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December 18, 2018

The Dynamics of Power

We revisit a 2013 photo series Items, which explored the notion of women’s bodies and their relationship to the gaze, agency and consent. Photographer Aishwarya Arumbakkam and the five stereotype-challenging individuals documented by her speak exclusively to Verve about how the #MeToo movement is a continuation of the conversation that they tackled with these images…

Tora Man Bada Papi (You big-hearted Sinner). Photographed with Kajol Menon, social worker and Mandovi Menon, journalist

Subverting The Status Quo

An item number is a music-and-dance spectacle that occupies a prominent space in commercial Indian cinema. Although it might not have any direct connection to the narrative, an item number introduces a sexually charged female dancer who performs to provocate the male characters in the film. The bold item girl is often a contrast to the virginal female protagonist. The men onscreen desire her, and consider her flamboyance to be a signal of a corrupted sense of morality, which they can exploit.

The terminology used to describe these women, ‘items’, offers an insight into the nature of creating female stereotypes of women who fit a popular ideal of beauty, and who are accepting of their sexuality. These reel-life terms often permeate into everyday realities. Colloquially, ‘item’ is a term used to refer to women who are considered sexually appealing, and I played with this idea by creating a series of portraits of women who wear the costumes of item girls, but in a defiant way, challenging the viewer to see them as empowered, three-dimensional characters. They represent a more inclusive sexuality, femininity and ideal of what is desirable. The women in these portraits take back the term items and make it their own. Originally exhibited as a multimedia installation, Items is a combination of photographic prints, video and a collection of objects. The video is a silent montage of various item numbers. Trapped in a television, the loud stereotype of the item girl is rendered voiceless, appearing to seek an escape. The objects displayed alongside simultaneously represent patriarchal myths and ideas that challenge it. The portraits are a distinct counterpoint to the video, forming the focal point of the installation. The observers are allowed to access, choose and negotiate their way through these various symbols to create their own story interlinking the three mediums.

#MeToo And Beyond

“While the #MeToo movement has renewed the visibility of Items, and is furthering a conversation that is at the core of this work, I wouldn’t say it recontextualises the message or intention. One must note that it was made as a collaborative project with active participation from the subjects. There is performance and play; both the photographer and subjects participate with the conscious intent to ensure agency to the people in front of the camera. It is essentially about challenging a very unidimensional portrayal of women popular in Bollywood.

Mandovi, Simran, Abheena, Margaret, Meghana and Pratima had a certain amount of power versus an onscreen item girl — who functions almost like a prop — the gaze is so different. In the creation of a photograph, there is never a completely equal participation, simply because the nature of the medium is such. But what was interesting in this case was that it was a female photographer behind the lens; it was a woman working with other women — the exchange of power and dynamics would probably not have been the same if it were a male photographer.

When you read the captions, which are important in this series, you figure out who these women are. One is a professor, one is a social worker, one is a journalist, another one an activist and so on. It gives the subjects a certain amount of agency and a voice. It’s not just about what they look like but also about what they do, which I think is an important conversation happening right now.

The places where we shot the women are important too — quite a few of them were photographed in their homes. But Abheena’s photo was taken in the office, Simran’s was in a salon, Pratima’s was at her clinic. This brings up the issue of women in semi-public places versus women who were shot in private places. How did they feel? How did their comfort levels change? In a way, the #MeToo movement brought up a similar idea – this notion of gendered spaces and the power dynamics in them. We are talking about women, roles, power positions and about being judged on appearances or being treated a certain way because you’re a woman.”

O Haseena Zulfon Wali (Oh beauty with tresses). Photographed with Abheena Aher, transgender activist and Urmi Jadhav, dancer

“Gender-based violence and reactions of people have always been visible. As a transwoman who went from male to female, I have been subjected to violence because of my sexuality and gender. It was not just abuse but hate crimes — like being touched by co-passengers on public transport. Many sections of society have hated people like me because of our sexuality, and we’re very vulnerable.

I’m extremely proud to be a part of the Items series, because whenever we talk about feminism and the larger contexts of gender, my community has always been ignored. This shoot took place in 2013 when transgender people were not even recognised by the Supreme Court. So you can imagine what importance it holds for me, to get a space in a society that looks at gender as a binary concept. It gave me a platform, and dignity and visibility.

On a larger scale, the #MeToo movement in India has given a platform to women — who have been suppressed for ages — to talk about their bodies. Though today it mainly focuses on violence against cisgender women — somehow it has not yet reached out to other identities and genders. It hasn’t picked up completely yet.”

Ms. Pamela (Miss Pamela). Photographed with Meghana Rao, social worker

“The series was quite experimental at the time, and it explored a fairly different area within gender and sexuality; it addressed how women are portrayed in the media and how their bodies are sexualised and objectified. The interesting part is this contradiction about what involves a woman’s autonomy — complete control over her decisions and her body, including whom she decides to share it with — and the larger trends within the media and entertainment industries that choose to portray women in a particular manner. Either you are a good woman or you are a vamp. There is nothing in the middle. Even the ownership of a woman’s body is exploited or shown in an exploitative light. When we were shooting the series, in our minds — apart from being very aware about how women tend to be portrayed on the screen, and looking at it through a sex-positive lens — it was about a woman as the owner of her body and how that works in a larger system where patriarchy is dominant. Items talks about a woman’s autonomy and her power over her body — the conversation around consent and what that actually means, and how men feel entitled over women’s bodies.

The #MeToo conversations are mainly restricted to urban, upper-class, educated people, but sexual abuse has been happening forever in non-formal sectors like government factories and buses, directed at female havaldars and domestic helps. I’m not sure if unions take it up when a domestic help is abused — I’m not sure whether we’re having these conversations. These are some things that I find myself thinking about.”

Sheila Ki Jawani (Youthful Sheila). Photographed with Margaret Da Costa, professor

“At that point of time, honestly, l did not think about these issues of gender and sexuality. My photo was based on Aishwarya’s [the photographer] vision of Sheila Ki Jawani. It’s a 50-plus woman portraying a young sexy babe…. I thought that was really hilarious so I said I’d go for it, why not. It was about breaking the mould and changing the notion that to pose for something like that you would have to be a young, sexy person. The image was all about breaking barriers. I think, for me, it was about being photographed in a slightly erotic way — but with my permission, and with someone I was very comfortable with. I knew Aishwarya would not be using that photograph for anything except the purpose she had stated: breaking a mindset.

In fact when the picture came out — I was a professor at Xavier Institute of Communications in Mumbai at the time — my students came to me and said, ‘Wow Ma’am, what guts!’ And I said, ‘What’s gutsy about it?’ I am a woman and I have curves and if I choose to display them with a photographer of my choosing, that is a choice I have made. Someone said, ‘She’s hot!’ Both my kids were immensely proud of me. Why should someone dress a certain way or be bound by age or figure? Stand up and be acknowledged for who you are.

I’m a slightly bohemian, non-conforming type. I come from a family of four sisters; I am more comfortable doing carpentry work than my husband is. There was already a gender reversal when I was growing up. My family has broken many norms and my children have also been brought up like that — and what the #MeToo movement has done is that it has given people — especially those who didn’t have that opportunity before — a chance to speak up. I’m very happy that people now have the courage to actually come out and say, ‘Hey, he did this but I kept quiet because I was ashamed, but now I’m not.’”

Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu (My name is Chin Chin Chu). Photographed with Pratima Sonni, physiotherapist and fitness trainer

“When I was offered the shoot, I was asked to portray an item girl — Helen in Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu — and I jumped at this opportunity because even back in the day, I never looked at item girls as women who just wanted to show skin or play a negative role. I saw them as these beautiful women who were extremely attractive and good at their jobs. It made a lot more sense to know that it was part of a script, and these women were bold enough to take on these kinds of roles. My picture portrays Helen, dressed up as an item girl, lifting weights. So, for me it was a matter of representing strength in women. We should not be challenged or pushed into a corner, because at some point there will be an explosion, like what’s happening today.

I was brought up in a house of women — we’re four sisters. My dad came from a very big family of six sisters — so we were never subjected to any conventional gender-based systems. And so I only realised over a period of time, when I was in my thirties — now I’m well into my forties — that I had to work that much harder to create my space in society. As a physiotherapist, I help women and men to become physically fit, which I feel also helps to take on a lot of emotional stress better.

Regarding the gaze and (female) body, you don’t even have to be dressed provocatively to be gazed upon. All you have to do is be a woman and have those body parts – that’s all it takes. You could be dressed in a burkha or a bikini, you still get looked at; you still get visually stripped. But a lot of men are realising that the women who they thought would dance to their tunes will not do so anymore.

Society is changing — especially urban India. I would say that the status of patriarchy in our society is actually diminishing. And as a strong woman with a voice today, I will support the #MeToo movement and I will always stand by it…and stand up against any man who thinks he can get away.”

Halkat Jawani (Careless youth). Photographed with Simran Singh, hairstylist

“As I’m more of a torn-jeans-and-tee person, I remember very clearly that I was feeling very empowered as well as very vulnerable when we were doing the shoot. I remember those feelings being at the very forefront for me. The significance of Items was to push boundaries, even of my own understanding of myself. I’m visually very different from the persona I took on. It was exciting for me to just push myself and see how I would feel in that situation.

I think #MeToo is giving people a voice and helping them express what they’ve held back for a long time.”

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