“We Women Are Against Each Other,” Say These Talented Women, But Are We Really?

Recently, actors Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Alia Bhatt and Yami Gautam, supported the common misconception that women pull each other down. Maybe they need reminding about the many ways in which women lift each other up.

Recently, actors Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Alia Bhatt and Yami Gautam, supported the common misconception that women pull each other down. Maybe they need reminding about the many ways in which women lift each other up.

I always look forward to critic Rajeev Masand’s year-end roundtables with the who’s who of Bollywood. These sessions are always entertaining, insightful and a good indication of what to expect from cinema in the coming year.

This year’s Actresses Roundtable however, left me a bad taste in my mouth. Given the credentials of the actors invited –Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Alia Bhatt and Yami Gautam; and given that these are some of the most outspoken women in the industry, who have demanded better for themselves, I was left rather disappointed.

Why? Because, in response to a question, they pulled out that old patriarchal ploy to keep women separated –“we women are against each other.” (Hat tip Sanskari Stree).

The question they were responding to was about whether Taapsee and Bhumi should have played 60 plus year old women in Saand Ki Aankh, or whether Bhumi should have played a dark-skinned girl when she isn’t one herself. The responded to this criticism saying that they felt that it is only women who criticize each other like that, while the men never do.

I have already in a previous post, written about why it is wrong of Taapsee and Bhumi to play older women, and many others have written about Bollywood’s problem with brownface (and this includes criticism of male actors as well, so it’s not just the women being targeted.) This post is not about that. This is purely a reminder, to all these actors, that women lift each other up, far more than they pull each other down.

Men like the status quo

Firstly, let us get rid of the notion that men are “more chill” and “minding their own business.” The men have their own rivalries and ego clashes. Besides, why would men ask for Bollywood to become more inclusive and progressive, when the status quo works in their favour?

Bollywood is the natural home of the “macho male hero” in its current form. As it changes and evolves to include cis women, trans people, and others who don’t fit into its fixed molds, they will have to give up some space. So, they benefit by not asking too many questions.

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If the men had it their way, most of these actresses, who so proudly speak of their “layered roles” today, would probably still be relegated to playing the hero’s arm candy or dancing to item numbers.

What successful women owe to women

Female actors would do well to remember that some of their own success is at least partly due to the growing number of female writers, directors and producers pushing the boundaries in Bollywood today.

Would Alia have the role of Safeena to play, if it wasn’t written by Reema Kagti, and would that role have been given so much importance if the movie weren’t helmed by Zoya Akhtar? Yami spoke about how she was inspired by how Vidya Balan described success in an interview. Taapsee spoke in this very roundtable about how Neena Gupta was so gracious and supportive to her when they met, and how Shabana Azmi’s reaction to the film gave both her and Bhumi such a boost.

Women like Sona Mohapatra have been speaking up relentlessly for the safety of other women in the industry. If this is not sisterhood and solidarity, what is it?

Vidya Balan reminds us that change doesn’t happen overnight. We are painfully aware of that already. What we also know is that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We don’t expect change to come right away but we know that only if we speak now, can we expect changes to happen in the future.

In fact, that women in Bollywood today have better roles than before (still few and far between, but better than before) is due to the fact that many women, in the industry and outside it, have been demanding better.

“Women are against women” is the patriarchy’s secret weapon

A few weeks ago, when the rape of the vet in Hyderabad was on the news, I had written a poem that called out men for not doing enough. A female friend shared that poem on her Facebook page. Another woman commented on that post saying that more than men it is women who need to stop being mean to each other, if rapes need to be reduced. That was all the opportunity a man needed, to jump in and agree that yes, it is all the fault of women.

See now, how patriarchy uses, “women are against other women” to further its agenda?

In Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women, Deepa Narayan writes, “Women should be other women’s natural allies. The fact that they are not is not accidental. It is the genius of cultural design: to ensure that each woman stays alone and isolated. If women come together to stand up for each other against unfairness or misuse of power, whether in the home, offices or on the streets, it would break the cultural, social, political and economic arrangements that prop up the power and privileges of men, and the non-existence of women as full human beings.”

She also talks of how women are encouraged to see other women as manipulative and competitive, reducing the opportunities for them to come together and take on the more powerful group, i.e. men. As she says, “When women distrust and dislike each other, there is no danger of unity even with education and wealth.”

Sisterhood is not about ‘niceness’

It is crucial to remember that sisterhood doesn’t just mean being nice to other women, just because they are women. It also means calling them out when necessary, and that doesn’t mean we don’t cheer for their success.

We are not like men who will excuse anything another man does simply because he belongs to the ‘bro club’. We know all too well about the sort of toxicity that sort of ‘support’ breeds and are determined not to let that happen within the sisterhood.

The aim is to create a better world, and a better film industry for women as a whole. If these celebrities really want to make Bollywood a better place for ALL women and not just themselves, they would do well to listen to at least some of the women who they claim are putting them down.

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