“Aurat ke ek nahi teen janam hote hain. Pehla jab wo kisi ki beti bankar is duniya me aati hai. Dusra jab wo patni banti hai. Aur teesra jab wo ma banti hai”– The film was Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, one of the many that had become a staple during Covid internments. Amongst friends we have always riffed and bantered about the filmi wisdom, Nirupama Roy as eternal weepy mother, or Saas Bahu serials… but one wonders where to draw a line. Consider — “Sapne dekho, zaroor dekho….Bas unke poore hone ki shart mat rakho.” (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge), or “Pyar se de rahe hai, rakh lo, varna thappad maarke bhi de sakte hai.” (Dabangg), or “Akeli ladki khuli hui tijori ki tarah hoti hai”.(Jab We Met). Ouch…
Does cinema mirror society, or is it the other way round? To be fair, it’s not that all that shown in films is repulsive, but the history of women’s portrayal is checkered. We shall come back to this question again later.
Women, in particular, and what’s expected of them is a constant theme — from well-intentioned motherly guidance to Agony Aunts’ columns in newspapers and web-portals, to pop culture and advertisements. At any point, they expect her to perform one among several roles with unique behavior templates — she could be the docile daughter, shy bride, dutiful daughter-in-law, sacrificing mother, indulgent bhabhi, or a concerned wife.
And then in the evening of her life, she may discover the dusty harmonium in a neglected attic, or a long-lost diary in the musty box room — a trope of her young dreams from college days, that remained unexplored. But the ship, alas, has sailed. This idea has become a cliché in many short stories and plays.
Patriarchy is a heavy word and a serious debate thereof is best left to experts. This musing is my journey as someone born in North India of middle-class ethos, and now parent to a grown-up daughter and a son. I have tried to keep the tone light, which was not easy at times… and hoping that it resonates with you.
How did we get here
Not so long ago, when microwaves, refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines didn’t exist, the women worked inside the house all the time. Washing laundry, ironing shirts, mending socks, turning collars, sewing on buttons, mothproofing woolens, polishing furniture, sweeping floors, cleaning windows, scrubbing sinks, tubs, toilets, and stoves, vacuuming rugs, nursing the sick, shopping for food, cooking meals, feeding relatives, arranging for religious festivities, attending to their children’s health, clothing, cleanliness, schooling, nutrition, conduct, birthdays, discipline, and morale — They were called the ‘homemakers’ and ‘nurturers’.
Men worked outside the house, for fifty, sixty, even seventy hours a week, caught up over a beer with buddies every once a while, and sometimes changed the light bulbs at home — They liked to be hailed ‘breadwinners’ and ‘protectors’.
These were the pigeonholes of gender roles assigned by society, and life was good. Until someone discovered the dreaded ‘P’ word — and the world has not been the same ever since, haha.
Levity aside, it’s easy to notice how the dice has been loaded against the women. In recent decades it has been given many other nuances–Misogyny, Feminism, #Metoo, T-shirt slogans, and hashtag wars on Social Media. And the rot is real.
Patriarchy divides just about everything into that which is male and that which is female, and the former gets a leg over the latter. And India, with its countless variations across the geography, castes, education levels, economic status, and histories, is impossible to straight-jacket.
Yet a few markers exist —
As compared to their counterparts in the North, Southern girls are more likely to survive infancy, be educated, marry later, choose husbands, and interact more closely with them, bear fewer babies, own more assets, exercise more control over dowry, socialize with friends, move more freely in their communities and work alongside men. In North and North-West India, women are much more constrained and sex ratios are far higher.
There are of course a few exceptions, such as the matrilineal tribes of Meghalaya, or Nairs in Kerala, Shettys in Mangalore. Sikhism in India is even more secular and does not favor a gender.
A fascinating study on Indian patriarchy is contained in sociologist Alice Evans article, referenced below.
The curse of patriarchy and misogyny has existed, in abundance, in the west too. Petty gaslighting to serious sexual crimes abound. At its core, a ‘Date-Rape’ at a US campus, or raping a girl at a farm in UP hinterland, or an ‘Honor-killing’ in Haryana countryside, is cruel, violent means of male aggression against a weaker sex. It is neither a date nor an honor; it’s disgusting cowardice and need not be sugar-coated. Margaret Atwood has said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Poverty, entrenched Hindu caste system (with its notions of purity, pollution, and inherent hierarchy), repeated invasions of Northern India by Central Asian Muslims, are all offered as causes for male dominance over the female.
But in reality, it is just a muscled power-grab for control that has played out across the world.
How does it look like
It’s something that’s impossible to recognize when one is growing up within the ecosystem; much as a fish swimming in a pond leached with chemical waste. It’s passed over as an article of faith, a value system, like religion. Unconsciously we acquire these prejudices without even realizing how toxic they could be. And these biases are packaged in shiny platitudes — the low divorce rates in India, loving joint family system, world fascination with colorful bangles, resplendent Indian saris… and so on. And there is supporting mythology to boot–going way back to Hindu epics of Ramayana/ Mahabharata, where the subjugated women is revered.
And then, it’s impossible not to notice the uneven playing field offered to women as we grow up.
We notice–How the male child receives a clean chit in contributing to home chores? How he gets a more lenient verdict in choosing his friends or a girlfriend? How regularly he is given higher or better educational options? How often the girl is told to learn household skills, lest she sullies the name of family at in-laws’ house after marriage? Fixation with the male child? Food eaten first by menfolk, while ladies serve?
Urban upper-middle-class families prefer educated daughters-in-law, but do not want them to work — “Hamare gharon main ladkiyan naukari nahin karteen.” The prospective bride is a vanity acquisition, a trophy to be pinned on the family tree, a totem of being ‘progressive’ to flaunt amongst friends and relatives.
If perchance the lady breaks through and manages to go for work, these prejudices follow — a woman cannot be a good mother/wife if she focuses on her career; that men are better at careers than women and that it is the man’s sole responsibility to be the breadwinner of the family… etc.
In rural India, this reaches a more vicious form. Powerful Khap Panchayat (or family patriarch) decides the limits to women’s freedom since the community’s honor (izzat) is at stake. Society may have moved away from Sati and Jauhar, but Child Marriage, veil, dowry to get the girl ‘married off’ remain from a fossilized old practice of injustice. What to put on, when who, and where to wed is a narrow path, and non-compliance can be fatal.
Language and conversations also play gender politics, says Jackson Katz — “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a town were harassed last month, not about how many boys harassed girls… Use of such passive voice shifts focus off men and boys, and onto girls and women!…when you look at the phrasing of ‘Violence Against Women’, it would appear that nobody is doing it to them. It just happens. Men aren’t even part of it!”
Popular culture and media play along — mainstream newspapers inform us the color of Priyanka Chopra’s gown, or if she chose not to slip on a bra. Cinema makes money off the same instincts as ‘Item Numbers.’
And to be clear, this is not restricted to India. Western magazines, aimed at educated middle-class married ladies proffered advice on how to save the marriage (with an abusive husband)–“by shutting up, and making a Martini when the spouse returns after a hard day’s work.”
Blame Mummiji & Saas Bahu Serials
Before nailing full guilt for the ill on the brotherhood of men, it might bear insights to look at the role of women themselves in its perpetuity. They, after all, critically influence the girl, both as a mom, and then a mother-in-law.
“Mothers never cut the son’s umbilical cord,” jokes a Canadian married to a Gujrati friend. The poor son is treated as the spoils of war by his mother and his wife. Rekha Nigam, a screenplay writer, says that “A boy is mollycoddled, pampered beyond belief, made to think the sun shines out of his backside. He gets a terrible sense of entitlement.”
And that reminds me of ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’, that ran more than 1800 episodes, over eight years, launched Smriti Irani to better things in life, Ekta Kapoor danced her way to the bank, and a new genre of ‘saas-bahu’ serials was born across regional languages.
Indian men wanted their brides to be the women they saw on TV soaps. In matrimonial ads young bachelors specified — “She should be like Tulsi in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi or Saloni in Saat Phere!”
These shows were brutally panned for promoting patriarchy. The production quality was loud and grating — the acting was reduced to close-ups of pursed-lip discontentment, simpering complicity, evil-vixen smirk, or frantic eye-rolls! Ladies bore twice their weight in jewelry and wore resplendent silk, whether in the kitchen or bedroom.
Yet such cerebral critique faded against the amazing popularity of the serial. Here was the brilliance of the scriptwriter, whose reassertion of traditional values (bhartiya naari parampara), Indian audience could never get enough of. Middle class was embracing women’s lib, at a slow burn, through expensive saris, kilos of jewelry, a little strident voice, and some agency in making own decisions in a joint family.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Yet despite the tenacity of the old patterns, women are hacking out bigger space for themselves, both in private and public spheres. Many trends are converging together — growth in technology, urbanization, and education are significant contributors.
Our grandmothers spent endless hours in unpaid house chores. But affordable kitchen appliances, gas burners, washing machines, refrigerators, etc. have reduced the demands of household work today. And technology continues to seep into everyday life–Internet, smartphones, instant communication — new trends and ideas travel at warp speed now.
In 1951 just 9% of women could read even a word or two; today two-thirds can. The educated expect to keep working after marriage, are more financially independent, and have a clearer idea of what they want from life.
Young women are now better protected by the law; Corporate are drawing fair policies for workplace behaviors.
The change is chipping away at the status quo, and even invoking fear as the old structures and roles are challenged. As women actively shape their own lives, their expectations of men are also changing. For the first time, the Indian man, brought up by his mother to believe that he is the center of the universe, has someone evaluating him — and finding him wanting. She is not taking any BS anymore — the divorce rates are rising.
The outbreak of moral policing in the country is only partially political. The old order is trying to hold on to control — what women should wear or shouldn’t, where should they go, how they should behave, etc. So whether it is about women drinking in pubs, or wearing jeans to college, or being seen with their boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, impotent mob outrage is sparked because women have ‘crossed the limit’.
Yet the tide is in her favor. When she can jointly pay for the EMI of that 3 bedroom fancy dream apartment, when she can compete head to head in a corporate pitch, she also gets greater autonomy and agency in other aspects of her life. A woman’s success is the middle finger in the face of patriarchy.
True, there is resistance in a large section of society towards changes. Not everyone can realistically throw off the patriarchal yoke, nor in fact, would they may even want to. For these women, the Saas bahu soaps allow for their personal space to be widened, just that little bit, and with no backlash.
There is also a subtle change, much less confrontational, where middle-class India is creating additional territory for herself, without going up against the customs. They are slyly redefining tradition itself. Take, for example — ‘Arranged Love Marriage’ giving more leeway to the idea of mediated matches by accommodating the desires of the girl. The role of the parents has changed from stern dictators to facilitators and mobile ATMs! Thanks to Hindi cinema, carwa chautch is today a festival of excesses. The wife continues to fast the entire day, but the focus now is on the celebration that follows when the fast is over, and the gifts that are given by loving hubby dear! Regular visits to beauty parlors, once frowned upon by family elders, are normalized with a narrative of ‘maintaining myself for my husband’, thus establishing it part of marital responsibilities!
Trying to dismiss half the humanity is getting more difficult now.
Within our circle of friends, we see kids making life choices that did not exist, or occur to our generation. Live-in relationships are more common. Many of them are pursuing independent careers in different cities, after marriage. Married girls, many times, have kept their family names as a token of original identity. Guys consider housework to be ‘his’ work as well and not just as ‘helping’ the wife out and the girl is not just ‘supplementing’ the household income. They are transcending the gender binaries.
At its core, the tension between respecting and challenging tradition continues. But applying an old moral compass to today’s reality is not just lazy, but also risky. Segregation and purdah during repeated conquests all those centuries back may have had merit but has lost relevance a long ago. The context changes with time, and so should sensibilities — that’s how civilizations progress.
We need to respect existence or expect resistance. Silence is not a choice.
Let’s close the loop on the question we started with — Does popular culture hold a mirror to society, or it’s the other way round?
A large part of the population doesn’t have the resource, time, will, inclination or the imagination to challenge the status quo, much less change it. They are too busy trying to keep their head above water, or may not feel the need, or are afraid of the consequences of change. They don’t question the rules, they comply, they reconcile, they adjust. This is where most films focus, selling patriarchy in various garbs of tradition — Indian values, Manu Smriti, yada yada. This is where numbers are, and money is to be made. This is where Madhuri Dixit prances with mindless abandon — Mera piya ghar aaya, O Ramji.
Then comes the women who are aware of the uneven playing field and militating against it, hoping for a better tomorrow. Today we find her at every dinner table, arguing with parents against values that clash with her sensibilities. Talking of cinema, we had the likes of Smita Patil’s Bhumika & Mirch Masala, Shabana Azmi’s Arth, Tabu’s Astitva. These were art films, appreciated by a handful… and did not make money. Cue into Aishwarya Rai singing — Agle janam mohe bitiya na kijo.
In recent years, we got the emancipated women who can hold their own, and win. Their fight is against patriarchy, not men. Vidya Balan’s Kahaani embraced her femininity without putting on the machismo to prove her power and worth. In English Vinglish, Sridevi remains sweet and not bitter in her attitude; yet she reaffirms her own identity with poise. Kangana Ranaut in Queen, Taapsee Pannu in Thappad & PINK went further in the same direction. And then arrived Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen–a tight slap across the face of patriarchy! These movies retained feminine dignity and suggested that life is not a competition between men and women; it is collaboration.
And now we have a post-feminism heroine of Lipstick under the Burka or Shuddh Desi Romance, or Katti Batti, Cocktail, etc….of various qualities and messages. She is the Anushka Sharma dancing to the Break-Up song, after dumping her boy friend -–O dil pe pathar rakh ke muh pe make-up kar liya / Mere saiyan ji se aaj maine break-up kar liya!
Cinema is holding the mirror to society — it just depends on where it chooses to look.