Paromita Vohra: The Ministry of Utmost Feminism


Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

There comes a time in the life of most popular feminist icons when members of the Ministry of Utmost Feminism issues circulars about their clay feet. We saw it with Rakhi Sawant. We're seeing it with Kangana Ranaut criticized for her interviews and work controversies on grounds of dignity and feminist purity (much advocated qualities for ladies).

While feminism animates their journey in many ways, figures like Rakhi or Kangana, set out to succeed, not as feminists, but as mainstream players. The logic of the mainstream system is bound to shape and modify their progress. When we demand purity from them, we inadvertently play into that very system.

The Kangana-AIB video throws throws this into stark relief. The video sends up Bollywood's sexist double standards for characters and actors. It has a giggle or two (the script is played by a roll of toilet paper), but mostly relies on the ooh value of the song's refrain "coz I have vagina re" while describing various sexist Bollywood things. Its main impact on me was that I, frustratingly, ended up singing "chittiyan kalaaiyan ve" for the rest of the day. Yaniki the video was too long (hallmark of AIB videos) and politically dull.

This sort of video does something I call describing the patriarchy. The first step in most feminist journeys, irrespective of gender, is the realisation that the blocks and constraints of our lives are not fate, but a system called patriarchy. It is a pure and innocent sort of moment, bringing a rush of exhilarated articulation in identifying the problem — as we've seen with Ms Ranaut.

The trick is that the system creates space for this criticism, even responds to it, but just a little. It's like 'honest' employee feedback in a company which never intends to change, like a woman whose husband 'lets me work'. This is why we are encouraged to outrage about feminist-ish things via marketing and advertising campaigns. After all, as long as we are describing the patriarchy, even critically, not only are we are still attached to it, we also reiterate (like this video) its supremacy and unchangeability.

So, we exhaust the libidinal feminist energies we need to move to the next step in our feminist journeys: imagining how the patriarchy might change to free us into possibility and embodying this imagination in art, relationships, business, work or politics. This requires new solidarities, new feminist friendships which challenge us, expand our frontiers and help build an alternative.

This is also why mainstream loves stories of single individuals who succeed against all odds — thrilling fairy tales which do not allow the imagination of solidarities and communities. It is a set up for failure, because in the face of an intractable system, individual journeys involve survival strategies that aren't always heroic. When we join in the chorus of clay feet, we play into that narrative.

Will Kangana make a feminist leap away from Feminism 101? Will AIB shake off its reforming-bro timorousness to make an effortlessly fun feminist video? I'd like to hope so. The potency of the Kangana figures lies not in their perfection as much as the narratives they throw up, which constantly deepen our understanding of feminism. They do not need to carry its burden alone. Feminism belongs to us all, and we carry it forward together, in our flawed and faltering ways..

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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