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At 25 minutes, Period. End of sentence achieves a lot. It moves us, provokes us and leaves us right when we wanted more. Yet, it suffers from its tendency to combine shock value with reformist overtones.
Made solely through the fundraising and other efforts of high school students in America, the short new docu-drama on Netflix explains many things, makes meaningful connections, offers hope – all without footnoting its title anywhere. There is no disagreement possible with the point of the film, its message is clear, and we love it too. Quite simply, we need to talk about periods, irrespective of whether we are in LA or in rural India. Yet, this Oscar nominated short suffers from one drawback common to many docudramas made in India and elsewhere.
It thrives on shock value and has reformist undertones. It is yet another agitating documentary with an omniscient interviewer. For instance, the film establishes that there is ignorance about periods by asking rural women, school children and teenaged boys about it. But it doesn’t realize that there is also some knowledge in the answers. To my mind, there is ignorance, but of the scientific findings of the last x years, not of the body basics. And the ignorance that is found is because scientific education has not reached Indian villages as quickly and efficiently as it should have. One lady in response to questions such as—what are periods, do you know why they occur and so on, says, that they occur due to impure blood exiting our body. This is not an entirely useless or unscientific description. The uterine lining shedding itself causes periods—that blood has no use and should not be retained. In this sense, it is impure, and the periods are cleansing. The idea that periods are a cleansing are mentioned in the dharmashastras. These texts also deem women to be very pure because such a cleansing bodily mechanism exists.
Then, when a bunch of teenage boys are asked about the period and they do not know, there is an embarrassing and shocking silence. The viewer feels it burn into her skin. And then comes the Hindi word. At which most of the boys say, oh we know. Hindi, anyone? A bit more sensitivity would have helped here. Treating your informants as also possessing some knowledge is generally a good idea.
Schoolgirls term periods as ‘women’s problem.’ A voice (film-maker/interviewer) asks, why problem? Again, describing periods as a problem is in itself not entirely wrong. Many women suffer their periods accompanied by cramps. So yes, it is a problem. Teenaged boys termed it an illness – which though wrong does not indicate the kind of supposed ignorance. It appears to be a description that took into account the lack of health or ease leading to dis-ease (bimaari) due to cramps. When activists try to change the narrative around a subject matter, they will do better if they build on the existing knowledge within communities rather than mock them.
Due to many such moments, it felt like the unfolding drama of the urban film-maker meeting the rural poor, a repeat of the coloniser meeting the heathen. And oh, outrage! In the viewer, in the film’s narrative, everywhere! A more open-ended inquiry, with questions and seeking would have been far more interesting. For instance, a question that bugged me was whether Indians always kept this topic under wraps or whether they learnt it from Victorian morality. Rural India might have some clues to this, but we must be willing to listen.
What is more puzzling is that from such outrage-narrative mode, the film moves onto a second phase – of whole-hearted celebration. It creates endearing characters and leaves us in awe of the wonderful entrepreneurship women are capable of – with a ‘whoever can stop women’ kind of moment. Suddenly, the film appears to be structured in two disjunct parts.
Levelling a sharp critique first, demanding change and then seeking to celebrate the women as they are, has its share of confusions, I suppose. Going by the excessive usage of such constructions found in the academia and elsewhere, it appears that this is no well-planned narrative technique adopted by the film, but a trajectory that has grown roots in feminist activism beforehand. I think we must challenge this to ask why we cannot celebrate women as they are – strong, pillars of families and societies – and then offer the additional help they need to make things even better. In other words, they are the agents to begin with, and were agents always! Instead, we meet them as ignorant and then they become empowered! This kind of happy-ending is a cliché in docu-dramas with a message and may well have been avoided.
Plus, where is the angle from an environmental perspective? Cloth, for containing period blood is inconvenient and insufficient, yes. But it was at least environment-friendly. There is no mention of whether the pads are reusable.
We would have to wait and see what happens to the film at the Oscars. Countdown jaari hai!
Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies and works on topics in feminism and religion, postcolonial studies and South Asian history among others. She received the Bourse Mira fellowship by the French government in read more...
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