Feminism is the radical notion that women are people said someone famous. That sums up feminism better than any long winded definitio...

Sunday, 31 December 2017

In Which Sulu Must Step Back

Movie Review : Tumhari Sulu

Let me state right away that I'm a fan of Vidya Balan's and I try not to miss any of her movies. I went to watch Tumhari Sulu with very little expectations, as the trailer promised it to be a light hearted comedy and I expected to come away with a few laughs. Anything but. 

The film turned out to be a good comedy specially in the first half, as happens with most Bollywood fare. The eponymous Sulu is played by Vidya. Manav Kaul, playing Sulu's husband, fits the bill of an average middle class man who slogs it out for a pittance of a salary, but by all appearances theirs is a happy family. (As an aside, who lives in that big a house in Mumbai, on that salary, with only one earning person in the family? A house with a balcony and that too with a swing in it!) Sulu and husband are happy, and there is a lot of affectionate banter between the couple. Vidya Balan is good with the funny and delivers her comic lines to perfection. 

Enter the weird extended family of Sulu, comprising her super achiever twin sisters and their father. This troika of father and sisters is out to humiliate Sulu, reminding her of her academic failures and bringing up her multiple misadventures in trying to launch various unsuccessful money-making schemes. This family takes being dysfunctional very seriously, with classism thrown in for good measure. 

Vidya taps into the cheerful housewife character well and we lap up the eternal optimist Sulu who charms her way into our hearts, with her pride in winning numerous small competitions. She pulls off just right pitch so that the cheerfulness doesn't get cloying neither does the humor turn cheesy.  

Sulu soon manages to land a job as a radio jockey with her "main kar sakti hai" spirit. Neha Dhupia as her employer and Vijay Maurya as her colleague, competitor-turned-friend put in efficient performances. However, it's a late night slot and Sulu is required and encouraged to tap into her sexuality as she talks to men in a sexy voice. Sulu anchors a talk show and is soon catering to men's fantasies. Her callers are often working class men who turn to the radio for a bit of easily available mush, and it's all fun and games, till it's not. Was the hint of sexuality in the role play the problem? We are never sure. 

With her new well-paying and satisfying job Sulu ends up neglecting her household chores and more importantly her duties as wife and mother. She tries hard to juggle both household chores and motherhood, but fails. The movie crash lands face down into pure melodrama territory, so out of character for it's protagonists. A loving, caring husband turns into a nasty monster just to satisfy the movie's need to create friction. 

It's not just the chores that she's required to do but also that she must care for her child and provide emotional support to her husband. Sulu ends up walking away from the job, because her family needs her. Even though she's earning the same salary as her husband, and he's almost on the verge of losing his job, yet it's important that the Indian woman be the mother and homemaker first. Why could she not hire a care giver or a creche for her child? Even more important, why did her workplace not help her on the home front so she could retain her job? 

Sulu joins the ranks of millions of Indian women leaving the workforce. Not only is there a decline in female work participation, but the total number of women in the workforce has shrunk. 67% of  women graduates in rural areas and 68.3% of urban women graduates don't have a paid job even as education levels among women are rising. Sociologists are figuring out it's partly due to lack of support with housework, partly a sense of lost honor if a daughter/wife works outside the home. Patriarchal attitudes more than anything else keep women away from paid work. What does it say about our culture when a medium as popular and accessible as cinema, supports this stigmatization of women joining the workforce? 

As many men happily pointed out, Sulu does launch yet another scheme. That portrayal is more a nod to the mandatory happy ending cos the film is comedy, methinks. It plays into the trope that Sulu is a fickle person. Her stint as a professional where she would stride into her office with confidence, is over. We go back to the non-threatening, bumbling good-for-a-few-laughs Sulu. 

The woman is back in the kitchen. You're safe, guys. Go home. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Choice Feminism Is Capitalism In Slick Packaging-It's Not Worthy of You

"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression"- bell hooks

There is no one single stream of thought in feminism and there have been different phases of the movement, both abroad and in India. Locally the women's movement has had a very different flavor  compared to its European counterpart, and with good reason. The concerns and life struggles of Indian women differ vastly from those elsewhere in the world. 

Within the movement, there are academics and activists. Academics study and decipher history, literature, social codes and norms, our economies and art in order to discern how patriarchy was built, and how it holds on to power through systemic and structural placements which place men in positions of power. They envisage the methods through which the patriarchy may be dismantled and women earn greater rights. While academic feminists theorise, activists do the work on the ground. They are not cut off from each other, rather there is a continuous exchange of ideas between them. Many of them cross over from one side to the other or some exist and thrive in both fields. There is a continuous exchange of ideas between them. There are myriads of women who are fighting for their rights in multitudinous ways of existence and they each negotiate the patriarchy in different ways.

Some of these acts are individual, they may achieve liberation to an extent, and enable them to extend freedoms in certain specific ways. Certainly, those particular negotiations are feminist acts in themselves.

 Big media, the advertising industry, the fashion, clothing and cosmetics industries which thrive on and amplify each other. This close nexus between these. Feminism has become newsworthy of late and these entities have latched on to this. It's where the big money is.

Capitalism and it's handmaiden the beauty industry which encompasses fashion and advertising, keep you wondering about your worth, and your focus on trying to achieve this unattainable ideal. Desirability is a trap women work towards achieving all their lives, but never actually get there. You keep yourself devalued- it's a harsh critic, the voice in your head, which examines you for fuckability, and finds you failing, time and again. 

"My choice is like my fingerprint" spouts Deepika Padukone, ironically, yet aptly for an advertising campaign for a fashion magazine, very obviously titled, My Choice. But of course, your choice is not unique! None of our choices in today's world are; either because we are choosing from a limited bouquet of choices, where we are denied access to many choices, only a  few are on offer.  In reality, a great deal of the choice on offer to consumer-citizens is illusionary. All the posturing at empowerment seems to only just strip away the word of any power. The hoopla around the word "empowerment" has made it to such a sorry pass where the sound of the word grates on the nerves. It's now a shorthand for a lot of things, save power to women.

Besides, in order to go on living in the materialistic, capitalist society, we have to pick our battles. For example, as a professional, you're expected to dress a certain way, in what "women's magazines" call " formal wear" or "work wear". The fashion industry organized around this, makes multiples of crores of rupees. 

You would ignore these unstated rules at your own peril. You not only risk not being taken seriously, sidelined, but also probably lose your job. This woman who came to work as a receptionist, was sent home for not wearing heels  in a story that seems equal parts to illustrate the lack of common sense and senseless objectification. Let us not even get started on the aspects of emotional labour  women in the service industry are expected to put in. 

So often so many hard won freedoms by our foremothers may enable us to exercise choices which may not have existed even half a century ago. But making a choice is not a feminist act in itself unless the playing field is level and the opportunities available to women were equal to those available to men. For example the wage gap or the fact that women quit well paying jobs to stay home to raise babies. These acts are often justified as feminist because the woman chose to do so. That would have been a real choice if both partners earned an equal amount, and the man taking time off to stay home with kids wouldn't be sneered at and it was no loss to the family in any way, regardless of which parent stays home. In an ideal world, they could probably take turns and none would lose out at work, by being devalued because of absence. Indeed in a feminist world, people would be living a life of dignity, not as corporate slaves and wouldn't be nervous wrecks for having missed a day of work.

Chasing the illusion of "having it all" while pushing through "the second shift" cannot be the life women dream of having. 

Women continue to be paid less and so many of us depend on lowly paid workers to hold up the home front and provide care and house work, at very low costs, while we "get ahead". Do we realize we our role in passing on the oppression?

It is easy to forget that the struggles of upper class feminism are not the only feminist struggles. There are other feminisms and they are thriving, and they are also fighting capitalism and neoliberalism. 

The Chipko volunteers and the Bangalore powrakarmikas, the Dalit Women Fight activists are all pushing the feminist agenda everyday. Women Irom Sharmila and Essar Batool are fighting the hegemonic Indian state that wants to rule with violence, under the shadow of draconian laws. 

They do it quietly, away from the media glare and floodlights. These are the real assertions of worth. Feminism is alive, in a myriad of shapes and forms.