Thursday, March 01, 2007

Water and the Indian woman

Initially when Water was released, I was inundated with all sorts of questions about whether it represents Indian reality. Then when it did not the Oscars the other night, I got another set of queries and opinions. Then finally, last night when I was interviewed for a television show on the theme of Indian women, I appear to have made surprised some people by not talking about Water. I, for one, was happy that the host did not raise it, as were some others who watched. While in my opinion Water is in fact a rather poor representation of the Indian reality, it is not fully clear to me what its appeal is to the global public. There is of course some appeal in watching cinematized tales of victims of "tradition" or other structures of oppression (such as "Born into Brothels", although this was considerably less cinematized than Water). But I suspect that for the majority, it is simply a matter of discovery. "I had no idea" is a common refrain I have heard.

The phenomenon is not as well known as the issue of dowry deaths, bride burning or foeticide. I think this is what has attracted most attention, and this is where I think the film is rather problematic in its depiction of reality. It appears to be frozen in time; its static quality leaves viewers with the sense that this reality has not changed between the time at which the film is set and contemporary India. What is worse, the film never mentions that this practice is prevalent only amongst Hindus, and not amongst all Indians, and not even amongst all Hindus. If the purpose is to create awareness about the plight of India's Hindu widows, a much more complex tale needs to be told. My intention is not to minimize the significance of the suffering in question, but to ask for a less passive and static portrayal of Indian women, not only in films but all media coverage.

Interestingly, the media continues to focus either on Bollywood, or political elites (such as Indira Gandhi) or at the other extreme on the hapless women who are being burnt and ill-treated. No wonder it appears as an impossible contradiction.

Interestingly, the media continues to focus either on Bollywood, or on elites or at the other extreme on the hapless women who are being burnt and ill-treated. No wonder it appears as an impossible contradiction to the global public.

Instead, how about we turn our gaze to a large number of South Asian women who are active agents of political change? Why are their stories not told? Some of my heroines are: Rashida Bee, Teejan bai, Kamla, Aruna Roy, Girija Devi, SEWA, Muktaran Mai (Pakistan), and Jahanara Begum (Bangladesh), Mahashweta Devi, and many many others.

Who are yours?


Pablo Dasgupta said...

There is one area that you spoke of in your interview that peaked my interest. You stated a couple of times that there exists “a gendered nature of call centre work.”

1) Are women more valued for hire in these professions due to the image you mentioned of a “docile, good worker”?

2) Is it to the point of discrimination against men?

3) Despite the greater number of hires for women in this industry, are the positions primarily entry level? In other words, how is the equality of gender at the management and executive levels?

4) There is so much news about India and call centres, exactly how much clout does this sector have in the Indian economy?

5) What type of laws, rules or regulations are there against sexual harassment in the workplace in India?

6) What is the nature of sexual harassment / discrimination in say a call centre environment in a major city?

ishani said...

On a different note, don't see much of good Indian films these days - reality or fanatasy!!!

ishani said...

Film has an universal language and I feel that the depiction of Indir Thakurun in Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray is an example. While she is also a widow who is old and oppressed there's an appeal in her character which transcends the exploitative society around her. In a way I feel she conquers the difficulties through her resilient quality. Don't see any such well developed characterization in Water. While Ray too has faced flak from people like Nargis Dutt for depicting India's poverty etc I don't agree. The Lyricism and poetry in films such as Apu trilogy establish the ultimate victory of the human spirit above all adversity.