The popular image of the feminist in cinema and outside of it is that of a man-hating virago who is against marriage and considers any association with the male gender to be untenable. She's frequently seen making hypocritical statements in 'women’s rights' meetings or kitty parties, encouraging other women to file for divorce. Remember Shantidevi (Vijayshanti) from Mannan or Janaki (Simran) from Pammal K Sambandham? The occasional outspoken female character is usually made to seem so arrogant that she immediately earns the scorn and hatred of the audience – a Nilambari-type who can match Rajnikanth in style and punch dialogues but is unfortunately not 'woman' enough because she's way too angry. And then we also have wonderful films like Sivakasi in which the hero (Vijay, of course) tells a policewoman that she ought to treat the male accused with more respect because after all, a man is a man and a woman is a woman and woe be to her who forgets this just because she is wearing the khaki uniform!
It's no surprise then that when female actors in India are asked if they believe themselves to be feminists, they shy away from the label, choosing instead to call themselves 'equalists' or 'humanists'. Film-makers, too, may make a movie that has a strong female lead breaking patriarchal traditions and asserting her identity but disavow the feminist label because they think feminists are…how shall we put it…a loony bunch?
Queen made a lot of people sit up and take notice because finally, we had a film in which the happy ending wasn't a multi-crore shaadi but a woman finding happiness through self-discovery. Not that shaadis are a bad thing – just that typically, Bollywood shaadis happen after the hero has indulged in some good old 'eve-teasing', sexually harassed the heroine, taught her the priceless tenets of womanhood (which include lessons on adequately covering her body), and saved her 'honour' a couple of times. Queen, however, had a heroine who said no to a man who treated her badly. Not only that, she chose to move on from there without wasting time and effort in trying to wreck his life, sporting the customary big-bindhi-too-much-makeup look that feminists are apparently fond of, if we are to go by their popular characterization.
Anurag Kashyap, who co-produced the film, was annoyed when feminists celebrated Queen, saying neither he nor Vikas Bahl (the director) are feminists and that they both 'love and respect women as we do men: as people, as human beings. Isn't that the way it should be?' Well, of course, that's the way it should be and that's what feminists want, too! But sadly, that isn't the way it is – on the big screen or off it.
We live in a world where calling someone a woman is an insult – the word connotes cowardice, meekness, and submissiveness. During the Nirbhaya protests on Raisina Hills, people distributed bangles to policemen in a bid to insult them for their 'cowardice', implying that since they behaved like 'women', they might as well be dressed like women. Never mind that the protestors also spoke of the victim's bravery in the same breath, completely missing the irony.
In Velai Illa Pattadhari, which is still running to packed houses in Tamil Nadu, Raghuvaran (Dhanush) tells the villain that he ought to stick to playing 'girls games' like kho-kho instead of fighting with a 'real' man like him. The villain, for his part, tries his best to prove that he is not a 'potta'. This is the year 2014, sure, but we're still stuck in an age when traditionally 'masculine' traits are valued higher than traditionally 'feminine' traits. We continue to have heroes who justify sexual harassment on the basis of what a woman is wearing; we continue to have heroines who do 'item' numbers in dream sequences but are 'pure' as the driven snow outside of it; we continue to have sister characters who kill themselves to uphold their honour after being raped; we continue to have songs that only view a woman as a sum of her body parts. All of this is why feminism is still relevant.
A lot of people seem to think that feminism is about male-bashing and that it excludes men from the discourse. But in truth, feminists recognize that patriarchy is created and sustained by men as well as women and that for the system to change, people of all genders need to be part of the conversation. Feminism understands that gender roles can oppress all human beings, not only women. If a heroine is expected to be 'modest' and 'homely', the hero is expected to beat up ten men single-handedly – both these expectations are unrealistic and unfair when applied to real people.
Films play a huge role in social conditioning and defining gender roles. Our conventional definitions of what a 'real' man or a 'real' woman is like need to be broken down and redefined with more emphasis on individual freedoms and equality. And for this to happen, a feminist critique of films is necessary. It's certainly not the only way to critique a film but it is a useful way to understand how misogyny parades onscreen or is disguised within it.
Also by the author:
Mahendra, master of complex relationships
Sowmya Rajendran is a
children's writer who occasionally offers her words of wisdom to
adults. She lives in Pune.