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We keep resorting to essentialism in Bollywood - stereotypes of how a woman should be and how she should behave, to portray them in our popular media, even that which claims to be 'feminist'.
We keep resorting to essentialism in Bollywood – stereotypes of how a woman should be and how she should behave, to portray them in our popular media, even that which claims to be ‘feminist’.
I watched Mission Mangal this weekend, having seen reviews and praises being showered on the film for its women-centric and feminist approach.
My friend, Vijayalakshmi Harish wrote a masterpiece of a review and I’m not about to step on her toes by attempting to repeat what she has already articulated in her inimitable style. BUT what I do want to address is something this film made me think about: this brazen love for essentialism that films seem to hold on to, in portraying women.
Let’s start by looking at what essentialism is. The dictionary definition suggests that it is “a belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are.”
Take a minute to look back at a majority of ‘feminist’ and ‘women-centric’ films you’ve seen in recent times.
Do you see how essentialism is a common thread? Think about the tropes that have been heavily involved in presenting women: women doing things that essentialize them as women, women doing things that highlight the stereotypical roles ascribed to them because they are women, and women doing things that are seen as fundamental to their identity – that is, as a function of their sex ascribed at birth (let’s not forget that the women are presented to us as women – I don’t think any of the films we’ve had so far have presented any narrative arc involving the journey of self-identification as women).
Having watched Mission Mangal, and assuming that it’s most likely fresh in your memory or perhaps something you may get to watch soon, I’m going to draw out examples from the film that also speak to what we’ve also seen before.
Vidya Balan’s character, Tara Shinde, is shown as this ever-patient, all-knowing, unflustered mother who juggles home and work beautifully. Compare to the classic trope of how the household “isn’t kept together” if the woman of the house goes out to work (Remember Tumhari Sulu, Mitr-My Friend?) or study (English Vinglish – in the scene of not being there for her son Sagar) and how there is no question but to “have it all”?
Women on screen are fixing people in their families, ordering pizzas in for their ever-preoccupied sons (!!), ensuring that their “daughters are not wayward” (!!), and caring for elderly parents and injured husbands on the one hand, and fixing people in their workplace, ordering food for their not-so-motivated teams, ensuring that their projects run on schedule, and caring for the emotional well-being of others around them.
This is the highlight reel, an essentialist image of the deified version of women.
Women around me, off screen, though, are juggling a tonne of things because this trope normalizes the fact that a woman must have it all – heaven forbid that she exercises agency or chooses things. When a woman makes a suggestion to cut costs and make use of equipment that may not otherwise be used for another project, she’s seen as “being a woman” because, well, she has work life experience taking “baaki bacha hua khana,” (leftover food) adding masala to it and making it a meal for the next day.
A second common essentialist trope is the idea of a liberal woman: the unidimensional monolith that smokes, drinks, is sexually active, and swears without restraint.
This essentialist streak forgets to acknowledge that a liberal woman is not a function of the clothes she wears or what she chooses to do. There is no homogenized, cookie-cutter mold for performing one’s identity – let alone the idea of what a liberal woman is or what a conservative woman is.
The essentialist idea of feminism, to Bollywood, appears to be flipping the imbalance and retaining it as an imbalance – meaning, where the gender imbalance tips in favor of men, Bollywood thinks tipping it the other way around is appropriate. No wonder, then, that they come up with astute pearls like “I am not Feminist, I’m an equalist” (eye rolls).
The essence of feminism lies in equality, and subversion of inequality is not about creating a new inequality. In showcasing women as, say ‘violent’ or beating the wits out of men does not restore the balance – and films peppering their narratives with unconnected scenes to just get a bunch of women to beat a man up does very little to question the structural violence of patriarchy. It’s really no use if you’re busy saying women can do anything if you’re returning to stereotypical assertions around “women must keep house and can keep house because they are women”.
Finally, even as much as the abuse and harassment of women is absolutely not okay, neither is the abuse and harassment of men and non-binary gender identities.
In a scene in Mission Mangal, Taapsee Pannu is pictured taking a driving lesson and appearing seemingly anxious about it (a feeling I relate to, because my anxiety strikes me faster than I can say “I’m going to drive”). In her anxiety, though, instead of reaching for the gear, she grabs onto the crotch of the driving instructor and the audience blew up with laughter.
As someone with anxiety around driving, I relate to what Taapsee’s character went through: but looking at people around me and hearing from those I talked to, I learned that they saw this as a case of women being bad drivers, and they found the idea of a woman grabbing a man’s crotch as funny. That this is a film, that this scene was written to possibly induce a laugh, and that this was received as a comic element in the film is disturbing. As a society, as a nation, as a people, clearly, we haven’t understood what it is to take sexual assault seriously and to respond to it appropriately.
Have you noticed the mansplaining in the spate of films in recent times? Akshay Kumar’s looming presence in Mission Mangal as the overlord of the women on the team, or even his overwhelming mansplaining in Pad Man (inappropriately supported by Sonam Kapoor telling him something to the effect that only a woman can talk to a woman about periods) come to fore as reminders of how Bollywood makes women’s issues palatable to its misogynistic appetite by presenting it through a man’s voice.
Entertainment may only just be entertainment, understandably. But every vehicle of entertainment also presents a powerful teaching and learning moment: and it’s downright disappointing that so many such moments have been wasted away.
Image source: stills from the film Mission Mangal, English Vinglish, and Mitr my Friend
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