Feminist Interpretations of Cinema and the Freedom to Disagree

As a feminist, I could not be happier with the current progress that the female leads are making in cinema.

Hollywood

The critically and commercially successful – Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie with tremendous feminist undertones.
The movie belonged, through and through, to Charlize Theron’s character Furiosa.

In a post-apocalyptic world, men are fighting for basic living resources and oil.
It is Furiosa who champions the rescue of a group that has been commercialized and held captive for years – the dictator’s wives. Furiosa and the wives join forces with the clan mothers of the Green Place. The sights of the aged mothers riding their motorbikes and the wives fighting the soldiers of Joe’s Citadel are the most badass feminist scenes I have ever seen in my life!!

However, some critics and feminists could only notice the barely clothed depiction of the wives and labeled it outright sexist.

mad-max-fury-road-wives

I’m sorry, did you not watch the whole movie? Initially, they are depicted as such because they were tortured as slaves, but the film’s objective is to overthrow the notion that they are objects for male pleasure. By the end, it is Furiosa and the wives who are shown to take the mantle of leadership at the Citadel and rule, without tyranny, and more compassion for the citizens.

In one of the most poignant scenes, one of the wives helps warboy Nux to mend his heart and help him realize hope and the good he can do. It demonstrated the natural, nurturing role of a woman in a world where little nature was left. Beautiful contrast.

When another recent movie, Entourage, was met with critical condemnation and bombed at the box office, I was elated! This was a movie that was promoted as the ultimate male fantasy, with parading of vice and objectification of women. This surprising reaction had me thinking just how far men and women have evolved in their understanding of each other.

Indian Cinema

In the past, National Award winners were often ostracized as actors off-beat cinema, and therefore, poor in delivering box office numbers. Kangana Ranaut, who is a two time winner, addressed this topic in several interviews. She said that a leading male Bollywood actor once warned her that winning a National Award would be the end of her career.

Instead, she proved that you could be commercially viable and critically acclaimed at the same time. Queen raked in over 100 crores with a tenth of that as its budget. And recently, Tanu Weds Manu Returns is one of the highest grossing Bollywood movies of all time, and that too, with Kangana Ranaut in a double role!

This is hitherto seen in Hindi cinema, for all such top grossers have had a Khan, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan, or Devgan to attract the masses.

When Kangana was able to enter this league, she was quickly labelled a “female Khan” by Deepanjana Pal, a leading critic at Firstpost. I found that to be an insult because Kangana came this far without ever having worked with a Khan. That was one of my first major disappointments with a feminist writer.

To be honest, most of us were rooting for the supremely confident Datto to get hitched in the end, but I realized that she deserved better, as she said herself – “Sharmaji, main yah toh first aati hoon, yah last. Mujhe consolation prize nahi chahiye.”

When Datto lectures the bratty Tanu about what it means to be a self-made woman in a face-off, Tanu realizes her mistakes and tames herself. It is one of the best dialogues written between two women and passes the Bechdel Test with aplomb. Now I am more content with the ending, though the story could have supported it better. (The one major flaw was that the writer wanted some rationale for the entire gang to visit Datto’s village and the kidnapping scene was a poor excuse. When Payal calls Pappi “disgusting” in the ending scene, the writer prays that will redeem him.)

Now, I already see some criticism coming for SS Rajamouli’s magnum opus – Baahubali.

Anna MM Vetticad has done well to highlight disturbing scenes of harassment in Bollywood flicks in the past, ranging from Rowdy Rathore to R…Rajkumar etc.

Recently, she went on to helm a piece controversially titled – “The rape of Avanthika.” I went on to read it and did not agree with it. At the end of the song – Pacha Bottesi, Avanthika removes his shirt and removes her own clothing, after which they make love.
It was, perhaps, the most tastefully shot love scene I have seen in a long time in Indian cinema.
The best part was that Avanthika took the initiative in taking Shivdu’s clothing off and initiate sex, a rarity in any sex related scenes in Bollywood, or even Hollywood for that matter. For that, I give due credit to SS Rajamouli’s direction.

baahubali 2

Frankly speaking, I did not see anything wrong in Shivdu character adorning Avanthika with beautiful tattoos that later reveal their union in a romantic number. She was strong as a warrior, no doubt, but he brought her confidence back to her attention.

baahubali 1

Another writer, Viveknanda Nemana, had issues with Avanthika needing to be rescued by Shivdu. Again, that scene is taken out of context.

The first time Avanthika fought off a gang of Bhallala deva’s army, she had support from her team who attacked them with spears. The next time, she was fighting them alone.
Moreover, the Shivdu chracter is portrayed with God like attributes (holy Shiva), so unlike a Dabangg cop or Khiladi Kumar, Baahubali had mythological personification to support his single-handed rescue of Avanthika.

Granted that Vetticad’s article made valid arguments about the kissing scene in the first Tanu Weds Manu movie and the value of consent which cinema is still grappling with (re: “Rape in Cinema” piece), but I feel that the word “rape” in her headline was used as a clever clickbait.

Mike McCahill of the Guardian had a different outlook to Baahubali –

“Upon scaling that waterfall, the adult Baahubali finds he’s strayed into a civil war; only with a glimpse of warrior princess Avanthika does he sense which side to pick. Their slyly feminist pairing makes some headway, yet that last-act battle forms part of an extended flashback that reveals the full extent of the dynastic tangle they’ve charged into.

He even mentions about the tattoo scene –

“It’s merely cute when Baahubali plunges into a lake to paint the hand the dozing Avanthika has let slip into the waters, yet the action has a lovely pay-off: this impromptu tattoo is seen to complete one on the hero’s bicep during a later embrace.

While critics back home were quick to denounce Avanthika as eye-candy, Lisa Tsering, from Hollywood Reporter said this –
“Some confusing flashbacks, shaky CGI, and hammy overacting by Rana Daggubati as Bahubali’s brother and rival Bhallala Deva, water down the film’s potency, but performances are otherwise strong (especially Tamannaah Bhatia as a lissome rebel warrior). Notably, M.M. Keeravani’s score captures the epic scale of the story, and the songs are a welcome — at times even erotic — diversion from its equally epic seriousness.

Conclusion

Just because a group is marginalized doesn’t mean that we can’t have difference of opinions, for e.g – a gay member may disagree with another member of the LGBTQ community about their representation in governance, or a differently abled would share life experiences that vary with another. We all want the same ultimate goals but our means and perceptions may differ.
Previously, I hesitated to disagree in the fear of being labelled anti-feminist myself. But my association with feminist friends and our healthy debate on topics like the taboo of menstruation, masturbation, birth control etc. helps us grow as individuals. For example, while I think it is great to provide access to affordable birth control, I also feel that greater emphasis needs to be placed on educating men to use condoms. Apart from women who depend on birth control for medical reasons, those pills are not the healthiest option and can have serious long-term side-effects such as blood clots and increase in risks of certain cancers.
Through this blog piece, I hoped to share my differing views of feminist interpretations in cinema.

If we don’t allow for this breathing ground, we will create a risky group of intolerance and submission to opinions of few.

Anurag Kashyap addressed this a few years ago in a blog (link here). His quotes about rape were taken out of context and criticized by a feminist on Twitter which prompted him to briefly quit the networking site.

“If her choice is ‘life’, why is that very life taken away from her, once she is raped? Why is she called stuff like ‘zindaa laash’ and why does the entire focus shift to ‘honour’ rather than to ‘healing’?
My distress with our social network-ists is that they assume they understand rape simply because they are women. Rape is not that easily understood and it is not a gender’s prerogative to do so.
In this world men are raped too and more so in our society, in this part of the world. I am also a victim of rape and I have healed a lot more than most because the world was not fussing over me.
If I had to discuss or argue about rape, I would much rather do so with the victims and survivors than with a feminist.Why? Because I get a strong feeling that the Indian feminist is very hard to talk to, because he/she doesn’t listen. He/She has a fully formed opinion etched in stone and will give no space to accommodate any other point of view.”

Kashyap made it clear that neither he nor Vikas Bahl is a feminist, even though Queen was adopted a feminist film. And that’s ok.
We cannot change others, only ourselves.

Every issue has a humanitarian relevance but we all have our distinct grievances that help us associate with a progressive movement. For example, if someone suggests replacing the term “feminist” with “humanist”, I would disagree because such a move would undermine the struggles our gender had gone through in the past centuries. But if say a man is requesting for laws to become more gender neutral because of his own experience being falsely accused in a rape case, then we need to address such concerns, rather than blindly following the words of few who may be quick to label him anti-feminist.

This is where I believe feminism needs to keep evolving. Some of the biggest detractors of feminism are feminists themselves. We cannot put a few on a pedestal and let them decide how we should think. The virtual and real world are full of bigots as well as tolerant and respectful individuals. Marginalized groups are certainly bullied online, but we can’t perform the same bullying and create fear to disagree.

A prevailing feminist may not agree with me and I don’t have to agree with everything they write either. If  that makes me a bad feminist, I am ok with that.
Most of us are anyway 🙂 

Peace.

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One Response to Feminist Interpretations of Cinema and the Freedom to Disagree

  1. Spriha says:

    Great article! Just as a side note, Mad Max is also interesting because unlike a lot of other action movies, it shows a bunch of prominent female characters dying. Glad it’s not one of those “I’m so pretty, please come rescue me!” type of portrayals that usually tend to happen.

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