Women in India are not encouraged to express their desires. On the contrary, even if they end up expressing, it is largely used against them and getting associated with them immediately leads to some undesirable tags that take a long time to fade away. But for the most – expressing them is a clear no no. Any women who is reading this would agree with me that right from when we were very young, the world had defined a very definitive list of dos and don’ts of a good girl. And as we were growing up, we were quite often reminded of them, while keeping a goal in front of being happily married and settling down with the right man.
And nor did we have any role model to look up to who defied that norm of expression and was bold enough to stand up and talk about her desires or make some choices. Aunts, neighbours, cousins, acquaintances in bad marriages, abusive marriages, not so equal marriages, we have seen it all. But we do not remember seeing a woman who chose to stand up for her choices, desires and aspirations.
So as always, when we do not find real women, we lean on the reel women who make a definitive impact in shaping generations.
There are two reel women whose characters, to my mind, contributed significantly to the opening up of women’s needs, desires and choices – Chandravati of Mrityudand played by Shabana Azmi and Aditi of Astitva played by Tabu.
Mrityudand is a 1997 movie made by Prakash Jha and spoke about the position of rural women of India. Set in Bihar, the story showcases the prevalent practices of the time and different facets of women in varying social strata through three key characters – elder daughter in law of the household – Chandravati, modern educated younger daughter in law of the house Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit) and Kanti (Shilpa Shirodkar) a servant in the house. The three women and their stories intersect in a way to showcase the prevalent social fabric highlighting the patriarchal society, the strong caste class divide, the position of women amongst all this laced with violence of all sorts. The story begins with the compliant Chandravati, who after 17 years of marriage to her husband, is still childless and believes that a woman can fight only till a point, post which she needs to tolerate. A young educated Ketaki comes into the household and speaks her mind, likes to question and wants to define things in her own terms. And Kanti, a woman whose husband is in Punjab to earn and clear the loans taken from the local landlord, is under constant pressure to trade herself and her body to clear the debt. Through the story, these women and their intertwined lives takes solace and courage from each other, and by the end of the movie the sisterhood comes together and manages to call the bluff on patriarchy and immense injustice done under its garb.
Two scenes of the movie stand out pertinently.
The conversation between the two pregnant women – Chandravati and recently widowed Ketaki. Chandravati by now has been abandoned by her husband who has chosen to be a Mahant in the village temple. Childless, and psychosomatically sick, Chandravati is often pitied, taunted and even held responsible for her husband’s renunciation of family life. Ketaki on seeing the pregnant belly of Chandravati is confused, shocked, surprised, and bewildered.
‘Of your own will?’ asks Ketaki.
‘Yes. I broke all the rules,’ replies Chandravati.
And she goes on to question further – What rules are these that force us to tolerate endlessly? How much? And for whose sake?
‘Whose child is it,’ asks Ketaki.
‘Mine,’ says Chandravati.
Unapologetic and clear.
The other scene is that when her husband (the Mahant who lives in the temple), on hearing that his wife is pregnant with someone else’s child, comes home to question her. Extremely angry and seething with patriarchal dishonour, he enters the house screaming, howling and demanding, and is met by a calm, clear and confident Chandravati who calls out his hypocrisy and lets the world know of his impotency. But not before letting him know that even a woman is a living being and has the urge to live and enjoy life. It is not restricted to only men.
Chandravati, a daring woman character who, drowned in the patriarchal rural set up, eventually ends up proving to the world that her childlessness was not because of her.
Astitva, on the contrary, is a movie set in urban context. A 2000 release, and directed by Mahesh Manjrekar, this movie touches upon the aspects of emotional abuse and vacuum that is often found in seemingly happy marriages in India. A happy marriage is the one where the woman is a goddess. She is always adept in being a best friend, an ever available sexual partner, an emotional anchor and most importantly the lady who perfectly runs the household of her husband. An able mother, a perfect cook, a lovely housekeeper and an able executive’s wife, Aditi is all of this in her Maharashtrian household comprising of her husband and son. A perfect family, a happy world and getting even better with a soon to be daughter in law Revati (Namrata Shirodkar) set to enter the family.
And then the bubble bursts.
Aditi receives an inheritance. An old acquaintance, who upon his death, wills all of his belongings to her. Surprised and suspicious, her husband goes digging back into the history. After his investigation, he finds out that he is not the father of their son. Enraged, he decides to confront Aditi in public, instead of honouring her a private conversation. The husband humiliates her in front of some close friends. The friend reminds the husband of some past escapades of his that can also be seen in the same light. But the husband refuses to accept that, clearly showing that the standards are different for a man and a woman. Their son expresses his disgust against his mother on learning of his birth. But his fiancee, Revati, decides to stand with Aditi and calls off her wedding.
Apart from Revati, there is another woman character Meghana (Smita Jayakar) who is a remarried divorcee with two children. Both these women help Aditi find her ground. When her husband decides that he will not be able to have any spousal relationship with Aditi, she decides to find her own identity (astitva in Hindi) and step out of that house. Again this movie shows the sisterhood of three distinct women who help each other and specifically help Aditi carve her own identity courageously.
Before leaving the house forever, Aditi brings to the fore some key points that form an intrinsic aspect of most of the Indian marriages. She tells her husband that a man quenches his thirst without even asking, what about a woman and her needs? Is a woman expected to wait for a benediction from her husband or beg for some happiness? She also touched upon the concept of non consensual sex or marital rape. And the point that stands out most pertinently is when she declares that men are driven by their egos. She sadly yet firmly points out that both her husband and the male acquaintance, never thought of her as a player in the equation. The husband was devastated and easily cut off all the ties built over 27 years of their marriage as his stamp of manhood was not there in the son, and the acquaintance chose to bequeath his will only because of the stamp of his manhood on the son.
So where is she in this equation? Non-existent with no emotions, desires and feelings?
Awesome actresses, forward thinking directors, amazing script and stories that touch your heart, awaken the spirit within and inspire you to remain a woman with dreams, aspirations, desires and most importantly encourage you to identify, articulate and express.
And as we step onto another year, beset with its own challenges, let us remind ourselves that we are an equal partner and have as much desires, needs and urges as the other half.