Removing the burka off the lipstick

These days I keep on coming across movies being praised to the skies solely for centering around female characters helmed by a female director. Some of the critics seem to get so overwhelmed by the popular understanding of feminism that they are more than willing to skip reviewing the movie on its merits. Owing to this you would rarely come across a review that pointed out the problematic messages underlined by Lipstick under my by burka and logical fallacies in Tribhanga all in the name of women empowerment. For instance, would we be equally sympathetic towards a middle-aged man having phone sex without revealing his identity as we are towards Usha’s character and when Shireen confronts the woman who her husband is having an affair with instead of her husband isn’t she despite being a victim of patriarchal conditioning perpetrating it herself? Would we be willing to give a man the same benefit of the doubt that we are willing to extend to Leela when forced to choose between love and the greener pastures promised by an arranged marriage? How often do we come across a filmmaker who is not judgmental towards a man being accused of being desperate for sex by his female partner in a situation not very different from that of Leela?  Are we willing to be as forgiving towards men when they indulge in the same indiscretions that Rehana and Jaspreet from Made in Heaven are guilty of when systematically deprived of by a classist patriarchal society?

Renuka Shahane while promoting Tribhanga has been vocal about normalizing families headed by single parents and it is indeed a really powerful idea. However, the script plays out in such a way that it makes very little sense beyond normalizing such families. Firstly, episodes, where Nayantara and Masha are being shown to be publicly humiliated by their respective teachers, are badly written to the point of across as unbelievable. Secondly, it is really hard to relate to Anuradha’s angst against her mother Nayantara mainly because of two reasons. Once Nayantara’s divorce gets finalized, we the audience are told that Anuradha’s father not only decides to not share any parenting responsibilities but very specifically tells Anuradha that she can’t stay with him. As a result, Anuradha decides to stop talking to him early. It is crystal clear that she couldn’t be holding it against her mother for driving a wedge between her and her father. The situation is distinctly different from movies such as Unishe April and Tehzeeb which revolved around a similar theme of the strained relationship between mother and daughter. In those movies, one could sense why the respective daughters felt isolated from their respective mothers and even the mothers had a redeemable quality about them. However, in the case of Tribhanga, the building up of Anuradha’s pent-up frustration against her mother is rather weak. Had there been a single scene that had the slightest indication that Nayantara overlooked the abuse faced by Anuradha at her second husband’s hand, it would have humanized her. In the story, Abhimanyu from I am portrayed as a flawed mother way more realistically.  However, what transpires on the screen here is that Anuradha never confides in Nayantara and then blames her for not having protected her as against. Then again as an adult, Anuradha holds it against Nayantara for being approaching the matter neutral at first instance when a fight ensues between Anuradha and her boyfriend. We can’t overlook the fact that by this point Anuradha had more or less stopped communicating with Nayantara. It was Anuradha’s boyfriend through whom Nayantara got any news of her and it was only because of her that these two could find a place to live-in together. It would be relevant to note here that on hand we love mothers-in-law who are neutral and then take a stand in favor of the daughter in law but on the other hand here when a mother-in-law is neutral in her dealing with a son in law she faces the wrath of her daughter. If the central idea was to portray Nayantara as a flawed mother, the script failed terribly at that. Moving on although it is rather hard to empathize with her as a daughter who has been wronged, she doesn’t make for half as bad a mother. Having learned from her experiences, she keeps her boyfriends at an arm’s distance to protect her daughter Masha. Masha barely gets any screen time as compared to the other two ladies but as described by her mother, she is the most balanced and sorted out of the three. Eventually, we are told that she does little other than smile helplessly in the presence of her mother when her mother-in-law points out spending too much time around a coma patient is supposed to impact the baby negatively when pregnant! Oh yes! We are supposed to feel bad for how she can’t even defend wanting to be with her own biological family. Within the next few minutes, it is revealed that she got a pre-natal sex determination test done due to being pressurized by the joint family she got married into out of love. One of the most disturbing aspects of the reviews that I have come across is that none of them found opting for a pre-natal sex determination test in the first place problematic enough which by the way is banned under the law to tackle female foeticide. On the contrary, the movie has been appreciated highly for not judging its female characters. It seems as if the filmmaker wants the audience to empathize with Masha’s predicament. Would we be equally empathetic towards a man advocating this test as a result of family pressure? In case the answer is no, is it fair to then empathize with a woman in a similar situation? On empathizing with her, aren’t we in a way supporting the idea that she has no agency over her life and can’t help being a victim of her circumstances? I guess, those who passed the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act back in 1994 to fix the screwed sex ratio of this country weren’t idiots. Masha then says that luckily she will be having a baby boy but adds hastily that had it been a girl she would have convinced her in-laws to have the baby anyway. I somehow found it hard to believe that this character would have the kind of strength Najma from the movie Secret Superstar had. She seems to be the kind of woman who would fail to take a stand for her child when she makes any decisions in her life conflicting with the values of the joint family she is born into. Masha then explains to Anuradha that she is doing all this for the sake of ensuring that her child doesn’t have to face social stigma for coming from a family headed by a single parent unlike what she had to face. Since this character is so determined to not walk out of a marriage, the filmmaker doesn’t even bother introducing the audience to her husband. Neither do we know what was so endearing about him that she had to marry him nor do we get to see his weaker side when he fails to fights his family for wanting his wife to go through a sex determination test. The idea seems to be that since Masha will as it is never walking out on him what is the point of even getting to know about this character. It seems to give a prop-like treatment many Hindi movies have been accused of giving their female characters and weakens the plot further. As a forward-thinking society, we now like to encourage men to learn to cook and clean after themselves, especially in light of the recent lockdown which effectively ensured that we had to do without house helps for a long period. Similarly, shouldn’t we be encouraging women to ensure that even though they might choose to be homemakers, they should have at least one skill that can be traded to make money in case the need arises? Wouldn’t that go a long way in empowering them in case of the husband’s death or divorce or something as simples as the husband losing his job? In light of what I have just said, I find it difficult to empathize with a character who is largely motivated to make her marriage work not because of love or respect for her partner but to avoid being a single parent and seems to have no passion for her own.

I am at the end of this seemingly long rant of mine. It is just that I believe in a movie being reviewed based on its merit rather than just taking up an issue that is considered cool in popular culture. With all due respect to the respective directors, I found some of the messages given out problematic. That is not to say that Alankrita Srivastava and Renuka Shahane aren’t capable of helming more logical movies. Alankrita Srivastava has become way better with her second outing Dolly, Kitty aur Chamakte Sitare in terms of portraying issues faced by women on celluloid. I also read in a review that Renuka Shahane’s directorial debut Rita based on a story written by her mother Shanta Gokhale was way better than Tribhanga. I am done for now. Next week I would be sharing with you my favorite women-oriented stories told by women themselves dating back to as early as the 1980s when feminism was actually about portraying real issues faced by real men and women. Unlike the new age feminism, it didn’t make me feel like an endangered species in need of serious conservation efforts by the IUCN and had space for accommodating everyone’s stories.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Vanshika Chandra says:

    Love it. You stole my mind.


    1. Thanks so much for your kind words ☺️


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