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The curious case of Malayalam film Sara’s over which the church in Kerala has protested, as it supports women’s choice of abortion, which is against the church.
While the Catholic Church in the United States is busy forbidding the pro-choice politicians from having the holy communion, the church in Kerala is taking their dissent against the pro-choice partisans to the next level.
Yes. We are talking about the latest Malayalam flick Sara’s. Jude Anthany Joseph’s movie has been receiving excoriating reviews from the church for portraying the story of a young woman (performed by Anna Ben) who doesn’t want to have babies.
In the movie, the debutant scriptwriter Akshay Hareesh walks us into the tale of Sara, who appears to be steadfast with her doctrine to live a child-free life.
The protagonist is very clear from her teenage that she doesn’t have motherly instincts. She is passionate about doing something remarkable in her life. All her thoughts coalesce into a big dream – to become a very successful film-maker.
The idea of becoming a mother or living with children is not for her. It is not just her zeal for becoming a writer-director that deters her from embracing motherhood, it is simply because she doesn’t want to become a parent.
Sara’s is the first movie of its kind in Mollywood that discusses the pro-choice decisions of women. No taboos. Women own their bodies.
Despite receiving approbation from many film critics for its socially relevant theme, the Kerala Catholic Church did not accept the movie warmly. Members of the church, including many priests, have openly been aghast at the film. They are equally appalled and perplexed to see a Christian film-maker support the idea of abortion. The internet has been flooded with hate posts against Jude and the entire crew, from various social media pages of different church organizations, including on the filmmaker Jude Anthany Joseph’s Facebook page. They allege that the movie is indirectly ‘glorifying’ abortion.
The discussions revolving around the movie have brought an incident that happened in 2017 into the limelight.
A Catholic Malayali pro-life mother died after delivering her eighth child as she delayed her breast cancer treatment due to pregnancy. Unmoved by the doctors’ repeated advice to pursue treatment, she (who was also a nurse at AIIMS, New Delhi) deferred treatment, only so that she could deliver the baby.
Even after losing his wife, the nurse’s husband reveals that they never considered abortion as a choice as they are rooted in the pro-life and anti-abortion beliefs of the Catholic church. The couple regarded themselves as spirited Catholic Christians, and were active members of the Jesus Youth Movement in their adulthood. They were honoured by the Kerala Catholic Church Diocese of Faridabad for having a large family.
The Kerala Catholic Bishop Council (KCBC) has a ‘Pro-life Committee’ that encourages the church members to have big families as they deem children as God’s gifts. The council even has a matrimonial website. The website aims to provide matchmaking services at a lower cost. For women, they have entirely waived off registration fees. Aside from low-cost matchmaking, they are concerned about delayed marriage among the Christian youth. Therefore, they compel the parents to take responsibility to get their kids married at a young age.
When the Government of India notified the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill 2020 that increased the time period within which an abortion can be legally conducted from 20 weeks to 24 weeks, the Catholic church was one of the first institutions to raise discord.
The church strongly opposed the bill, calling it a violation of the right to life of a baby in the womb. They regard abortion as equivalent to homicide, and consider the bill inhuman.
Many staunch Catholic believers consider motherhood not a deterrent to the careers and dreams of women. They validate it with photographs of a pregnant Rachel Morrison (the first woman ever nominated in the Academy Award for Best Cinematography) and Serena Williams (who won the Grand Slam title at the Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant).
For them, Jude’s Sara should be severely criticized for giving up motherhood for her first independent film (her greatest dream) even when she is clear that the decision is not just for making the film. The same people who castigate Sara conveniently forget thousands of women who have given up their studies and careers to look after their families.
Sara comes from a privileged position as she had the space to discuss her choices in her family, even though it is always not welcomed at first. Nevertheless, she endured terrible mental stress and agony to stand up for her choice. Envisage the situation of many women around us who cannot speak up about their choices in their families. It is not easy.
An internet search into the hateful reviews on the film by resolute believers of the Catholic church will bring anyone’s notice to numerous YouTube videos. Among them, a few popular videos belong to pro-life couples. (Do a search if you’re interested, we’re not giving them more visibility.)
The crux of most of these videos revolves around the idea of framing marriage as an entity that is only about procreation and parenthood. They even quote the 50 years old Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI that asserts that the usage of contraceptives can lead to marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. For them, pregnancy can never be an accident because a couple who uses a contraceptive measure knows the possibility of a slight chance to get conceived. Thus, the only ‘good way’ to avoid pregnancy is by abstaining from sexual intercourse. In other words, people with such obstinate ideologies are totally against contraceptives, and consider their usage a celebration of murder.
With this perception, they criticize the gynaecologist in Sara’s for not advising the protagonist to halt her dream for some time for the baby. They even have words to put into the mouth of the doctor. “If you are confident to commit your first movie as a writer-director, then you can be super confident to give birth to your first child.” In fact, they want the movie to conclude with Sara becoming a mother of two or three children with two National Awards and three State Awards in her career.
Superwoman Sara! Admirations from all corners. Memes will flood the internet with Sara’s photographs placed alongside Mary Kom.
Amid the discourse from female partners affirming the difficulty in managing parenthood and career without a proper support system, the adherents of pro-life and Catholic ethos encourage the youth to accept children as God’s blessings. How do they conclude that every woman has equal access to the child support system? Is the church willing to run free day/ overnight child care facilities across the state to support mothers’ careers? To leave us in complete bewilderment, a few medical doctors have supported the “God’s gift, so take it” idea on many discussions censuring the movie.
Kerala is one of the states in the country with very high female unemployment rates. Specifically, among the educated females, the figures on unemployment are appalling. Why are these debates on women’s choices catching the wrong train? Why are the discussions not focussing on the exigencies to have babysitting facilities or child care support system (at least in the umpteen institutions run by the church)?
Another viral video on this issue is by a priest who fancies a second part for Sara’s. In the sequel, Sara decides on voluntary childlessness in the fallacy that India will have old-age support systems like most of the European countries. Years later, after her partner’s death, she approaches a nursing home run by the church. To her shock, she finds the institution on the verge of shutting down, as they faced a shortfall of nuns to manage the home. She reaches out to other homes and feels dejected on discerning similar situations. Either no nuns or hefty monthly charges due to an unprecedented upsurge in the salaries of caretakers. Finally, Sara dies in regret, with no one to take care of her.
Moral of the story:
It is astounding to see the pious communities insinuate Sara’s as an awful movie that glorifies abortion. In actual fact, the entire focus of the movie is to discuss the bodily autonomy of women. The film does not recommend abortion as a remedy to a woman’s career progress.
In the movie, we can see Sara’s sister-in-law, Dr Sandhya (a forensic surgeon), who is a single mother. It is all about women’s choice. The movie appears to be an exemplary attempt in redefining the motherhood narratives of Malayalam cinema. It is a delight to see the makers of the film stand with the choice of Sara, and not get beguiled into impressing a big patriarchal audience.
About the authors who jointly wrote this piece:
Sachu R Sunny, PhD Scholar at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram
Bejo Jaob Raju, PhD Scholar at Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru
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