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Lipstick Under My Burkha: Not Feminism But A Revenge Saga Against Men

I watched the much talked about ‘Lipstick Under My Burqa’ earlier this week, the first movie I’ve paid a ticket to go watch in the theatre all year. I’m not so sure it was a good decision. All week I’ve been pondering the discomfort I feel with the film. Wasn’t it supposed to make me, the Vocal Feminist, very happy? Well, it didn’t. I found some clarity in my thinking after reading this article (‘Lipstick Under My Burkha Is Bold But Not Feminist).

The story told me that women had problems. I knew that already. So? Does it lay them out in a nuanced way? Let’s see – marital rape, slut-shaming, moral policing. Okay, complex issues, further complicated by the tangle that is gender politics. The bedroom, women’s bodies, our relationships with each other are fraught with so much power play, so many sensitivities that there’s room for a really nuanced story.

Okay, we need to talk about the men in the movie. Why, you ask? Because neither patriarchy nor feminism exist in an isolated world of only women or only men. Both are upheld by people of all genders. Everyone is impacted in some manner by the conflicts inherent in these systems.

Four stories with a woman at the center of each. Let’s meet the men in each one’s world.

Usha buaji/Rosy is surrounded by male tenants/nephews that she keeps in check with stern looks and words. How do these men deal with an older woman who wields financial power over them? Add further nuance with one of them being a Muslim burkha shop owner – how does he deal with his home and livelihood hanging on the decisions of an older, uppercaste Hindu woman? There’s also the key male character in this story – a young lifeguard. He’s nice looking, he’s Haryanvi and he responds to phone calls from an unknown woman propositioning him. Uh, that’s it.

Rehana Abidi is an impish teenager who works at her father’s burkha shop and moonlights as a Led Zepplin humming, boots-wearing, beer-chugging activist collegegoer. How does her father rationalise letting his only child study in a co-ed college while swathed in a burkha? How does he feel about the scantily clad Miley Cyrus poster on his daughter’s wall (flimsily hidden under a towel)? What do the classmates who undoubtedly see Rehana’s daily burkha/ripped jeans metamorphosis make of her spurty activism? Why does the cool stud, Dhruv, find her interesting (apart from her being the only girl in Bhopal to know ‘Stairway to Heaven’)? Do they talk about anything other than music, drinking and making out?

Shireen Aslam appears to work in a world of only women. Her colleagues are all women, her customers are women and she’s not shown sharing a scene with any man other than her husband and her three sons. Somehow with all this, she manages to be the ‘top salesgirl’. That’s a sales job and I don’t care what you’re selling, you can’t NEVER meet or see men. What is her husband like? How is he coping with losing his job? Does he appear defeated and indifferent to whatever else goes on (which explains why he doesn’t seem to be looking for another job)? Is he charged up, angry and driven (with enough energy to openly date a mistress and appear to enjoy it)? How can he be both? That’s not character nuance, that’s Jekyll-and-Hyde.

And finally, the story of our enfant terrible Leela a.k.a The Bad Girl who is sleeping with a photographer while trying to kickstart a business and also survive an engagement with a good Indian boy. Who’s this fiance? He’s going to keep her in a tiny room overlooking the train tracks, in a house bursting with people. But he’s also buying her mother a house. How does he feel about the financial comittment he’s undertaking? And wouldn’t he feel a lot more entitled to his fiance’s time, attention and worshipful devotion? Hey, that’s how human beings think. Alright, never mind him. How about the photographer boyfriend? Does he love our girl, does he not care? Is he using her, is he feeling used? Does he contribute to the business set-up and if he doesn’t believe it, is mere sex enough motivation for him to follow her around? And if that’s so, why does he refuse to sleep with her later?

Once more, let’s list out the men of Lipstick Under My Burkha:

  1. Irrationally hot-headed dependent (tenant/nephew)
  2. Boyfriend photographer prone to irrational rage, jealousy, ego trips and indifference
  3. Slow-witted, corrupt government officials
  4. Brainless hunk lifeguard who scatters words and smiles without abandon
  5. Socially awkward virgin fiance who assumes his fiance is one too
  6. Featureless colleague of husband who blabs to the wife about her husband losing his job
  7. Distant, oppressive father who frowns menacingly more than he speaks
  8. Abusive, cheating, absent father-husband
  9. College cad who dumps his pregnant girlfriend, seduces an underage girl and dumps her at the first hint of uncoolness

The first two are caricatures of irrational men whom the women constantly bully. 3-5 seem incapable of functioning as intelligent adults. 6 & 7 are not really people but blank walls with vague faces. The last two are versions of the all-dark MONSTER. Do any of these men sound like actual human beings?

I’ve heard the cry of ‘But this is a story about women!’.

This story is not set inside a women’s bathroom so why is anyone not female such shit?

That’s no more an accurate depiction of women than it is of their worlds or the men. Feminism is not about villifying men. It’s not about deifying women as long-suffering and showing the metaphorical middle finger to the world (only under the burkha and behind closed doors). It’s about respect and rights for every human being, regardless of gender or other qualifiers.

Slotting men so narrowly amounts to discrimination and what kind of feminism is it, which discriminates? As a woman, I am personally offended. I live in a world that treats me in problematic ways, yes. But I am not so weak that I need to believe that every man is a monster/imbecile. I’m offended by a narrative that tries every storyteller’s trick to define me as a victim. It turns the fight for equality into a revenge saga against men and that is offensive.

What’s worse, having adequately established the ‘See, women’s lives are HARD. Men are so horrible.’, the story closes. Like the article points out – in a cramped room, the women huddled together sharing a surreptitious cigarette and pointing a middle finger. Behind closed doors. What’s the point? Feminism was never about glorying in woe-is-me, any more than it was about hating men. Feminism above all, through its changing definitions, has always been about hope for a better world. Lipstick Under My Burkha offers none of that and sits back to have a smug, self-satisfied smoke at having put down the men. Note: Victory over men, not over patriarchy and what kind of victory is this?

Does this movie show us a single man that is not a cardboard stereotype? Any human characterizations of over half the world’s population? Any realistic depictions of the perpetrators-parallel victims of patriarchy? Any conflicted human beings troubled by the gender double standards while struggling to keep up with the changes wrought by feminism? Any angst at all in any of the men who seem to drive the women’s lives? Even a hint, a flicker of support, compassion, consideration for anyone? Any guilt, regret, confusion over how to express it? Huh?

There’s the problem. It’s not feminism if it’s looks, sounds and tastes like a revenge saga against men.

Happy Bhaag Jayegi Makes A Surprising Escape From Patriarchy

I caught Happy Bhaag Jayegi earlier this week (heh). It was full of the requisite hammy performances and stereotypical Punjabi loudness. But something stood out for me – an easter egg called feminism hidden inside what looks like a typical Bollywood film.

Diana-Penty-In-Happy-Bhaag-JayegiHappy is a high-spirited Amritsari girl with equal measures of determination and naivete. She is part Geet from Jab We Met, part Pooja from Dil Hain Ki Manta Nahin. She has a (rather nondescript) unemployed, dimwitted boyfriend who can’t summon up the energy to take their relationship further. So Happy proceeds to get engaged to a local contractor, Bagga. An elopment plan is made (masterminded no doubt by Happy since the boyfriend is so somnolent) which goes wrong and Happy finds herself over the border, alone, in full wedding regalia.

At the surface of it, it’s a loud, raucuous comedy making light of the Indian stereotypes of a bullying father, an overpowerful fiance and a hapless lover with the damsel in distress at the center of it. But Happy isn’t a helpless waif and neither is she a victim of her circumstances. Compared to her, all the men come across as silly, weak and clueless. She doesn’t appear bogged down when she’s being bethrothed to one man, even while her lover mourns at the gates of the party. She’s not defeated when she finds herself in Pakistan, minus passport, money, contacts or even a mobilephone. She isn’t even abashed when she’s arrested by the Pakistani police.

Yes, a lot of these could just come from arrogant naivete. And her situations are saved from becoming tragic by the presence of good (though weak/clueless) men. But that is the reality of life and feminism. A strong woman is not a superwoman who doesn’t need anyone else. And men are not all villains in the fight against patriarchy and repressive gender roles.

I first noticed it in Abhay Deol’s character but I thought it might just be nuance added by this (admittedly intelligent) actor alone. But there’s a recurring pattern in all the male characters. None of them are supervillains and all of them (in varying degrees) treat Happy as a human being, not an object.

Happy’s father cuts a sorry sight as he stumbles through Lahore streets, begging passers-by to tell him about his lost daughter. The overbearing patriarch has come a long way and he’s just a father devasted by the loss of his child. He is the only man to cling to an outdated sense of gender roles and he is suitably chastised by circumstance.

Bagga, the would-be fiance, is a local thug. Possibly due to the comedic nature of the movie, his response to Happy running away doesn’t become violent. He stays focussed on wanting to marry Happy. He even manages to turn potential humiliation into a sympathy vote for himself. No victims there either (I think he’d have made a good spouse for Happy) and he does it without slandering or punishing Happy. His chest-thumping machismo is cuckolded by intelligence and there is a sense of his having grown and moved on because of it.

The puppy-faced boyfriend gets to Pakistan, with a lot of help from everyone else. Yet, the night before the wedding, he is able to rouse himself out of his stupor to think beyond himself. He summons up the courage to ask Happy’s benefactor if he is not in love with her too. What a contrast from the usual depiction of the Indian lover as an entitled, jealous stalker!

Bilal, the benefactor, is mostly a privileged Pakistani counterpart of the boyfriend, ineffectual due to parental pressure (what’s Guddu’s excuse?). But he acknowledges that Happy’s influence makes him bestir himself and take action. I loved the complexity in his relationship with his own fiance. His fiance Zoya is truly his partner in crime through the film, rather than a helpless all-sacrificing woman. Bilal doesn’t turn into superman overnight but he fumbles, he yearns, he broods and he reaches a decision about his own life. And of women, he says,

“Madhubala to Dilip Kumar ko bhi nahin mili thi. Par yeh zaroori nahin ki Madhubala ko kitne chahate they. Yeh zaroori hain ki Madhubala kisko chahati thi.”

I haven’t seen a Bollywood love story in a long time, that acknowledges a woman’s consent. Bilal’s statement makes this a story about what the girl wants and her right to have it, rather than making her a trophy to be won by the best man. This makes me very happy and I’m quite willing to forgive the flaws in the movie for this one dialogue alone. Maybe the world is changing, even if not as quickly as I’d like it to.

19th-August-2016-Bollywood-Movie-Releasing-on-This-Week

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* If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

 

A Voice That Shatters Glass…The Glass Ceiling!

Music is an integral part of every youth festival, highlighted by the crowds at Antakshari, and Music Quiz events. The music competition is usually the grand highlight of at least one evening. That we are home to the biggest film industry in the world shows in the fact that the event almost always features exclusive Bollywood songs.

I was an amateur singer in college…jamming, impromptu background scores in classroom capers, singing the national anthem on Republic Day and invocation prayers during college events gave me aspirations towards musical stardom on campus.

Any regular will tell you that there is a collection of 5-6 favorites that are rendered by the participants. There are normally an equal number of male and female singers since the competition (quite fairly) assesses musical ability regardless of gender. Audience response is a key determinant in judging performance so seasoned participants pick songs that suit their temperament and sing them in a way that is proven to move the audience. A good singer can expect a collective sigh over Tadap Tadap ke and only conclude Saara zamana haseenon ka deewana successfully if at least a few whistles have been heard. My male counterparts spanned the gamut of musical Bollywood from comedy (Pag ghungroo bandh Meera naachi – Namak Halal) to melancholy (Tanhaai Dil Chahta hai), classical (Laga chunari mein daag) and romance (Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai).

I tested the waters and quickly stumbled onto hot favorites like Mann kyon beheka (Utsav), Morni bagha ma (Lamhe) and Dil ne kaha chupke se (1942-A Love Story). But as a performer, these songs always left me feeling somewhat…incomplete. I longed for a real, full-bodied song that would let me snatch up the audience like the boy’s songs did. It took awhile to build a repertoire of songs that could get the audience shaking.

Then a male friend inquired,

Why do you always sing songs like this? It’s either cabaret or item numbers!

I protested,

What? I sang Dil Cheez Kya hai last time! It has a classical base.

Pat came the reply,

And it is a mujra.

And that’s when it hit me. There just aren’t powerful solos for women in Bollywood music! The most memorable songs are genteel lovestruck ballads of the sort that depict a delicate damsel awaiting her shehzada on safed ghoda riding to her rescue. Or the semi-soulful/mournful sort of the Na koi umang hai variety alternated by the haunting Kahin deep jale kaheen dil tunes.

And what of duets? For those acquainted with music, even a duet has a leader and a follower. Male and female voices work in different ranges of pitch and it is almost always the female voice that is arranged around the male voice. Symbolically, a typical Hindi duet usually has the male voice as the main, solid body with the female voice as a decorative motif twining around it, hitting the high notes occasionally. It is beautiful in its own way. It is art after all, and we’ve enjoyed it for decades.

But art is also about challenging boundaries and building something new, in thought and in expression. I defy you to name one Bollywood duet that has a female lead. I’m not counting such airs as Chura Liya hai which, while an undoubtedly spectacular classic, certainly does not make a case for powerful female expression.

I managed to find only one song – Hai Rama (Rangeela) which won us a first prize (and a fair bit of male attention coming my way…ha!). I’ll never forget the sheer headiness of singing this song, which my partner could not have shared. It was my song after all and all he was, was the gracious support voice. I got to set the pitch, the rhythm and the tone of the song. And most of all, it was my responsibility to convey the mood of the song. That’s what powerful expression is all about!

But for most part, in duets I had to settle for playing second fiddle (or voice) to such tunes as Humko hamhi se chura lo (Mohabbatein), Dekha ek khwab to yeh silsilay hue (Silsila) and Ek main aur ek tu (Khel khel mein).

There was some leeway in the solos and thank God for the magic of Asha and R.D.Burman! Quite unexpectedly, in my quest to wear the pants in the musical family, I had wandered into Asha Bhosale territory. Her success formula worked for me as well. While Lata didi was ruling the AIR roost with her ‘good little girl’ melodies, Asha entered the only domain left to her –saucy cabaret songs, scintillating dance numbers and generally the kind of songs that Helen and Bindu danced to but would never be picturised on the heroine. I took the stage with Yeh mera dil pyaar ka deewana (Don) and Piya tu ab to aaja (Moneeekka my darling, notwithstanding!). Sauciness was the only recourse left to Asha and it was the only way I could find, to make my kind of music. It just would take Madhubala’s verve to carry off a Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya. But for most part, even in music, the bad girl was the only one who got to taste power.

Popular hindi music hasn’t changed all that much. The few powerful female solos are still camouflaged in melodrama, raunch or abstraction. Think Zinda hoon main, Beedi jalaile, Pari hoon main.

Singing for the opposite sex would be another high. We enjoyed Kailash Kher’s soulful

Tune kya kar dala, mar gayee main, mit gayee main, ho gayee main teri deewani..

But I somehow can’t see Sunidhi Chauhan or Shreya Ghoshal getting the same reaction to a very spirited rendition

Gum shuda…

 

Even assuming that the male-female roles are still rather rigidly defined in Indian cinema, we find even gender-neutral emotions like inspiration voiced by male singers. While Baar baar haan (Lagaan) and Chak de (Chak de) may be too strongly sports-testosterone linked, what of Yeh tara, woh tara (Swades) and Bulla ke jaana main kaun (Rabbi Shergill)? I would have loved to have done a Bas itna sa khwab hai (Yes Boss) but I was vetoed by my team on account of it being a ‘male song’. I still don’t get it…women have dreams and ambitions too! And all we have to speak for it is Dil hai chota sa, choti si aasha (Roja)!

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A version is also posted on Yahoo! Real Beauty.

Testosterone Flicks

(An altered-opinion sequel to Testosterone Kicks)

Dus bahane karke le gaye dil…

Bahana no.1: Sanjay Dutt
Bahana no.2: Abhishek Bachchan
Bahana no.3: Zayed Khan
Bahana no.4: Abhishek Bachchan
Bahana no.5: Pankaj Kapoor….okay, Pankaj Kapoor’s acting
Bahana no.6: Abhishek Bachchan
Bahana no.7: Overpainted heroines mouthing meaningless dialogues (the urge to strangle them goes sooooo well with the dhamaka-kick of the movie!)
Bahana no.8: Abhishek Bachchan
Bahana no.9: Slick visuals
Bahana no.10: Abhishek Bachchan

Okay, okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Abhishek Bachchan is good for 3 bahanas not 5 perhaps. The real scene-stealer was Sanjay Dutt. Long after Rocky and drugs and divorce and affairs and TADA and Rhea Pillai and divorce and Munnabhai MBBS, the show goes on. The man carries the movie well on his broad shoulders.

Dus is Dhoom without the bikes. Full of quick chases and guns and unbelievable leaps through space and one-liners (“Bada aaya mere do, aapke do sir..”), the movie screams machismo all through. Testosterone is the fuel that runs this one again. Ah…there we are back on one of my favorite words and the only reason a film review is on XXFactor and not Alternate Idea.

I loved the movie. I loved the ‘item number’ by the heroes at the start, I loved all the shots showing off Zayed’s toned abs and Abhishek’s smooth moves, I loved the thrill, I loved it all. I probably won’t remember the plot in a week’s time if you ask me but I’ll still say I love the movie.

Indian cinema has come of age. Perhaps somebody thought they were catering to the male audience with a movie of this sort but I differ. Dus is a drool-fest for any woman, from the first take. It is good looking men dancing and prancing and jumping and fighting and putting up a show. Oh yes, there is Shilpa Shetty skulking around nursing a Lara Croft hangover (we’ll pass on the eye-shadow and high heels here…) and a banshee yelling “Stop, Dev” somewhere around and I believe a former beauty queen drifted in and out of a scene but that is as much as the female component goes. None of the women make any point in the film. I guess they are not supposed to. This movie is unabashedly a treat to the female senses.

TAAALIYAAAN!!!!!

Of course I’m gloating. And drooling. I am, after all, the informed, liberated woman who asks for what she wants. And apparently the entertainment industry is more than willing to provide it. The boys are here to dance. And I’m watching.

Testosterone kicks

Saw ‘Dhoom’ this week. Simple testosterone-driven plotline: Thief makes a loot, cop chases him, thief gets away, cop gets smarter, thief gets faster, some dishoom-dishoom and all’s well that ends well.

I loved every minute of the movie….lived through every scene with each character. I wanted to be the ultimate ‘one’, own the flashiest gizmos, show off the best bod, deliver the slickest lines and have the smoothest moves. Is this what it feels like to be a man?
How simple-mindedly wonderful, how one-trackedly perfect…

Friend of mine says “Being a man is a pretty over-rated experience”. Ah sure…that’s what the rich say about money, the high-fliers about success and the celebrities about glamour. For the rest of us not in that league…we’ll always be spectators watching, wondering and envying.

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