Movies like Devdas enforce patriarchal ideas about love and pit women against each other fueling misogyny. Time we changed the narrative.
The popularity of the Devdas story is undeniable. It has been remade numerous times and its template of a tragic love triangle has been used for many other movies across languages.
In its latest iteration, the story is reinvented as Daas Dev, a story that claims to marry Devdas and his quest for love, with Hamlet and his pursuit of vengeance. It also claims to be a reverse of Devdas – with the hero escaping from and rising above his addictions and demons, instead of falling prey to them. This certainly is a premise that has great potential. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but most reviews suggest that the movie hasn’t lived up to the promise. What’s worse is that as this review suggests, while the movie has somewhat managed to update the character of Devdas, it has left its women wanting – yet again!
Love triangles are Bollywood’s go to formula, and the way they are portrayed on screen are problematic. The man-woman-man triangle makes the woman seem fickle and indecisive, and reduces her to be a prize to be won – the patriarchy here is on full display and easy to identify. Rooting out the misogyny ingrained in woman-man-woman triangles like Devdas, takes a bit more work.
The women competing for the man’s love in these movies are usually accomplished and talented women – often much more than the man they are competing for. Not that the man is portrayed as weak or ineffectual – in actuality his faults are romanticized, and his ‘loser’ status celebrated. I have always wondered, for instance, why both Karishma and Sushmita tolerated Salman’s antics in Biwi No. 1 instead of kicking him to the curb – he had no redeeming characteristics at all! Or why Paro and Chandramukhi pined over Devdas — who when you peel off all the mythologizing and aggrandizement, is a classist, misogynistic, alcoholic with daddy issues (insert rolling eyes emoji).
In a patriarchal society, women are expected to be tolerant and put up with men behaving like unruly children. It does not matter what faults the man has – the woman is expected to submit to him and care for him. In fact, women across the world are held responsible for the behaviour of men. Add to this the myth that women are naturally nurturing, and the manipulative social messaging that it is their duty to be caring and you get women who believe that they must bear the burden of ‘healing’ men who are broken or unworthy of their affections.
This is the sort of thinking that prompts parents to get their sons married in order to ‘cure’ them of addictions, actual psychological issues or sometimes, just bad personalities. This is also one of the reasons why women continue to stay in abusive relationships, especially when the partner is not physically abusive but exploits the woman emotionally. As this article correctly points out, “Women are responsible for doing all the emotional labour in heterosexual relationships — constantly ‘working on’ things like communication and connectivity. Reinforcing the idea that a ‘good’ girlfriend or wife is one that constantly tries to ‘fix’ a man is not only gross but harmful, as it teaches women to accept male behaviour that is unacceptable — to just stick it out.”
Equally damaging is the way that the women are portrayed as rivals, ‘fighting’ for the man, not through open aggression, but through gossip, name-calling and emotional manipulation, i.e., by being ‘bitchy.’ The image of women fighting for the man decidedly feeds the male fantasy of being desirable and gives them an ego boost, but it does a disservice to women by portraying them as being devious and wily, and reinforces the historical lie about how a woman is a woman’s worst enemy. Such portrayals of women also help to prop up the goddess-whore dichotomy, where one woman is projected as the ideal, ‘good’ woman, who is chosen by the man and the other who is ‘bad’ and therefore rejected.
According to evolutionary theories, men had multiple partners, as they were driven to spread their genes as far and wide as possible, and were free to do so unhindered by biological concerns like pregnancy. Women on the other hand had to compete for the scarce resources that a man could provide, and the woman who ‘won’ would have the man taking care of her and her children. At the same time, aggression in women is frowned upon, making the women resort to more ‘socially acceptable‘ ways of expressing aggression , i.e., by being ‘bitchy.’
Obviously, this theory is problematic.
Firstly, human beings are not wild animals who are motivated by biological drives alone. We are social animals who are greatly influenced by cultural expectations. It is not possible to draw conclusions about how men and women behaved millennia ago based on how they behave today, or vice versa.
Secondly, women no longer depend on men to take care of them. It is more likely that cultural expectations of how men and women are supposed to behave create a self-fulfilling prophecy – i.e., women are bitchy because they are expected to be so.
The idea that women hate each other has a long history. Victorians, for example, depicted bonds between women as being, “short-lived, unable to withstand women’s quarrelsome natures.” India too, has many stories about rival queens or wives. As Deepa Narayan points out in her book, Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, it is to the advantage of the existing patriarchal systems to keep women isolated by turning them against each other. Representations in pop-culture are an effective way to achieve this goal.
One can argue of course, that these stories are borrowed from reality – that women in real-life are often bitchy to each other. However, much of that is driven by a confirmation bias – we are programmed to find information that supports our existing beliefs. If we believe that women hate each other then we can find umpteen examples of women tearing each other down. But if we believe that women are capable of genuine friendships and dealing with differences in a rational manner, we can find numerous examples of that too. One thin silver lining in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version of Devdas, is that the rivals Paro and Chandramukhi manage to bond over their shared love, but unfortunately, not before engaging in some nasty back and forth.
This is exactly why we need better stories. As much as fiction borrows from fact, it also feeds back into the real world. Which is why if we show women dealing with such situations with grace and maturity on screen, it can help to set new cultural expectations.
Devdas has an enduring presence in our cultural consciousness. It is time however that Paro and Chandramukhi get their due. A version of the story that places them front and center; which liberates them from the shadow of Devdas and his desires, is the narrative that we really need to hear.
Header image is a composite from stills of the movie Devdas
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