics ‘ in this movie is so pallid , I think,  because it actually serves to distract us from the omnipresent Pinarayism on the one hand, and the absence of any collective and critical anti-patriarchal charge, on the other. Kerala State’s twenty first wisdom on ‘women’ empowerment ‘. This can be readily summarised as ‘women’s entry into the market + State protection through the women and child development bureaucracy’. This wisdom radiates from every pore of this movie. It unfolds in an unreal infrastructure-bedecked Kochi, probably in its Pinarayist future, the fumes of Brahmapuram now in some utterly forgettable past. Of course, it is not flawless — there are crude, lower-rank police personnel who are insensitive to victims of sexual violence, and unschooled in the ways in which the female body can be turned into a marketable resource without subjecting it to direct, physical, sexual violence. But then the superior officers in the police are woke and women-friendly, so no worries, really.

But even more than this, the movie teeters towards a cover-up of the recent failings of the Kerala State ‘s women and child protection machinery. But even without that level of moral collapse, it feels like a PR job. Malini, who ends up fostering the underaged mother and her child, is an official of the Department and Women and Children, Government of Kerala. She is a kind kochamma who tries to make up, in her individual capacity, for the unfairness of the world of advertising photography towards the working class Jaya — which cannot be but disguised personal charity. She is also the champion of fostering care, the new solution to Kerala’s neoliberal state’s effort to cut down welfare expenditure and deal with institutional breakdown, but which still finds it politically unwise to throw off the cloak of benevolent welfarism.

Aesthetically, the film needed much more work (wonder if government funding also involved deadlines that were too tight). Bad aesthetic choices ruined the only moment of subversion in the movie, a passionate kiss between Iman and her trans-lover. The kiss is framed by loud music that almost screams ‘Aanandam, aamodam, aahlaadam…etc etc’. Of course as adults we do know that a consenting kiss is all that, what is the need to scream? Again, like in all good governmental intervention, everything to do with body-passion must be framed in pedagogical terms, if possible in ways that distract you from the passion. I found myself giggling uncontrollably, even though I did want to be sucked into that moment of passion on the screen and be politicized by it.

To me, then, this movie was instructive of the extent to which governmentalized understandings of the anti-patriarchal struggle – highly neoliberal and individualized – have taken over our political imagination, and how central it is to the Pinarayist future. It bears in its very body a kind of non-offensive, mild, neoliberal feminism. This is the sort that sees empowerment in, and roots for, the safe entry of women into the market as sellers of bodily skills. And sees this made possible by a protective state machinery, of kind officials of the Department of Women and Children and higher police officers on the one hand. And by gender-sensitive and non-colorist successful artist-entrepreneurs like Ziya who seem magically protected from the vagaries of the market, on the other.

Oh, enough! Give me Rehana Fathima’s children painting a Phoenix on her naked body, any day. One day this abused , humiliated, mangled body will rise from the ashes, like a Phoenix. Visual creativity is closer to poetry and far, far away from governmentality. But, oh, to be just citizens even, we must be more than inoffensive pets of power.

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