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September 16, 2015

Parmesh’s Viewfinder: Wandering Women

Text by Parmesh Shahani

What happens when the definition of a ‘feminist’ is hotly debated?

There have been many citizen responses since the ‘Nirbhaya’ Delhi gang rape of 2012 — and they have included protests, plays, safety apps that can be downloaded on cell phones and more. And actually, these responses keep on coming. Recently, I was invited to a conference by young Mumbaikar Trisha Shetty, at which she had collaborated with the UN to launch a website called www.shesays.in, which provides all the information relevant to harassment and sexual abuse in one place. This includes the step-by-step procedural measures to be undertaken when going to a hospital and a police station if abuse occurs, how to have lawyers assigned and what happens in court proceedings.

Efforts like these are certainly very useful but as my Bengaluru-based friend Nisha Susan says, they are limiting, as they confine the idea of a feminist response to just a post-rape or post-violence one, whereas feminism in India has a much longer history, pre-Nirbhaya. Nisha, to refresh your memories, dear readers, is the supercool diva who founded the Pink Chaddi campaign in 2009. This was India’s first mass social media response campaign in which thousands of citizens from across the country and beyond sent pink underwear to the offices of Pramod Muthalik and Sri Ram Sene, after their moral policing activities in a Mangalore pub and threats to disrupt Valentine’s Day celebrations that year.

Since then, Nisha, along with partners like Gaurav Jain, has started the wonderful feminist website www.theladiesfinger.com — which you should bookmark, and go through at length. We decided to join forces with them this Independence Day weekend and organise a documentary film festival at our Godrej India Culture Lab, through which we explored multiple ideas, narratives and perspectives on feminism in India.

We zeroed in on the documentary format — because we wanted to show the range of feminist realities that exist in our country. The films that we curated were fearless in how they experimented with forms of film-making and storytelling and fearless in how they all lovingly embraced the different ways to be an Indian woman. We called the event Wandering Women as a tribute to all the journeys that women in our country embark upon. These are arduous physical journeys for sure, but also journeys of non-conformity, defiance and of celebration. ‘Not all who wander are lost’, Tolkein wrote, and we couldn’t agree more. Wandering is often a way to seek and find — ideas, experiences and, ultimately, one’s own self. Thus, our festival was a celebration of wandering, through which the films, their makers and several hundred attendees all connected with each other. It was exhilarating!

We kicked off the festival with a fantastic ‘YouTube party’. Here, we showcased online videos made by young film-makers who have grown up in the Internet age — people like Superwoman (Lilly Singh) and Aditi Mittal. Do google both these names and see their work right away, dear readers. Both their videos are hilarious and hard-hitting commentaries on the conflict between women’s personal ideas of happiness versus what society expects of them.

Among the full-length films, Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang (about the founders of the Pink Sari group of women, in the Banda district of UP, who fight for rights and justice) was a big hit, as was Bishaka Datta’s Taza Khabar, the story of a group of daring Dalit Adivasi women journalists who bring out weekly a community newspaper in UP called Khabar Lahariya. Then there was Pushpa Rawat and Anupama Srinivasan’s Nirnay, which deals with a young photographer recording the aftermath of a painful break-up, and the lives of other bright, young women like her in Ghaziabad. Saba Dewan’s Naach — an emotional film about a family of dancers at the Sonepur cattle fair in rural Bihar — moved me to tears.

My festival favourite though was Manjuben Truck Driver. I had curated this for a festival in Boston 10 years ago and it felt so good to revisit it. Manjuben is a female truck driver in Gujarat who defies every notion of gender conformity  — whether in her appearance or professional choice. The film is a meditation on her life, her choices, and the milieu she lives in.

It was wonderful to see Reena Mohan’s Kamlabai, a 1992 film about one of India’s earliest woman actors. I was also mesmerised by Scribbles on Akka  — Madhusree Datta’s ode to the 12th-century Kannada poet and reformist, Akka Mahadevi, whose vachanas still continue to inspire today’s generation of feminists. As a member of the audience mentioned during the festival, in our country’s past, there have been many feminists who didn’t use the word ‘feminism’  — individuals like Ambedkar or the Phules. We need to know these histories better, so we can more meaningfully contextualise the times we live in.

In this regard, it was good to see a film like Paromita Vohra’s Unlimited Girls — which has now achieved cult status in our desi feminist film anthology. Made in 2002, Unlimited Girls embraced online culture a decade before it happened and when we screened it at our festival, we realised how relevant it still is. All the questions that the film raises were brought up by the audience. Who is a true feminist? What about intimacy? Solidarity? How can men be part of the conversation? Closer home, can one be a reader of fashion magazines and still be a feminist?

We interspersed our film screenings with panel discussions. Comedy star Aditi Mittal — being really funny and serious at the same time — spoke about the constant fight between wanting to say what she felt and what the crowds wanted to hear. She uses the framework of feminism to question and contradict misogyny in comedy. She told us about how she had called her first show Things I’m Not Allowed To Say. Even now, when Aditi performs, she often has to follow misogynist male comedians on stage, whose idea of comedy is to utter a cuss word or make anti-women jokes. It is hard, but she’s fiercely flying the feminist flag high, as are many other amazing female comedians in our country.

One of the other issues we discussed was whether feminists needed to be angry all the time. Here I loved Paromita Vohra’s response that we should stop stigmatising anger as it often leads to social change. “Besides, what about Big B?” she quipped. “He is allowed to be an ‘angry young man’ even till today!” Paromita completely dismissed the idea of ‘angry feminism’ or ‘introspective feminism’, saying that feminism was not about mood types.

There were heated debates too over the commodification and corporatisation of feminism. Many products have gotten on to the empowerment trail — such as the Always #LikeAGirl campaign, Nike’s #BetterForIt or Dove’s Real Beauty series. These were both praised and vilified. There were also heated conversations about the role of men in feminism. In any case, women making films does not equal feminist film-making, as film critic Deepanjana Pal pointed out, and men can make feminist films too, and indeed, so many men are also feminists.

We wound up our event with a music performance. “When it’s all over, when the end is in sight, you’ll smile and say, the life I live is mine,” sang Shubhangi Joshi, and I couldn’t agree more. Feminism, to me, is about self-empowerment and an awareness of how linked everything is, and we need to be sensitive of the linkages and structures before deciding our approach towards creating a more equal world.

What made me happiest over the two-day festival was the audience. We had college students, housewives, professors, artists, working professionals — men as well as women — from across the city and also from other cities. We were bound together in a common experience and not necessarily in consensus about anything, least of all about the definition of ‘feminist’, but we had agreed to be part of a shared experience and to discuss our disagreements with empathy. Now, if only our parliamentarians would also function this way, no?

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