Cinema’s Silent Women… And How Women Learn From Them To Silence Themselves

I recently watched Aga Bai Arrechya (2004), and it sparked a line of thought.

The movie follows the life of Shrirang Deshmukh after he is blessed (cursed, according to him) with supernatural powers that allow him to hear the thoughts of women. At first, he is frustrated with the ‘constant chatter, nagging and complaining’ of women (they’re not allowed to think in their heads?) around him. Ironically, he is the one who complains the most throughout the movie. But that’s beside the point.

His frustration drives him to seek a psychiatrist who encourages him to use the ‘curse’ to his power. He then starts listening to the thoughts of the women around him with a sensitive approach.

There are many things the women around him don’t speak out about – whether these are genuine worries, trivial or big frustrations, small joys or even a full-blown life-crisis. Their thoughts range from the everyday inconveniences of the irregular milkman to the nervous insecurities of not fitting in, to the helpless bitterness of having been married off to someone against their will. His own wife hides the fact that her father, who had opposed their marriage, had passed away and that she wanted to meet her mother – all because she is apprehensive of Shrirang’s reaction to this.

It got me thinking – how many things do women leave unsaid? How many issues do women need to talk about but don’t because silence is expected of them? Or maybe because they have been taught to fear the consequences of speaking out? How much do their silences cost these women?

Is silence expected or imposed?

In Dil Dhadakne Do, Aisha Mehra is trapped in a marriage that was forced upon her (which, of course, is the recipe for “a happy, married life” according to society) and wants to divorce her controlling husband. She suffers in silence. To society, she seems to have the makings of a perfect life. The inevitable “what will people think” question restrains her, even though she knows that that was not her perfect life.

When she finally reveals her unhappiness to her mother (Neelam) and seeks advice, Neelam, saying that disagreements are a part of every relationship, simply tells her to get over it and focus on her family, rather than her career.

To Neelam, the thought of divorcing one’s spouse due to differences seems ludicrous, as she herself has maintained her silence about her troubled marriage. Her husband freely engages in adultery yet she stays silent, not because she hopes that things will get better but because of her lack of personal autonomy – which in turn has been imposed by her parents disowning her.

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She passes this silence on to her daughter. She imposes it on her, not necessarily because she thinks it right but because it is the only thing she has seen and so has convinced herself that that is the way. Silence about wrongdoings is taught and imposed, not a natural response to it.

Neelam’s silence hurts her, but it also hurts everyone around her, especially her daughter. Her silence costs her way more than speaking out and voicing her opinion ever would, as is seen towards the end of the movie

Movies are replete with examples of women maintaining their silence about issues that affect them. Think Shashi from English Vinglish, the nameless wife of The Great Indian Kitchen, Nandini from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and so on. Remember her silence after ‘keh diya na… bas keh diya’? Of course, towards the end, she does clap back at her husband with his line itself, but what we don’t realise is that such portrayals depict women speaking up only when things reach a boiling point. What about the injustices they silently endured all along?

Silence, a woman’s loudest cry?

In Neeraj Ghaywan’s exceptional short film, Juice, Manju Singh toils endlessly to make sure everything goes well at a home party. The women are shepherded to the kitchen on arrival, as if they are not guests rather just extra helping hands in the kitchen. They smilingly accept their conditions in silence. Even Manju is a part of them, producing meticulously prepared dishes for the men at regular intervals.

However, her silence is not the same as that of the other women. Her silence (sensitively portrayed by Shefali Shah) is heavy with unsaid things and simmering anger at the injustice meted out to her. The women’s conversations reveal that she was forced to quit her career to look after her kids. As she cooks, she silently fumes at the way the men expect her to simultaneously clear the table, cook, serve more food, and make sure that the kids don’t interrupt their all-important conversations, all the while being the genial, smiling host.

Things boil to the surface, and she snaps. Equipped with a glass of chilled juice, she does the unthinkable – she sits along with the party of men. The silence that engulfs them is palpable. Her unwavering stare makes the men sit up and take note of their behaviour. She doesn’t say a word, but the shame is writ large on the men’s faces.

Her silence, in this context, is a sharp slap that says things in a way that, probably, a long, emphatic monologue couldn’t. But I credit that to Shefali Shah’s brilliance. I am sceptical of how much it would work in real life.

It is said that ‘silence is a woman’s loudest cry”. I disagree. While Manju’s accusatory silence in the end may have forced the men to relook their behaviour, the years of injustice she silently endured will always remain unheard.

In one way or the other, women are put (or place themselves and each other) in the shackles of silence. These shackles torment them – they wish to be heard and understood. Yet, they stay silent.

We can never communicate through silences what we can through words. Silences and subtleties are artistic, sure. But the power that words have is forceful and understood by everyone.

We must speak up now and as it happens – not wait for bottled up words and emotions to come to a head.

If Manju had revolted and spoken up before, she probably wouldn’t have had to go through what she did. If Neelam had confronted her husband earlier, she probably wouldn’t have encouraged Aisha to settle for silence either.

So, would the world be a better place if women’s thoughts could be heard by men? No.

But it would definitely be a better place if women had the space to speak up, without the fear of consequences. Our thoughts don’t need to be heard by someone for change to happen. We need to articulate them, in the words and through ways that we choose.

It might be difficult, but the world loses when it imposes silence on women, and consequently, when women learn to impose silence upon themselves.

Silence can be misunderstood, subtleties can be overlooked, not noticed or even contorted to suit oneself, but words – words can never be ignored.

Speak up, write what you wish, dance freely, debate fiercely – express, express, express!

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