Paromita Vohra: Declining nudes
This is interestingly true when it comes to films that are concerned about the situation of women
Concern is sometimes a mask for control. This is interestingly true when it comes to films that are concerned about the situation of women. If these "concerned" films attract censorship, then they control even more subversively. They become imbued with a revolutionary halo, becoming an urgent cause to be supported, a badge of honour, not a film that tells us deep truths about our lives.
The film Nude arrived on a white horse, after a similar symbolic battle. It's very title had disturbed the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It traces the journey of Yamuna after she leaves her village and her brutish husband and becomes a nude model in the JJ School of Arts, with her aunt's help, going on to sit for some famous artists. She has a parallel journey, from shame to pride in work, which is shown minimally. But in the end, she alienates her son and feels defeated and hopeless.
Nude has it's good points — the interesting subject, the strong performances from Kalaynee Mulay and Chhaya Kadam in the main roles, tiny flashes of earthy humour.
But on the whole, it is a plodding work of bad faith and a strangely colonial mindset. Here is a film in which the two main characters are women, which should be evidence of concern and interest in women. Yet they are given hardly any interiority or room to be more than an example of social issues. That's because many such films are not about the characters. They are really about establishing the filmmaker as a noble and high-minded being who will uplift women.
There are only three types of people in the film. There is the poor woman who needs saving from her own men; poor men, who are portrayed as bestial or passive; and bhadralok middle-class artists who are noble and pious with the higher purpose of art. The point is taken, that, cruel or benign, to all of them the woman is an instrument. But this is unfortunately as true of the filmmakers who bring no irony to looking at this 'higher purpose'. Why are there no middle-class women in the film? There are some token women art students — but they never speak, nor is there a single shot of a woman art student drawing a nude.
This absence further prevents any complications in the story of class, caste and gender relations. Complications about what it means to draw a naked woman, exalt her as Devi or pure spirit (the body is the garment of the spirit as one character says unctuously) to serve other people's higher purpose for a paltry pay. To the artist, the model is just a body. To the filmmaker, too, the woman is mostly a victim, a sufferer in search of a saviour.
In such films, women can never truly free themselves from circumstances. They are imprisoned in dead-end film narratives forever to serve the purpose of saviour-filmmakers in films like Nude, Pink and even Lipstick Under My Burkha. Why would filmmakers conceive of different meanings of women's lives, which point to a certain liberation, when these upliftment projects accrue such rewards and privileges? It is only when we, the audience decline to be grateful for this self-serving false realism, that we can hope for stories more true to the complexities of our lives.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
Independence Day Special: What happened in Mumbai in 1947?