Dangal – Entertaining and Inspiring. But is it a feminist movie?

Is Dangal really a feminist movie?

So the year 2016 is coming to an end. Pink, Kahaani 2 and Dangal. It seems feminism is paving its way into mainstream Bollywood.

I have written on Pink and Kahaani 2 and both the movies are very close to my heart. Absolutely loved them. I did like Dangal also, as it is about hard work, perseverance, ambition , achievement and the beautiful relationship between a father and his daughters. I want to appreciate it as a good movie. But is it really about feminism? No I don’t think so.

In a scene that turned out to be the turning point, young girls Gita and Babita shock everybody by beating up a bunch of boys. The boys’ mother is fuming and shames her sons for getting beaten up by girls. In another instance, boys are ridiculed for losing to the girls.

Maybe in this context, it is justified to some extent because boys are supposed to have more physical strength than girls?

But is it feminist and cool to shame somebody who laughs and says “Girls can’t beat boys” and then join him instead to laugh at the boys who get beaten up by girls? Is it necessary to support stereotypes either way, whether it is for men or women?

These are the skewed concepts of masculinity and chauvinism embedded from patriarchy. Men should be strong, men should not cry. This is why men who are brought up with this kind of mentality feel less of a man when they see a woman strong and powerful, and feel like they have to control her in any way possible to prove their masculinity, even if it involves violence.

Yes, we are now focusing on girls which is great. Teenaged Geeta and Babita emerged strong winners. But what about the boys who were taunted for the unthinkable shame of being defeated by girls? How would they have dealt with this frustration? How would they end up treating women in their lives? Would they not exert force to prove their worth knowing that girls going ahead of them would be considered the ultimate insult to their masculinity?

Girls are not less than boys

I detest this statement. Girls don’t have to prove that they are not lesser or greater than boys. Let us just accept them as human beings with equal rights. Let us not keep boys at the pedestal where they are the parameters of comparison to prove women’s worth.

If we are saying girls are not less than boys, but we are making boys feel less if girls are doing better them then is it serving any purpose? Have we really accepted gender equality? Do we have to make one sex feel superior to prove something and demean the other?

There is a part of the movie in which Geeta leaves her home and starts to see a different (normal?) side of life. Watching romantic movies, dressing up, applying nail paint, looking at boys and letting her hair grow. Her father is not happy with this. She reasons with her mother that in her training school, they are allowed to do all of this, and as long as she is performing well, how does it matter if she has some freedom in life?

I loved her statement. It applies to everyone not just wrestlers. Every girl who grows up and sees life, gets influenced by new lifestyles and new people she meets as she is discovering herself at the dawn of adulthood. She has to make choices in life, stay grounded to the values she believes in but also rejuvenate herself to fit in with the world. I would have liked to see Geeta live up to it. It was a very important moment in the movie.

But since Aamir Khan had to be glorified, she had to be proved wrong. Her performance declines and her father has to make a comeback as her coach (which is fine). But why did she have to cut her hair short? A strong ambitious wrestler cannot have the natural desire to look good? She had to defy that to prove loyalty to her work and her father? Again, the stereotype has been reinforced that women can either be strong and ambitious or bimbos. If they put on makeup and are in touch with their feminine side, how does it make them any less accomplished?

I hope I have not been too critical. I did like the movie. A lot. I just feel feminism has a long way to go. Even in movies.

Kahaani 2: Must watch

So I finally watched Kahaani 2. When I had seen the trailers, I had thought I’ll watch it the first day. But probably after watching Aye Dil Hai Mushkil and Dear Zindagi, I was not too excited for cinema. With mindless movies like Befikre hitting the theatres, the shows for Kahaani had reduced to a one show every day, and I was afraid that the one show may also go away on this Friday. And so I booked for a late night show on a Thursday. Had it been any other Bollywood movie, I would have fallen asleep.

But here I was watching Vidya Balan, my favourite actress. I don’t think our generation has any other actress who is so brilliant with her performance, and naturally beautiful (without any surgeries) and also talks sensibly in interviews.

Coming back to the movie, I loved it for touching a tabooed topic. The last time I saw a Bollywood movie on the topic of child abuse was Monsoon Wedding and Highway. Monsoon Wedding was also good, a little ahead of its times. I found Highway weird but the last part where Alia speaks up was impactful.

There are little things about the movie that are realistically and beautifully depicted. Lots of spoilers ahead…

1. Milli’s teachers loved throwing her out of the class because she is not good at studies and is unusually silent and sleeps through the lesson. Reminded me of Taare Zameen Par. This is common in a lot of Indian schools. Teachers (not all) don’t care to find out the reason for a child’s peculiar behavior and conveniently write him / her off as dim witted, making things worse for the child.

2. In one of the scenes, Vidya Balan points to her body to the little girl, and talks about being touched in private parts. I don’t think any Bollywood movie has had a scene like this. The only time we see something like this is in some awkwardly made educational videos teaching children about good touch and bad touch.

3. Vidya Balan, who has been abused as a child had a failed marriage with Arjun Rampal, because she could not get intimate with him. It takes time for women who have gone through abuse to get intimate with another man again. If they communicate to the partner, and he is understanding and patient then it makes things easier. In this case, Arjun Rampal was unaware of the horrors of her past, and assumed she did not like him. A man’s ego is easily hurt, so feeling rejected would have been pretty much been it for him.

4. Vidya Balan used to shiver every time Arun (the new guy she was seeing) touched her. Yet she wanted to lead a “normal” life with him and was trying for that. She was even eating fruits to make her skin look better, for him. It was endearing to watch all this conveyed from a woman’s point of view.

This is what survivors do. They don’t die and cry their entire lives because they have had a bad past. She may have had a phase where she was still affected (with Arjun) but then she moved on and was in a happy relationship with Arun, who respected her and whom she liked.

This is what I liked the most. Her character was neither glorified not victimized. It was an honest portrayal of the emotions she was going through. This is important because society loves to believe that a woman’s life is easily ruined and she can never find happiness again, probably the reason there is so much stigma around these issues.

First Pink, Then Kahaani 2. This has been a good year!

The unwed mother

I watched two episodes recently on a popular Indian television channel which narrates true incidents of crime. One was the case of a young unmarried woman who committed suicide because she thought she was pregnant. Another was that of an unmarried girl who tried to terminate her pregnancy herself in a crude way, and lost her life in the process.

Another episode featured the story of a girl who was unknowingly videotaped in a consensual sexual act by her then boyfriend who later threatened to upload it on the internet once she moved out of the relationship. The girl and her current boyfriend ended up murdering him, and that is how they gained access to the pen drive which had the video. I have seen a similar concept in a Hindi movie where a family goes to great lengths covering up the accidental killing of a boy, protecting the “honour” of their daughter who was videotaped by him while taking a shower.

What is the message that this conveys to our girls? That their “honour” is more important than their life? And what is this “honour” anyway?

Is it a crime to be an unwed mother? Is it shameful? Does the society shame the unwed father?

What kind of a society is this where the woman is shamed no matter what? If she is raped, she should be the one hiding in shame although we acknowledge that she is a victim. If she has a consensual sexual relationship with somebody she likes and gets pregnant, she is still shamed. If the person she trusted breaks her trust and makes a private act public, she is again humiliated. When she is forced upon by her husband in a marital relationship though, she has no rights. Then, she would probably be shamed for not cooperating with him.

In one of the shows I saw, the uncle of the dying girl who was assumed to be pregnant refused to take her to the doctor, saying that if people found out she was an unwed mother, nobody would marry her sister!

If that is the worst that could happen – nobody would marry her or her sister, so be it! Since when did getting married become more important than being alive? Does it make any sense giving birth to daughters and raising them only to consider their lives so cheap?

When are we going to teach the girls that they have the right to their bodies. We should educate them and guide them to make informed choices. Her body is hers and what she does with it is her choice. It is time we stop treating it as the custodian of the family’s or the society’s values. Her sexual choices are an aspect of her personality. They do not define her character. They certainly do not determine anything as far as the family and society is concerned.

I wish every parent would create an environment where they would tell their daughters that no matter what, they would be there for support. If she becomes a victim of misuse of a picture / video she should be told that it was NOT her fault. It was a mistake – the person she trusted turned out to be a wrong. It was a judgment error, but not a crime.

The criminal here is the boy and there are laws in place to take action against him. Whatever humiliation she may face because of it would be temporary but she can recover from it. If an unintended pregnancy occurs, there are options available. We should not just provide education to our daughters, but empower them to face any situation in life with courage.

Why we Indians have been called racist

Several readers have sent me a link to this article, “An African American explains why India is the most racist country in the world” and asked me to express my views. The article discusses how Indians are obsessed with skin colour and discriminate against people of darker skin. The article also progresses to discuss discrimination against people from the North East. Allegedly, Indians use terms such as “Blackie” and “Chinki” to describe certain physical attributes of fellow Indians.

There would always be agreement and disagreement on any subject, especially as sensitive as this one. A lot of people have been in the defensive mode, rejecting the author’s perspective and pointing out racial discrimination in other countries.

Having traveled extensively and having lived in the US, I feel that while racism against Indians could be diminishing around the globe, racism by Indians continues to be rampant. And this is why:

We Indians love to comment on people’s looks. We think it is our birth right. The age old wisdom “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is not something we care to follow. We look at people. Dissect them from head to toe. Stare at them. And we are always happy to share our observations.

It starts with the birth of a baby. Yes, babies! While in the West, compliments such as “cute” and “precious” are showered upon new borns, in India the little person is also not spared from a specialized scrutiny of his / her color, facial features, weight and height! If the baby is dark but born to reasonably light-skinned parents, a whole genetic analysis is done of what could have gone wrong. Dark-skinned great grandparents are tracked down from the family tree to be blamed for such a mishap. Sometimes, the mother is questioned about what all she had been eating to have caused such unprecedented disaster in the family. A very fair cousin’s mother in law keeps regretting, what is the point of searching for a fair daughter- in- law when the granddaughter turned out to be dark?

As we grow up and start attending schools and colleges, there are nicknames given to most of us– Moti, Gappu, Chasmish, Blackie, Kali Maa, Chinki, Taklu, Ganje, Giraffe – I have heard and seen them all. Most teachers ignore such abusive behavior and the bullying continues. Teachers have more important things to worry about ofcourse – such as children’s grades. They only get involved when kids start beating each other up. Even parents do not find anything objectionable if their child indulges in such name-calling. They do not find it offensive at all, as they themselves may have such terms incorporated in their vocabulary.

I remember an incident when my friend’s daughter looked at an African lady in a restaurant and commented “Bhoot” (ghost). The parents told her not to point fingers, but also laughed at her ‘cuteness’. I told the kid that what she said was bad manners. She looked different from that lady too and what if the lady also called her bhoot just because she had never seen somebody who looked like her before? The parents were taken aback and told me not to get too serious and just let the child be and not ‘corrupt’ her innocence.

How is this innocence? Isn’t it ignorance? Shouldn’t we teach our children that this is wrong?

While traveling to other counties, I have noticed that people globally do not comment on a stranger’s looks, unless they have something nice to say. However, in India it is very common to meet people and within the first few minutes of the conversation, they have an opinion on how we look! People are quite vocal about their observations too! If you have a sibling of the same sex, people forget that you are not identical twins and that it should be perfectly normal that you both don’t look the same. They are amazed and absolutely HAVE to comment. It is like a spot the difference contest in a comic book. I have heard the following from people I have known for few minutes:

Your sister does not wear glasses. You must be watching too much TV that’s why you got it early.

You look bigger than your sister. Younger sisters are usually fatter and look older. Look at Karishma, Kareena.

Your parents are tall. How come you are so short?

Speaking of short, I remember an intelligent classmate in college whose height was much below average. The professor referred to him as “Chhotu”. Whenever he raised his hand to answer a question, the professor religiously joked that he could not see him. The boy decided not to participate in the class at all. What was the point of being smarter than most of the class when he would always remain shorter than most of them?

One time, my friend’s mother had come to pick her up from tuitions. Another friend who happened to be from Assam mentioned that her elder sister would be coming to pick her up. Aunty was curious to see what the elder sister looked like, so she stayed back, waiting for the girl to show up. The poor girl came not knowing what was in store for her. One glance at her, and Aunty remarked,

“You are much prettier. Your Didi (elder sister) looks Chinese.”

Just like that! A random and senseless remark!

In the US, commenting on women’s weight in office could potentially result in a lawsuit. In the Indian workplace, a woman gaining or losing weight could be a subject of long discussions over lunch / coffee. It is almost customary to comment on how married women put of weight, how some of them have managed to lose so soon after childbirth, and others have not. It is perfectly professional. Her weight is everybody’s business.

And God forbid, when it comes to marriage (especially arranged) it is okay to tell people that they are too ugly to get married. A daughter in law’s looks continues to be the topic of discussion and comparison for years to come, until the time that a new daughter in law enters the family to shift every body’s focus. I would not like to say that it is only women who are at the receiving end of the comments, because men get judged too.

A couple on a wedding stage is not just showered with flowers and blessings but a lot of criticism. It may be audible to them. Sometimes, we even say that it is not a match! Or something like love is blind (It is meant to be a compliment?). But it is okay. It is acceptable. It is not a big deal. We do not recognise that this is wrong. This could be a problem. This is not nice. As a society, we are used to it.

Why are we so offended with this article then? The point is not that other counties could be worse. The point is that we are like this. We judge people on their looks. We are insensitive and judgmental. And we do not wish to change.

Holi – Then and now..

Image source

When she was 7

Moni had got ready in an old worn out frock, the one that she invariably slipped into after returning from school every day until one day Maa said, “You are wearing the white and black polka dot dress one last time on Holi, after which it will be discarded.

The pain of parting with her favourite dress had not deterred her spirits though. There were too many things to look forward to that day. She had convinced Papa to buy her the biggest pichkari in the shop which was a 3 piece water-gun. Moni had been practising by filling it up with water and aiming at random objects in the house all week, much to everybody’s annoyance.

Finally, all the practising was to pay off. It was Holi!! Visitors had started pouring in. As she started flaunting her gun pichkari, aiming for her favourite cousin Sid Bhaiya, she was surprised that none of the other cousins had pichkaris. She was hoping to become a star by having the most fancy pichkari, not by being the only who had one!

Where is your pichkari, Bhaiya?

Pichkari? Small kids play with pichkari. I am playing with the growns-ups this time!

I am coming, Bhaiya, wait! I don’t play with pichkaris either! She dumped the gun and followed her cousin.

There were so many random people playing Holi at her house today! Seemed the whole town was here. The domestic helper Shambhu was filling up buckets from the handpump and adding colors to it. The eldest cousins were drenching each other directly from the pipes. Some silly kids were throwing water balloons at strangers from the roofs. By the end of the day, Moni looked at herself in the mirror, satisfied – She was a mix of red, green, yellow and blue from head to toe.

While the teachers narrated the legend of Hiranyakashyap, Holika and Prahlad to the students in school, the children seemed to be interested in creating legends of their own. The day after Holi in school used to be a testimony of who had more fun. Even though mothers struggled to scrub off colors off their children, some color still remained – behind the ears, on the neck, elbow.

Moni always took pride in being colorful till a week after Holi and the only girl in class who gave her competition was Aditi. But this time Aditi had played too much Holi and had fever. Moni was by far the dirtiest child in class, and the teacher wrote a note in her diary – asking her mother to have her cleaned up properly.

Moni did not give much thought to the moral of the story that she was taught year after year. Prahlad, the principled and righteous man that he was, would survive, and all attempts to destroy him by the evil king, Hiranyakashyap and Holika would become futile. Obviously, the victory of good would prevail over evil. It made sense, and it should be that way. She religiously believed what was taught in school..

Festivals were a time of immense excitement and happiness..

When she was 14

It was 11 am and visitors had started pouring in. Moni was annoyed. She did not understand why people still celebrate these silly festivals. She looked at herself in the mirror. This was the third pimple in five days. Her mother was calling her, the Holi special delicacies she prepared every year were ready. Moni had been thinking about food all morning. Not because she wanted to have it all, but because she could not! She was on a diet. She has been putting on weight consistently and had not been able to reduce any of it. Plus the pimples. Aghh! She must be the ugliest teenager in the world!

As she politely greeted the guests, a very excited Sharma aunty reached out to put abeer on her cheek.

Aunty, sorry I am allergic to colors, it’s not good for my skin, she held Sharma Aunty’s hand.

Just one dot Beta, nothing will happen!

Moni went to the washroom immediately to wash off the color.

Hope I don’t get any more pimples..

Festivals were a time she preferred to hide herself…

When she was 21

Moni updated her status on a social networking site on Ganesh Chaturthi:

Join me in the campaign for biodegradable idols for an environment friendly Eco Ganesha 2010!

Her status on Diwali read:

Say no to crackers. Let us come together to celebrate a pollution free Diwali this year!

And finally today:

Happy Holi to all my friends! Save water this Holi. Let nature keep playing its Holi forever on our earth.

Festivals should not give an excuse to people to behave irresponsibly.

Festivals were a time when Moni had a mission and a cause to support..

When she was 28

Moni checked her office calendar and booked tickets to go home for Holi. What did Holi mean to her?

A holiday! Getting a week off from work. Staying with mom and dad care free. Sleeping through the morning. Not having to get up to go to work. Not even to answer the door for the maid! And to go back to sleep during the afternoon. Maa would cook her favourite dishes.

One week away from away from takeaway foods, the daily responsibilities, the stress of work. From people not so genuine and true, from everything about the grown-up life as she knew it.

Festivals had a different meaning altogether now. It was a time spent and cherished with family. Being home was all that mattered. And to reflect on life since last Holi..

She thought of the story about the legend of Holi that she had heard all her life. The victory of good over evil. Did that really happen? Did good things always happen to good people? Did bad people necessarily suffer for their bad deeds? The reality and unfairness of life made her wonder otherwise…

The festivities remained the same. But the way she looked at them had changed over the years. So did her priorities and the meaning she sought from life..

But today, she wanted to be the 7 year old again, who believed in being good and the goodness of life no matter what. Unaffected by what was going around her – happy in her spirit.

She once again started believing that that the colors of this festival would indeed bring her a lot of happiness and joy.

And so it did…

Happy Women’s Day!!

I finally watched Neerja. I could not control my tears from the very first scene. A loving daughter, a doting sister, the lifeline of this family is woken up reluctantly by her mother to go to work. She is gone and the family gets to know that some trouble has come her way. They hope for the best. But God had other plans.

Throughout the movie, there are flashbacks of Neerja’s marriage. How she used to be humiliated by her husband – for being a model, for not being a good cook, for wanting to be in touch with her father regularly. Neerja’s husband had also written a letter to her father – insulting him on how a respectable father would never let his daughter be a model. On how he should not be talking to his own flesh and blood so frequently.

Why am I talking about all this and not about how she saved so many lives on the plane that day?

This woman had exceptional presence of mind. Most people would have panicked in this situation. She did not. Amidst that stress, she could think clearly and decide what was best for all. And finally, what a heart she had to take bullets protecting three unknown children?

How many of us would be able to do that?

She received awards for her bravery. We all salute her. She has become immortal because all parents are taking their children to watch the movie to show them how to be a strong woman. How to have courage in any situation. As her father rightly teaches her:

Never do anything wrong, never tolerate any injustice.”

What would have happened if Neerja stayed in that abusive marriage and tried to adjust? Everyday she would hear somebody tell her how incompetent and inadequate she is. How many flaws she has. How he is doing her a favour by being with her, and tolerating her. What would have happened to her self-esteem and her potential?

Have we all felt like that Neerja at some point? Where somebody has made us feel miserable about ourselves to the point where we have started believing it too? Is it worth taking it? Are we ever going to reach our true potential in life and become what we are meant to become, and achieve what we are capable of achieving if we continue to live with people / in situations that tarnish our self-respect and happiness every single day and moment?

We are all special, ladies. God has made us strong, compassionate and nurturing. Don’t let anybody / anything dampen your spirits. You are so much more than the world may perceive you to be!

Happy Women’s Day! Don’t settle for anything less than what you deserve! Let us choose to remove the negativity from our lives first. Our life and happiness will catch up!

Note:

I have not done any research on Neerja Bhanot. Whatever I have written above is based on the movie. I salute her and her family for raising a child who emerged as God that day, saving so many lives. May she be at peace wherever she is.

Ban on surrogacy in India

“Rhonda Wile and her husband Gerry struggled for years with infertility. With perseverance that shocked everyone around them, they tried every procedure and option available — unsuccessfully — until they finally decided to hire a surrogate. While surrogacy was being touted as a miracle for hopeful parents, for Rhonda and Gerry, it seemed an impossible and unaffordable dream. Until they came across the beaming smile of a beautiful Indian woman on the Internet. And, within a few short months, embarked on a journey that would take them deep into the emerging world of Indian carriers, international medical tourism, and the global surrogacy community.”

The desire to procreate is a very fundamental attribute of the human race. Unfortunately, many are denied the joy of parenthood due to several reasons, biological or otherwise. Developments in reproductive sciences and technologies have helped transcend the barriers to parenthood.

Surrogacy has evolved as a plausible mode of bringing a child into this world, for couples who cannot have children biologically. India, in particular has been an ideal destination in the recourse to surrogacy for foreign couples who crave for a child.

In an affidavit to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the Government said that it “does not support commercial surrogacy. No foreigners can avail surrogacy services in India,” adding that surrogacy would be available “only for Indian couples”. I wish I understood this statement even slightly. Unfortunately, I don’t.

Surrogacy has been a means of earning large sums of money in a relatively short span, for women who would otherwise earn their livelihood from cooking or cleaning in others’ homes, or from selling vegetables or other random, unstable, odd jobs.

Mamta Sharma, 29, from Uttar Pradesh, has been a surrogate mother twice, most recently last year for an Australian couple.

“Everything has changed in my life with the money I got,” said the mother of four children who invested her earnings in a new house.

Seitha Thapa, recounts her experience of giving birth at the Surrogacy Centre India clinic in New Delhi last February, for a foreign couple:

“I wanted to be a surrogate mother because I wanted to deposit money into an account for my children for their future. I also wanted to help parents who cannot have children, I am proud to have given birth to a beautiful baby. The baby and parents are in my prayers forever. I feel like a part of the family,” said the mother of two teenagers aged 16 and 18, adding that the clinic gives courses that “prepare us mentally for the fact it’s not our baby“.

The proposed ban has come as a shock and disappointment to the surrogacy industry as well as prospective couples who had been considering the option. But would the industry still sustain itself despite becoming illegal?

“Our apprehension and fear is that the whole business will go underground,” said Manasi Mishra, who heads the research division at the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, an organization that has published studies on surrogacy in India. “The bargaining capacity of the surrogate mother will further go down.”

The Indian Government has proposed to seek the above in an attempt to curb “exploitation” of women. With due respect to their intentions, I fail to understand, how is it an exploitation when an adult woman legally consents to carry a child for a couple in return for a monetary compensation?

Yes, I understand that there are legal, ethical, and emotional implications. And there have been instances of abandonment of the baby, health risks for the surrogate mother, citizenship issues of the child and underpayment of compensation amongst others.

But is proposing a ban the solution?

Should the government not try to regulate the industry instead and address proper implementation of surrogacy laws? The fact that it is only the foreign couples who would be denied surrogacy is even more discriminatory and confusing. If the purpose is to protect a woman from exploitation, what difference does it make to her whether the womb is being rented by an Indian or foreigner?

Speaking of exploitation, how many women in the country, poor or rich alike are married with the sole purpose of bearing a child? Everybody tells a man to find a “nice girl”, and settle down to start a family. At times, the same wife goes through multiple childbirths in an attempt to bear a male child, her consent being nobody’s concern.

In that process, she may have undergone multiple abortions as well, much to the destruction of her physical and mental health. And guess what, these women get paid nothing for the use of their womb! Isn’t that exploitation of a woman? However, nobody raised an objection because it is all under the ‘acceptable social realms of holy matrimony’.

But, when a woman is making a choice, knowing what she is getting into by carrying the child of another couple and getting compensated for it financially, she is getting exploited? The irony has made me speechless!


Originally published at akkarbakkar.com on October 29, 2015.