Women through the Media Lens
By Ajay Unnikrishnan
Asking whether the cinematic medium that influences society or the society that inspires the cinematic medium is an artistic equivalent of the proverbial chicken-and-egg question. However, there is no doubt that “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences, they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage,” as Canadian philosopher Herbert Marshall McLuhan noted. It is imperative, then, that the cinematic medium – movies and web series for the purposes of this article – undergoes public scrutiny. This article employs a gender lens and examines movies and web series to study how they handle a topic as nuanced as gender. Although web series follow a different format of storytelling and reach out to a more defined target audience, the burden of selling the story has made Indian filmmakers use objectifying camera angles, which is the lens that is deployed in making a film.
Indian filmmakers are trying to break the age-old image where one gender (male) is dominant over the other, more so in the recent past with films like Raazi, Guilty, Angry Indian Goddesses, and Lipstick under my Burkha, and web series like SHE. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, in a desperate attempt to break such stereotypes, we are also reaffirming stereotypical views around the idea of womanhood, instead of breaking away from the stereotypes. This may be part of the reason that we are trying to adapt from the west, where the target audience differs and partly because of the artistic liberty of the filmmakers. Tokenism has increased in such movies as a result of deeply concentrating on one aspect of the society that it nurtures another taboo. The use of the Bechdel Test, which the inventor herself had said is not a measure to check how feminist a movie is but to check the representation of women in films, is seen here as the pinnacle for women empowerment. But is crossing that threshold enough?
In movies like Lipstick Under my Burkha and as latest as the Tamil movie Gypsy, the Burkha is euphemised as oppression, overlooking the fact that there are Muslim women who may be comfortable with it and reconcile their choice to wear the burkha with their personal views on feminism. The oversimplified portrayal of what oppression “manifests” as tokenizes representation. By constantly reducing oppression to the burkha, the focus shifts away from the oppression of women in other religions and castes. This also leads to the instrumentalization of narratives and an oversimplification of the idea of choice – there is no room for conversation around what feminist choices are, and whether all choices are necessarily feminist.
Imtiaz Ali’s web series SHE is the latest victim of Indian filmmakers’ vague understanding about sensuality. It tells the story of a constable struggling with her sexuality and is constantly reminded by her colleagues about her duty and the only way to retain her job is to lure the criminal who has a fetish for prostitutes. The constable is left with no choice but to obey the orders of her superiors.
In 1975, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, inspired by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, wrote about male gaze in the now famous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema’ and how women are objectified to please the larger audience, which are basically men. In Jane Campion’s The Piano, a seductive scene is made to look good with the camera angle shifting between the characters which involves both male and female. The Kuleshov effect can also be applied here, as how the clips edited play an important role in the perception of the audience. A man looking at a woman and at an empty plate can have two entirely different meanings. However, the camera angles used in SHE are deplorable and escalates the problem with condescending dialogues.
Similar problems exist in the idea of Item songs, which isn’t really misogynistic if properly shot without sleazy close ups of body parts intended to sexualise the scene. The flaws in SHE were called out in several reviews, but a strikingly similar plot was celebrated generally in the film circuit and was treated as a torchbearer for feminism, in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi. Although the Alia Bhatt starrer makes a strong case about equal opportunities for women, individualism takes a backseat when Sehmat says, “Watan ke aage Kuch Nahi, khud bhi nahi” (Nothing comes before the nation, not even the self). This view can be contested by the fact that it was a biopic, which makes it even more worrisome – given that the movie was made without the wholesome, free, and full consent of the real Sehmat, as the author of Calling Sehmat, Harinder Singh Sikka, mentioned her refusal to be spoken about. Ironically, the author gave her the pseudonym Sehmat, which meant consent.
Perhaps the most common rebuttal to this would be that of artistic liberty and that the script demands the character to behave in a particular way and only then would the story be complete. The examples of international films such as Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy, Girlhood, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire among others tell a story as it is, and do not try to sell it to the audience. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Little Women are also fine examples. Jo March is vulnerable yet strong, Romantic yet ambitious. Greta does not define women to be strong or have control of their sexuality instead empathetically puts a hand on the back and says that it is okay to have flaws, to be vulnerable, to be oneself.
In India, movies are termed progressive too early and are celebrated by the general public, but as history shows, today’s progressive movies are tomorrow’s patriarchal classics. The damage such showboating causes is hard to reverse. Thoovanathumbikal, released in 1987 is considered a revolutionary classic because of how Padmarajan portrayed Mannarthody Jayakrishnan as ‘feudal’, as in the words of the protagonist himself, which was big during that time period. Still, the patriarchal elements in it are normalised, even after identification.
The 2017 Malayalam film Mayanadhi, inspired by Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless emphasises the difference in the treatment of Indian filmmakers. In Mayanadhi, the characterisation of the female protagonist Appu is inferior and under-cooked to that of the male character in the movie. Stalking a confused girl not sure of love and begging for attention is seen as consent, even after Appu saying “Onn poyi tharuo, matha” (Can you please go away, Matha). The French movie is shot in black and white, with the male character not begging for attention but wants physical intimacy everytime the two meet, which puts Patricia in a loop of confusion. The two plots are the same, but in Mayanadhi, the lead actor mistakes confusion for consent, is romanticised and put on a pedestal for “true love”. A scene in Mayanadhi where the female character says “Sex is not a promise” was also taken out of context by the public. However, in Kumbalangi Nights, writer Syam Pushkaran replicated the particular dialogue in a different context. Such constant corrections that may not undo the harm classics such as Thoovanathumbikal did. However, to prevent normalising such misinterpretation, looking from the audience perspective and constantly correcting the flaws by the filmmakers themselves are very much important.
Blaming it all on the filmmakers hence may seem a bit harsh, and it makes sense that they would like to reap profits or minimum ROI from their movies.
So, what can be done to make these films as progressive as they claim to be?
The first suggestion that would spring up would be a simple, “Let women tell stories about women.” This is putting the onus of responsibility on women when the actual problem is glorified masculinity. Hence men have to take equal responsibility to make changes. American Psycho directed by Mary Harron in 2000 is still the best example on how to take on the toxic masculine culture. It satirically portrays the present notion of how a man should behave according to the social construct.
Also, owing to the patriarchal system, the need to sell movies, as discussed above, is so ingrained in the minds of the filmmakers, including that of women. The story of Gulabi Gang can only be monetised only if Madhuri Dixit plays the lead role. This is where movie critics and reviewers come into the fray. It is important that such movies are tabled for discussion and undergo public scrutiny. Instead of giving star ratings, prepare the review in such a way that the audience actually understands what is misogynistic and what is not. Another possible measure is to include a panel of gender experts in the censor board so that movies can be dissected based on its contribution to the society apart from the usual bigoted certificates.
In the Spanish movie The Platform, a woman goes down the hole in search of her daughter who nobody believes exists. She is kept as per the likings of the men in the chamber, which makes her violent. The old man says everyone is free in the hole as she is moving down because of her “free will”, an anecdote all progressive Indian filmmakers and reviewers should contemplate.