It’s not about the cigarette!

by Deepti Chaudhary Sharma

This started as a response to Filmi Geek’s review of Shuddh Desi Romance, but I rambled on, as I tend to do, and felt this deserves a complete post in order to make a larger point. Of course, nothing wrong with someone not liking a movie that I enjoyed – this is more about the debate on portrayal of modern women, and Anna Vetticad, a feminist film critic I normally admire, had made a similar point earlier. Adding my 2 paise to the conversation.

More than once, I’ve read rants against some recent films using cigarettes and premarital sex as shorthand for the ‘modern girl’, especially in many discussions about Shuddh Desi Romance. My personal bias for Parineeti notwithstanding, what’s wrong with you guys? What do you want a girl to do?

We live in a very confused culture. A couple of decades ago, women’s lib was all about empowering the girl child, giving her an education and letting her hold on to a job. Now that the modern Indian man has discovered the delights of being married to a superhuman who brings in extra income, whips up dinner and tackles the kids’ homework without bursting the bubble of male privilege, letting women work is no longer a social taboo. But does that mean we are now living in a modern society?

Women are still held to the same unreasonable standards as ever before. Education for many is yet another quality you should acquire, so your matrimonial profile should read, ‘tall, fair, homely, buxom and educated’. A Chartered Accountant who cannot cook is frowned upon in the marriage market, and while some of us shameless ladies manage to stay happily single into our late 20s, twenty four is still the standard sell-by date.

With the advent of retro-masala movies at the screens, the celluloid ladies have dissolved into one globule of demure, simpering, helpless objects of eternal stalking played by Sonakshi Sinha. Career girls are still an exception rather than the rule. And it gets better once you switch on the TV.

Indian Television has long forgotten that women may want something beyond family peace and the copious blessings of the in-house elderly. Cherishing a career (unless it involves the family business or tutoring slum kids) is out of question, as is ever wanting anything for themselves. Heck, the last time I saw a girl on primetime television demanding some freaking ice cream was three years ago, and this girl was portrayed as modern and independent, bordering on bitchy. The demand for ice cream was also a plot device to torment the poor husband buckling under the unreasonable behaviour of the capricious wife. Also, the chick was pregnant. So the craving was really the baby’s, presumably male, because no way a female child could be having such selfish cravings that would inconvenience her benign babuji.

Today, the perfect small screen bahu doesn’t just have to brew the perfect cup of chai and make hing ki kachori materialize on the breakfast table at freaking 6 in the morning after her freaking wedding… she now has to detonate bombs, preside the village Panchayat, sort laundry and solve burning political issues like women’s safety and vegetable prices with the power of the Magic Simper.

Yes, we have high demands from our women. And we have very narrow definitions of what a ‘modern’ woman should be like, as if the right to be modern needs to be negotiated through socially acceptable caveats. “Be modern in your thoughts, not your clothes,” someone says. “Be modern about this, traditional about that,” you’re told.

A young, good little north Indian girl was once ranting about her roommates, all girls from her own home state, who smoke and drink. I can understand not wanting to share an apartment with smokers, a lot of people don’t like that. But my friend’s problems wasn’t merely with the air pollution. Her comment was, “main abhi itni modern nahi hui.” Why does a bad lifestyle choice have to be about modern or traditional values? Aren’t there women in villages who smoke bidis?

It is in this context I’d like to look at the on-screen portrayal of a girl who’s so modern, so ‘forward’, that she smokes (gasp!) and lives with her boyfriend (Western culture alert!)

No, these aren’t the only ways to depict the modern girl – the modern woman is about a lot more than that – but is there anything particularly wrong with a female lead who makes these choices? The reason I think some people appreciate Shuddh Desi Romance for depicting a ‘modern’ girl isn’t just because she smokes – it is because she doesn’t give up smoking midway to become a better woman. She remains the way she is. She also does not take kindly to the guy’s apprehensions about her past. In context of Indian cinema, this is a giant leap forward – a girl who’s had a past, is scarred by it, but not ashamed or repentant. She does not forgive the hero for being judgmental. Most importantly, the film does not punish her for being ‘bad’. She is loved by the hero and also by the elderly Mr Goyal for her good qualities. Goyal, who knows her personal history very well, is actually quite fond of her and tries to protect her from another heartbreak.

It’s this – the right to be imperfect – that marks her as the modern woman, not the fact that she smokes or sleeps around. If you think of smoking as merely a vice, equally bad for a man and a woman, I’m glad a girl is allowed her vices, lending a credible bit of flaw to the lead character. That’s more depth than many movies can claim.

In fact, if I were to give my own definition of modernism, it’d be this – the right to be imperfect, to be an evolving human being, and not having to pass some absurd test of standards set by somebody else before you can find any kind of love, happiness and fulfilment. So far, the only flaws we’ve allowed our female protagonists is a bit of incompetence in the kitchen – like it’s so cute when Juhi Chawla messes up the first meal she tries to cook in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, how adorable is she when she cries over her incompetence as a wife, and how sweet of Aamir Khan to overlook that! Of course, she must also overcome that flaw, as we see her some minutes later, beaming proudly at her father that she has learnt to make tea.

It’s time for our heroines to get over that cuteness and confront the audience with a bit of reality – I am a human being, I can have deeper flaws than an ineptitude in draping a sari, flaws that no righteous douchebag is going to ‘fix’ with some taming-of-the-shrew tactics; but I am a human being all the same, worthy of love and relationships, and capable of making your life better just by being in it.

P.S. To further the point why it is kinda cool that a film does not judge its heroine for having premarital sex, look no further than this discussion on Quora – for God’s sake! – about an Indian guy’s right to expect his bride to be a virgin. Evolved society my foot.

(Deepti Chaudhuri Sharma is an editor, writer, blogger and in her own words ‘mad mad cinema fanatic.’ If you ever find Jaani Dushman running on TV, leave her a tweet at @DeeSCJockey. Even though she has watched it a thousand times, she will bless you liberally for that.)

5 thoughts on “It’s not about the cigarette!

  1. Indian

    What’s the big deal in asking for a virgin? A female can ask for a virgin guy as well..for some people celibacy might be important. While personally I think that virginity doesn’t matter since I do not care about an individual’s past sexual experiences, there are some people for whom things matter.

    For them (both male and female), their partner’s past can be important. For some of them sex is extremely sacred and is only meant to be reserved for their husband/wife. While this might not sound practical and can also lead to prejudices against people for their lifestyle/past, aren’t we also prejudiced in calling people unevolved since they seek a virgin to marry.

    Some people think that virginity should matter and some people think it shouldn’t. Both have their reasons and modern/western values seems to say that the later is the better option. Our society has both voices. Instead of making judgments shouldn’t we be more tolerant and understanding towards one another?

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  2. carla - filmi geek (@carla_filmigeek)

    Very nice, thoughtful piece. My issue with the smoking and the sex is not that there is anything wrong with smoking or sex – not at all – or that I think a woman should strive to shed these things in favor of “higher” pursuits like being a doctor or a CEO.

    It’s the narrative laziness of using smoking and sex as shorthand for modernity, independence, and strength. It’s not new. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s been done as long as there have been Hindi films. I do think women deserve more in their depiction than the same things that made Nadira look modern and independent in Shree 420, or Sharmila Tagore (the evil twin) in Evening in Paris.

    You note yourself that there are other ways to depict modernity, independence, strength – whatever names we can apply to the types of characteristics that have been sorely lacking in filmi women. And *that* is my beef with Shuddh Desi Romance – I see too much of the cheap and easy shorthand, and not enough of the other stuff, the substance. At the end of the movie I don’t feel I know this character well enough to define her in any substantive way (indeed I find the entire narrative scattered and perplexing). I take from your article that you perceive more substance than I do in the characterization – that’s a legitimate difference of opinion, and I’m glad you enjoyed the movie more than I did!

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