Being a Woman

This is not an article about the film Raanjhana, but it contains spoilers from the film. So those who haven’t seen the film and are intending to, please be warned.

There are three essays in today’s Hindu on the influences of the film Raanjhana. Is it misogynistic? No, argues Swara Bhaskar, one of the actresses in the film. It is a thinly veiled male-supremacist film, argues Chitra Padmanabhan. It does show male-chauvinistic antics, but it also equally portrays the consequences of such acts, argues Anand Venkateswaran. It is because the protagonist does not succeed in the end. He doesn’t get the girl. Although the girl ends up portrayed as the villain in the piece, she has perhaps turned into evil from being a girl-next-door is because the protagonist pushed her to that end. Is that the message the audience is supposed to get?

These criticisms of the film being male-chauvinistic and glorifying incessant stalking started from the day one. It is quite admirable that not a single film critic has missed pointing it out, even those who admired the film’s craft. However, the Tamil audience must be wondering what all this fuss is about. We have always had violent lovers! People generally blame Selvaraghavan for this, but I think he has only made the ‘tale of an irrational impassioned obsessive male lover’ into powerful art-form. But this idea of irrational, annoying lovers has been there at least since the 80s. We have seen the worst of the stalkers in our films, as most of our ‘heroes’ are made to behave like that. But they were made to seem like harmless intrusions until Selaraghavan burst into the scene. He used his brother, the very same Dhanush, to portray this obsessive lover. Dhanush is such a powerful actor that he has a knack of making even the most despicable thing acceptable. The two teamed up to define the illiterate-chauvinistic-regressive boy who is not just a passionate one-sided lover, he is also incredibly violent. This template was so successful among our youth that we even cheered when people like Simbu took it to the next level, where his character, because of his unrequited love, goes to the extent of murdering all the ‘promiscuous’ women he comes across in his life.

We are very clear on our definition of the role for women. They are there merely to be ‘loved’. In our films, women are rarely engineers, scientists, writers, or social activists. They are ‘cheez’, ‘maal’, ‘item’, ‘sheher ki ladki’. In Tamil films they are ‘figures’, an English word that has a different connotation in Tamil. They are beautiful, glamorous props waiting for the guy to come and ‘rescue’ them from their despicable life. It must be despicable considering you spend half of your day applying make-ups and dressing up and the remaining half ramp-walking around shopping malls or college campuses so that the hero can lay eyes on you. Then they need to just wait for him to utter those three dreadful words.

If a male expresses his love for her, she has no other job but to accept it. If she doesn’t she must be evil. She can’t even be behaving ‘like a friend’ with a guy, because you never know what kind of ‘feelings’ he is nurturing. And tomorrow if he expresses those feelings and if she says all along she had been treating him like a ‘good friend’ that’s it! All hell breaks loose because she has no business nurturing male friends!

This is what we believe in, if our films were to be believed. Ironically, the fact that almost all films portraying this tendency are commercially highly successful means there’s a message there. Was Raanjhana and Selvaraghavan to be blamed for glorifying this culture or are they successful because we believe in this culture! Recall some of the opinions expressed when the Delhi gang-rape case became the leading news. A number of politicians, social activists and spiritual leaders tried to actually argue that it could have been, in some ways, the girl’s fault. ‘Dress up properly,’ commanded one leader. ‘Marry at 16 and you’re safe,’ warned another. ‘Stop partying,’ reprimanded the next one. ‘Start treating all men as your brothers and you’ll be fine,’ advised a guru. The idea that there is something inherently wrong with our men’s idea of our women was discussed only in the intellectual circles.

Raanjhana successfully taps into that energy. As a craft, it is a very successful film. As an idea it is a very dangerous one. We live in the world where man throws acid at the woman who scorns him, where even getting raped is often her fault, which means the men are left with ‘no option’, but to rape her to ‘teach’ her a lesson.

It also deals with another, underlying problem: that of our idea of love. It was explored in a different dimension in a previous piece. To extent that idea, Indian male would probably fare the worst among the men in the world when it comes to handling rejection or breakup. We think that once a girl falls for him, and even remotely shows some ‘non-brotherly affection’, or even a mild flirtation, she is stuck with him! She cannot, for absolute terms, breakup with him for any reason whatsoever. This deal is to be far stronger than even the bond of marriage. Married couples may divorce, a son may throw his parents out of the house, or even a destitute mother may throw her new-born baby into the rubbish bin. But a girl never breaks up with her guy, unless, of course, she is evil. This rule is applicable even that guy is only remotely under the impression that she is in love with him. If that guy has invested sufficient emotion into that ‘relationship’, that is enough reason that the girl must continue with it.

This is our portrayal of ‘love’ and ‘women’ by our films. It is difficult to dissect and identify what came first, this mentality or these films. My thesis is that this mentality has been prevailing among us, brooding like a dormant volcano and was given a vent when these film-makers articulated it through their art. Ironically, this time the films should take the lead in changing this attitude. Decade after decade it is our films that have reflected society’s prevailing mood. It is difficult to ask our film-makers to exercise caution and script responsibly without sounding censorious. But we need film-makers who respect women and consider them equals, who are enlightened enough to understand the difference between loving and stalking and the consequences of illiterate male-supremacist obsession. Writers have a role to play in changing this trend. Despite the critical acclaim and commercial success, the serious observations made on its portrayal of male lover in Raanjhana are a good thing. They might help other film-makers to exercise caution. We missed the bus when Selvaraghavan burst into the scene. Worse we applauded when Simbu went on the rampage killing ‘bad’ women. It’s good that we are taking serious notice when Dhanush is plunging his scooter into the Ganges.