Category Archives: Genders

Monobina Gupta on Inconvenient Women

Recently Kiran Bedi, the country’s first woman police officer, sought voluntary retirement after being in the eye of a storm following her allegations of gender discrimination in the police force. Bedi, who had transformed Tihar jail from filthy dungeons to a clean and livable place and has had an outstanding career, was superseded for the post of Delhi’s police commissioner. Because she was a woman.

Women in civil service have come up against sexism time and again. Madhu Bhaduri, who joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 1968, recalls how women IFS officers launched their first protest against blatant gender discrimination in this elite branch of service, which was at that time wrapped up in layers of  discriminatory codes.

Here is an account of how it all started…

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Charu Gupta on Om Shanti Om and Saawariya

Like many other lovers of Bollywood cinema, I too was caught up since October this year in the countdown to the battle of all battles, with the release of Om Shanti Om (OSO) and Saawariya on 9 November 2007. Reams have been written, debated and analysed on the two films in newspapers, television networks, and everyday discussions. They have been depicted as films catering to very different sensibilities, and representing vastly diverse forms. The verdict seems to have declared both as average films, though OSO seems to be faring better than Saawariya at the box office. I enjoyed the first half of OSO particularly and thought Saawariya as a film with great form, but not much content. 

However, as a fan of Bollywood popular cinema, what struck me most was one striking similarity between the two films. I thought both the films offered great visual pleasure and feast for the female spectators, where the spectacular and stylish nude male bodies and images of both Ranbir Raj Kapoor and Shahrukh Khan, though very different from each other, were the prime objects of desire and erotic spectacle. Both OSO and Saawariya have urban heroes, whose bodies are produced and carved, rooted in providing a voyeuristic visual treat especially to most straight women and gay men. The identity of both the heroes in these films in centrally tied to the consumption of their nude bodies by the viewer. The films in some senses signify the coming of age of a new genre of Bollywood cinema, where it is not so much the female body but the male body which circulates and is on display, offering a sexualised imaginative anatomy. They also signify that the language of discourse of Hindi films has undergone a dramatic post modernist change in its conception of desire, where most of it is conducted not through the soul but through the body. There is no central heart, but a decentring of emotions at play here. In the recent past too, nude male bodies of Hrithik Roshan and Salman Khan have been offered to the viewer. It perhaps is also a reflection of the fact that more and more women are crowding the cinema halls and form at times the major chunk of spectatorship, and they are a vital part of the cinematic experience. 

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Beaten — By a Woman!

[Below is a chapter from my translation of N P Muhammed’s wonderful retelling of folk tales about Malabar’s best-loved folk hero and one of the earliest songsters of the Mappillapattu song tradition of Malabar, Kunhaayan Musaliar. The book, Kunhaayante Kusritikal (Kunhaayan’s Capers), which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi’s award for the best children’s writing in 1973, is almost forgotten now. In the stories of the Mappila Muslim community of north Kerala, Kunhaayan figures as the quintessential humble-born person who grows in stature through his wit and quick thinking, rising to eminence in royal courts of late 17th- early 18th century Malabar. In these times in which the Mappila traditions of Malabar are clearly under threat, I thought that it was necessary to reclaim this figure for our children and ourselves – and translating NP’s sensitive rendering of the tales, which reverberates with the folk wisdom of the Mappilas of Malabar, seemed the best way to do it. The best thing about Kunhaayan, who impresses all of Malabar, is that he is no saint. Thus he does get puffed up a bit with all the glory, and has to be brought down a peg or two – it is his young wife who fells him, finally. This chapter is about how she does it!]

There was time when she used to brim with joy, proud to be introduced as ‘Kunhaayan’s wife’.

Not anymore.

Tears welled up in Aisakutty’s eyes.

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Another Supreme Court

Even as our own dearly beloved Supreme Court repeatedly shows contempt of the people by handing over tribal lands to corporations and urban spaces to mall developers, the judges across the border seem to be on a radically different track. As is well known by now, the initial dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhary by General Musharraf – an action that launched a million mutinies – was at least partly to punish him for his order preventing the sale of Pakistan Steel Mills to a private group.

As the democratic upsurge in Pakistan carries on unabated, here is a lesser known story, sent to me about a month ago by Nighat Said Khan (better known as Bunny) Women’s Action Forum activist. It is an eye-witness account of the hearing in June 2007, in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, on the appeal by the ‘she-couple’, as a story in Dawn dubbed them, seeking dismissal of a High Court decision sentencing them to three years’ imprisonment for perjury. Not only is the order by the Supreme Court exemplary for its commitment to individual rights, Bunny’s account highlights the extraordinary sensitivity and awareness shown by both the lawyer representing the couple, Babar Awan, and the judges hearing the case.

If this is Pakistan’s judiciary, no wonder the general is a little lost in his labyrinth…

Over to Nighat Said Khan.

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‘Kalbela’, Naxalbari and Radical Political Cinema

Gautam Ghose’s Kalbela is a film set against the background of the Naxalite movement. Based on a 1980s novel by Samaresh Majumdar, the film sets itself up, quite self-consciously, within a certain tradition of films, namely radical political Bengali cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. It thus establishes an intertextuality and a certain connection with them.

The casting sequences take us through a rapid tour of some of the more emblematic moments of that cinema and that time:

  • The shot from Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 of the young man on the run jumping off a wall, running through the lanes, pursued by the police and finally shot in an open field. You can almost hear Akashvani’s signature tune as it begins its news bulletin to announce the discovery of yet another anonymous dead body in those troubled times.

You are barely through with it and in quick succession you see two, now somewhat iconic, scenes representing the 1970s angry young Bengal:

  • Ranjit Mallik in the final sequence of Interview, flinging a stone to break open the showcase of a shop. He would denude the mannequin and remove the suit it is wearing, and take it for his interview the next day. It is a stylized ‘trial’ of this character for the offence of disrobing the mannequin that becomes the opening sequence of Sen’s ‘Chorus’.
  • The other sequence is also equally iconic: Dhritiman Chatterjee ‘turning the tables’, literally, as it were, on his interviewers. This is a sequence from Ray’s Pratidwandi. Satyajit Ray, who has all too often been accused of ‘evading politics’, however captures, in this sequence, an important mood of rebellion that marked the 1970s.

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Does the ‘girl-child’ exist?

Does the ‘girl-child’ exist? What is it other than empty officialese, a smoke-screen that obscures, almost erases, little girls and the dismal little lives most of them lead? The ‘skewed sex-ratio’ has become a fetishized object for policymakers and governments in India, and improving those numbers a goal in itself. In the pursuit of good-looking sex-ratios, the minister for women and child development has come up with one alarming scheme after the other.

Earlier this year, Renuka Chowdhury announced a government scheme to open centres where people can abandon unwanted daughters rather than aborting them. Can you imagine the girl-children growing up in these doomed institutions? What fates can they expect, unwanted by their parents and kept on by the State only to boost sex-ratios? Chowdhury said at the time that the government was treating the drop in sex-ratio as an issue of national emergency. She also said that through this scheme, the government would “at least ensure that the gene pool is maintained”! In effect, these institutions would be collections of little girls unwanted by all but the census-takers, dropping by periodically to correct the skewed sex-ratio with a quick look at the office records.

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