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Listen to Her, a 7 min short film by Nandita Das is about two things – that domestic violence is not only physical, emotional violence is more sneaky, and that women can help each other by just holding space.
I feel the urge to write this piece in the wake of some harsh criticism I have found on the internet for the 7-minute long short film written, acted, directed and produced by the filmmaker and actor Nandita Das. The film has garnered much critical acclaim for its content and message, that come at the right moment when women are more unsafe at home especially during this nationwide lockdown.
National Commission for Women reports a huge surge in the number of domestic violence cases registered particularly during this period. Yet, this could be the tip of the iceberg.
Many women in the country do not have a mobile phone, let alone a smart phone or access to internet to report the abuse and file a case through social media platforms in the organization concerned. Many women are still putting up with domestic violence for various reasons ranging from lack of awareness and accessibility to stigma and antipathy of the world. Hence we understand that the number of cases registered is just by those very few women who could make it despite the threat for their lives.
That is exactly why it is essential more than ever to put an end to the century-long silence demanded from women by this world which is now crying out to the women to speak up.
In a country like India where women are given education only for attracting potential grooms who decide whether the wives can work after marriage, it is difficult to expect education and a job to empower women. A woman is allowed to work after marriage not because she wishes to make a financial contribution to the family but because she is expected to earn money to settle down the loans her husband has taken before their marriage.
One need not be told that many educated, working women in the country are not economically independent as their finances are managed by their husbands who possess their ATM, debit and credit cards and access their online banking account. Therefore, it does not surprise us when we see working women being reluctant to walk out on their abusive partners or raise their voice against exploitation or violence in their marital households fearing rejection and antagonism from their own maternal family and the society.
On the one hand, society treats divorcees, widows and single mothers harshly, and on the other, aggressively tells women not to tolerate any kind of violence but to speak up against it. This is one of the greatest ironies of the modern world.
A woman is brought up only to be packed off to her husband’s home and expected never to return, no matter what happens to her there. We come across many deaths of women every day, as they are murdered or forced to end their lives in family feuds over dowry or as a result of physical and emotional abuse. The parents of the victims regret having sent their daughters back to their marital homes even after knowing about the abuse they have been facing only when it is too late to save their daughters.
Sadly, death alone makes people realize that a woman’s life is much more precious than the opinion of the world. Until people learn this great lesson from a tragedy, they prefer to turn a blind eye to the atrocities happening in the world against women. At the same time, we see that people very often succumb to the collective amnesia and forget all the lessons they have learnt and instantly go back to their apathetic mode.
At this juncture, this short film comes as an important piece of work that addresses something which is the need of the hour.
We see an urban, upper middle class woman in an office meeting happening online while her husband is heard watching something in the adjacent room and her son is playing and chatting with her.
The son does not seem to understand that his mom is working, therefore he must not disturb her. If she had had a daughter, the daughter would have been taught her manners by this time and also trained to help her mom with the housework by doing errands.
The working mother gets up on and off in the middle of the conversation with her colleagues to go give her husband earphones so as not to be disturbed by the sound and after a while to make coffee for him when he orders it from the next room, not moving an inch from his place. She juggles kitchen work and office work alongside pampering her husband and son with her utmost care and attention.
What irks the viewers does not bother the woman at all, as she goes through this every single day of her life. She does not lose her patience when she is disturbed, nor does she talk back or reprimand, thereby strictly adhering to the social norms laid down for women.
This routine continues until she receives a call from an unknown number and finds that a woman on the other end is physically abused by her husband in front of her child. The screams and shouts disturb her so much that she takes a break to call the police to report this immediately. As expected, the police are indifferent and unconcerned towards the incident and making her feel clueless about what to do next. Not knowing what else to do now, she joins the meeting and continues with the work until she is disturbed once again by the phone call from the same number.
The second time she receives the call, she knows well what she can offer to the woman in this helpless situation.
The big question that is asked about the film is that how this woman who is subservient and also unaware of being exploited at home will be able to save another woman from brutality. Can a slave free another from the claws of savagery? But expecting an upper (middle) class woman to be a saviour of another woman is falling in line with upholding the traditional narrative of savarna saviour liberating the downtrodden.
When the need for countering this savarna saviour complex is vigorously added to the discourse, the disease gnawing at the back of the mind betrays the flaws of our radical thinking, pulling us back into our internalization of maintaining this status quo.
Contrary to our belief that only physical abuse amounts to violence, the short film hits us hard by delivering a profound message that exploiting a woman in the domestic space equals to emotional abuse which is no less than physical violence.
Therefore, the two women in the film hailing from two different economic backgrounds have something in common. Both are victims with an exception that the caller is conscious of her situation whereas the other is oblivious to hers.
Whenever feminism is discussed, it is easy to brush it aside charging the feminists with insufficiency in their understanding and activism because the ‘elite feminism’, as in the words of anti-feminists, fails to take the other factors such as caste, class, region and sexuality into consideration.
Although it contains truth, the reason behind their dismissal is certainly not concern for women at the lower rung of hierarchy but their aversion to gender equality. Dividing women is the only way to stop them from understanding the problem at various levels and achieving the desired end. Many rational feminists call out against this, appealing to all the women to rectify their inadequacy by embracing the differences, realizing the need for solidarity and come together to acquire the feeling of sisterhood so as to fight for the bigger cause in unity.
Hence the ending of the movie is very powerful as the woman chooses what is important at the moment and rebukes her nagging husband while entering a room and locking herself inside. She is not a superstar in a commercial movie who can take an immediate action by running off to her place and rescuing the woman, nor can she teach a lesson to the police for their anti-people attitude. She does what she can do best in the current situation- listen to her and offer momentary solace by extending a hand of solidarity (there is a possibility that the woman may even call up her friends and colleagues and try to find a way to help her out).
The climax not only insists that women speak out but also that we be willing to listen to them and help in whatever way possible to us. Social media reviewers are so generous with their lessons on film making and script writing that they dictate what the character should have done or should not have done for this film to have been more realistic. I would like to say that art serves a greater purpose than merely depicting the reality to the letter. It not only disturbs the viewers/readers but also offers a ray of hope that sustains our faith in humanity.
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