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By glorifying the sexual harassment the female protagonist faces in the film Sir, Is Love Enough, we’ve made life more unsafe for domestic workers. Just note the power differential.
To Bai, with love. I write this for the Bai who works in my home, and many such underpaid, undervalued, overworked women who are easily exploited as they fall under the unorganised sector, doing the work that frees up the woman of the house to follow her dream.
I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of India, but in Bombay, the domestic workers, whom I will be calling Bai for this essay (Bai means woman in Marathi and it is also the job they do, bai-kaam and it is how they are addressed, ‘My Bai is very punctual’).
The Bais of Mumbai by and large address the male employers as Bhaiyya (brother) and the woman employers as Bhaabhi (sister-in-law). This is born more out of necessity than it is any real need for additional family. When they address the man of the household they work in as brother, they deliberately and expressly desexualise the relationship. They are thus able to draw a boundary of dignity around themselves.
This fragile and easily violated boundary is all the protection they have when they come to work in strange households, with men of unknown character. This is of critical importance because bais are constantly eroticised, even fetishised in popular culture and imagination.
They often feature in advertisements and films as wearing the kashta (Maharashtrian nine yard saree) and a small choli (blouse) bending over while doing the housework while the camera either pans lovingly over their fronts or their backs.
Be it the Bai in Mirzapur who is sent to be raped by the violent drug-addled scion of the family, the Bai in Zoya Akhtar’s film in Lust Stories who is used sexually and cast aside by the man once he is engaged to someone who is equal in both caste and class, or in the recent, highly fêted film Sir, Is Love Enough, where the man initiates sexual contact with his Bai.
The last in my eyes is the worst offender. At least in the first two, you see the unfairness, the victimisation of the domestic workers. But in ‘Sir…’ it is made out to be a sweet love story.
When I read the title of the film, I burst out in ironic laughter, the whole premise of the film was revealed in it. It couldn’t well be named ‘Bhaiyya, Is Love Enough’, could it? It had to be Sir, because then the audience wouldn’t feel squeamish about a Bai calling her employer Bhaiyya and also be kissed by him.
As feminists, we fought for on the side of his victims against MJ Akbar: how did he dare use his power to sexually assault his juniors, how can there exist a relationship of equals when there exists such a wide power differential, we raged. We now know that even when the oppressor claims that the relationship was consensual, it cannot truly be that if there is fear of reprisal, with the exertion of power and male dominance over future employment opportunities of the female employee.
And yet we couldn’t accord the same to the Bai in ‘Sir…’, so taken we were by the gallantry of the man to cross the threshold class and caste to embrace her, a ‘mere Bai’. Did she really have any agency? What would the Vishakha Guidelines have to say about this relationship?
The domestic workers of our country lead the most precarious of lives. In the recent lockdown, studies have shown that 85% of domestic workers weren’t paid. My own Bai wasn’t paid by her other Bhaabhi for the 6 months that she couldn’t come to work. And yet she has gone back to work in the same household. When I asked her why, she replied that it’s a known household; Bhaiyya-Bhaabhi are otherwise kind, and anyway there aren’t that many new jobs available.
I once left home a few minutes after my Bai did, I was a few metres behind her and I watched the drivers, the watchmen who loiter about, call out to her and smirk at each other. I saw her pull her pallu over her shoulder protectively and walk a little faster.
It is not merely in the homes that she works in, where she has to protect the space around her, but even outside, she is among the most marginalised of working women. She is oppressed both of class and caste, and there is no honour in the job she does. And yet Bombay and every urban area will collapse in a heap if she were to find the ability to do something else. We all found out how hard it was to cope without our Bais the past year.
It was just a film about a man making a sexual advance towards his Bai, where it is made to look like some fairytale romance, when in fact he was a lonely betrayed man who needed and used the unconditional, undervalued, underpaid services she provided, and her body was just an additional perk.
And just like that, the world of Bais has been made a little more unsafe than it already was.
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