Ladies and gents

Jun 02, 2013, 03:50 IST | Paromita Vohra

Every time you do some work connected to women -- a film, a piece of writing, a talk -- and you present it in public, the discussion almost always goes along predictable lines

Paromita VohraEvery time you do some work connected to women -- a film, a piece of writing, a talk -- and you present it in public, the discussion almost always goes along predictable lines.

First a man will ask “why didn’t you think of making this about men?” Answer: “Er, because it is about women.” Then, “but it should be about men and women.”

Illustration/Amit Bandre

You may patiently persist, though you should know better. “Actually this is not one of those films/stories about men and women, it’s to do with women only.” “Men are also facing their issues (long disquisition on issues faced by men follows). “Yes, sir, I agree men are facing their issues, and films should be made about those -- are being made about those -- it’s just that this particular work happens to be about women.” A frown, a shake of the head will follow as if to say -- no you don’t understand anything (you woman). The conversation will go in circles, the faces of the questioners getting cloudier. Then suddenly lightning will strike and the clouds will clear. “Are you a feminist?” they will say.

I often wonder what that means to them -- they say it like -- are you an insane person? Because only that would explain that you would want to talk about women! And that must mean you are a dangerous subversive who will abduct our wives and tell our children to be insubordinate. When I was younger and naïver I would try to explain what feminism meant. Over the years I’ve just learned to look terribly surprised and ask -- “aren’t you a feminist?” This always causes a reaction which I can only describe in Hindi as ‘baukhla jana’, perhaps translatable as momentarily flustered. The fact that no one is able to say NO unequivocally, makes me wonder what they’re really objecting to when they object to works about women.

This is almost always so especially when it comes to anything which does not represent women within the victim-hero binary -- does not show them in terms of suffering and the overcoming of that suffering. It is certainly so if you show them as imperfect beings rather than sacrificing ones -- people with appetites and foibles, intemperate or demanding, having fun or sometimes not - simply as regular, desiring folk who overreach themselves, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing in that attempt. Human, in other words.

I have always wondered what it is that makes it so difficult to watch women in this way -- where they are individuals and not just excelling in certain family roles. What fear of what loss creates this locking up of one’s self against these kinds of stories?

Freedom is a difficult thing -- to liberate oneself from gender, whether as an actual bodily and sensual identity, as the late filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh did or from the limits of social roles and possibilities, as the feminists Vina Mazumdar and Jai Chandiram, who both passed away in May did -- means casting aside much that is familiar and hence seems comfortable. Our prisons, in which we learn to exist, also offer the security of predictability. Sometimes the only thing that locks us in is ourselves.

Confronted by those who tell us that you too have a duplicate key to the lock, which you may use to step outside must terrify us I suppose. To be aware of others’ freedom sometimes makes us painfully aware of our own fears and constraints. In such times it is sometimes easier to ban a mannequin and cheap lace underwear, than contemplate a different way of being; easier to change others than to change oneself.

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

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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