19 June 2018

A Patriarchal Narrative

My Mirror column:

Films S Durga and Nude show a reality where Indian women can be either sexual individuals or mothers and sisters — not both. The second of a two-part column.

S Durga opens with a religious procession. The sequence is fairly long and shot in an observational documentary style. Men in flaming vermilion mundus are fastening each other’s garments tightly around their waists. Their brown torsos are bare but for several necklaces around their necks. As the drum beat rises to a crescendo, some of the younger men start to go into a trance. We watch as they suspend themselves from heavy iron hooks. The hooks are attached to orange metal frames, so that these young men now dangle before the goddess, like carcasses from cranes.

The Garudan Thookkam procession is an annual ritual recreation of a myth in which the insatiable Goddess Kali/Durga was placated by the blood of a wounded Garuda. From the sacrificial fervour of these spread-eagled young ‘garudas’, the film cuts to an empty highway at night. A few cars zip by. A woman in a salwar-kameez waits by the roadside, nervously examining her phone for messages. A pair of men draw up on a motorbike. One gets off and urges the other, Kabeer, not to waste any time. Then he and the bike are gone, and Kabeer and the young woman, as yet unnamed, set off. They try to flag down a bus, but fail. The dark road stretches out endlessly before them.

Two drunken men in a car see the couple walking, slow down and ask them where they want to go. The railway station, says Kabeer. The men offer them a ride. The couple hesitate for an instant, but their choices are limited. They get in the back seat.

Almost instantly, the man in the front seat turns the spotlight on them — literally — with a torch and a suggestive question: “What’s the plan for tonight?” Then, getting no answer, a second question — brasher, more direct: “What’s this girl to you?” “Friend,” says Kabeer quickly. “Oh, friend, aa? Some people say ‘sister’ at night,” says the man, continuing to look the woman up and down. “What’s your name, Chechi?” he demands of her. Durga starts to cough. “Drink, sister,” the man insists, trying to thrust a bottle upon her.

Director Sanal Sasidharan has taken a profoundly simple idea and turned it into a full-length film that keeps you on tenterhooks for much of its running time. Every word, every gesture made by the men in the car (and the other men who join them as the film progresses) is couched as protection but feels like a sexual threat. Their repeated use of the word ‘Chechi’ — ‘elder sister’ in 
Malayalam — to address the cowering, increasingly weepy woman at their mercy is thus painfully ironic. But it is no surprise.

The inability of so many Indian men to see a woman simply as a human being is something that constantly assails us, in films as in life. What makes the Hindi-speaking Durga the target of so much unwelcome attention is not just her momentary vulnerability. It is that she has stepped out of her home, her community, and that leaves her — in the eyes of these men — unprotected. Yes, she is with a man, but a man who has not been chosen for her by society. By exercising free choice in the sex-and-romance department, as in the ‘Nirbhaya’ case and so many others, the woman has apparently lost her right to be respected.
Because in this entrenched patriarchal narrative, women can either be sexual individuals or they can be mothers and sisters — not both.

Last week, in the first part of this column, I tried to show how Ravi Jadhav’s Nude also works with this impossible binary that women are forced into. The only way Yamuna’s son feels able to respect his mother is through some notion of her sexual chastity. Her courage in leaving an abusive marriage and her lifelong focus on fulfilling his desires at the cost of her own mean nothing to him, as soon as he can tar her as being sexual. If this were a radicalism test, I might say that Jadhav takes the easy way out by making 
Yamuna so deeply invested in her own chastity, even as she works as a nude model for art students. But that is also what makes Yamuna so believably tragic — she has internalised patriarchy’s lessons accurately: she knows that to be respected as a mother, she must never be seen as a sexual subject.

Some might find Nude’s final scene unnecessary or distasteful, but it is the culmination — and converse — of this double bind. Years after Yamuna’s passing, her estranged son enters an exhibition. The huge nude painting before him has an instantaneous effect on him — that of arousal. And then, with a sickening thud, he realises that it is a painting of his mother.

The problem, Jadhav’s film suggests, is not in Yamuna’s quiet claiming of sexual agency by being painted. The problem, as in S Durga, is in the gaze. If a woman shows any sign of sexual-ness, it is assumed she is there to turn men on. And suffer the consequences.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Jun 2018.

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