My Mirror column:
A delightful new online film festival to mark South Asian Women's Day defines feminism as “a politics based on principles of equity, equality, justice and peace”
|A still from If You Dare Desire (2017), directed by Debalina.|
Anantha Ramanan's short film Ticket Please (Sri Lanka, 2018) begins with an older woman preparing a younger man, who might be her son, on how to get to a particular part of town. “The bus conductor speaks Sinhala only,” she says, speaking from the kitchen where she is washing something at the sink. “Give ten rupees exactly. It's very difficult to get the balance from him... If the conductor asks you again whether you have paid, say “Dhunna”. Dhunna means “I have given”.” Before he leaves the house, she instructs him to carry a newspaper in English, saying it will help. I felt a mild sense of irritation. Wasn't the older lady overdoing the multiple instructions, I wondered? And why force the young fellow to pretend to be something he's not? But from the second the young man got to the bus stop, I started to realise that she had been right. Sometimes when you don't fit in, it just makes it easier to pretend that you do.
The young man in Ticket Please is marked by his inability to understand Sinhala; his being a Tamil speaker is cause for irritation. And yet the strapping young bus conductor, so impatient with him for not knowing Sinhala, is only indulgent and excited when an Indian passenger gets on – speaking bad Hindi, gushing about Salman Khan and singing 'Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam'.
Linguistic politics in Sri Lanka may not seem, on the surface, to have much to do with feminism. But what is feminism really about? Ticket Please seemed to me to make the point quietly but clearly -- it isn't our differences from each other that are the problem, it's whether we've been brought up to regard that difference as either threatening or inferior.
Organised by well-known documentarian Reena Mohan, Aanchal Kapur of the Kriti Film Club and Sangat (a network begun by veteran feminist Kamla Bhasin in 1998), the exciting new South Asian Feminist Film Festival expands the meaning of feminism to make us think about difference and equality in a variety of South Asian contexts. Among the host of wonderful films and panel discussions at the festival (streaming free on http://www.doculive.in/ until 30 November) are Prateek Vats' brilliant debut feature Eeb Allay Ooo!, Vaishali Sinha's Ask the Sexpert (2017), Saba Dewan's Sita's Family (2002), the Ektara Collective's Chanda ke Joote (2011) and Nirmal Chander's Dreaming Taj Mahal (2010).
A good film festival always lets you connect the dots in expected and unexpected ways. From linguistic differences made visible on a busride, I moved to gender difference made visible on a metro ride in Please Mind the Gap (2018), a wonderful short film directed by Mitali Trivedi and Gagandeep Singh. An affectionate documentary portrait of transman Anshuman Chauhan as he negotiates the Delhi Metro, Please Mind the Gap never rubs in its metaphors. Anshuman is an effortlessly engaging subject, though, bringing his wry, laughter-filled gaze to bear upon everything he speaks of. In one early conversation, for instance, he maps his personal sense of space onto the world of public transport with a marvellous lightness. “I instinctually create a gap and maintain it,” he tells the filmmakers, going on to describe how he keeps a distance from everyone, men and women, choosing for himself the space between metro compartments, where the wall has his back, as it were. “Kisi se touch nahi hoge”.
But no matter how much he may want not to be touched, or even just to pass unseen, it isn't always easy. Men who have mistaken him for a man jump up apologetically when they see his face and think they have accidentally touched a woman. Security queues, public toilets, the metro's own Ladies compartment -- every space seems insistent on compartmentalising by gender.
In If You Dare Desire (2017), Debalina's fictional telling of the lives of real-life couple Swapna and Sucheta, their difference is less visible on their bodies -- but that doesn't make it easier. Swapna and Sucheta committed suicide by consuming pesticide together in Nandigram, West Bengal, in 2011, with Swapna leaving behind a six-page suicide note. As the film puts it, “Only this much is fact in the film. The rest, fiction.” The poetic urban interlude Debalina creates for the two young women is no idyll, but it allows us to see how it might have been for them if they had escaped to the city, how it probably is for the many South Asian women whose love seems invisible to the heterosexual worlds they inhabit. Until it becomes visible, is instantly interpreted as difference, and that difference as grave and present danger.
But sometimes when you don't fit in, you can no longer pretend that you do.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 29 Nov 2020.