By Sugandha Rawal
Is getting pysical freedom the only way for women to be free, asks acclaimed actress and filmmaker Nandita Das as she wonders why most women-centric films only touch upon the issue of female sexuality.
She says such projects undermine “many struggles that women go through and further panders to the male gaze” in an industry, where she feels murmurs about the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have been “too low”.
From narrating the trauma of a gang-rape victim in Bawandar or highlighting same sex relationship in Fire or initiating a campaign to embrace dark skin — Nandita has always tried to give voice to women who are fighting for equal rights and acceptance, with her projects. And she hopes to continue with it.
“When a project is submitted, the question is still asked — who is the hero? This will take some time to change. An A-list actress will never have an A-list actor playing opposite her if she’s playing the lead. While the opposite happens all the time,” Nandita said in an e-mail interview.
“Female actors are still stereotyped in their portrayal as being constantly good-looking (read sexy, if they are young, which they invariably need be) and their career is still much shorter than the male stars, who, at 50 can play college boys. Having said that, definitely more and more women are now behind the camera so there is a little more representation and diversity. But still far from being enough,” she added.
The actress asserted that “stories exploring women’s issues are increasing, though every second film is focusing on sexual freedom by showing their sexy bodies and speaking profanity, as if this was the only way to be free”.
“It is undermining many struggles that women go through and further panders to the male gaze,” she said, taking a sly dig at Kareena Kapoor Khan’s Veere Di Wedding — a project which garnered mixed response to the narrative of how women openly talk about their sex lives and hurl abuses.
Nandita, whose Manto was the only Indian film in Un Certain Regard category at 71st Cannes Film Festival this year, joined Hollywood stars Kristen Stewart and Jane Fonda among many others in a protest against gender gap at the film fest.
The Firaaq maker says she was “delighted to be part of that five per cent who have had that honour to walk the red carpet, marching along 81 other women”.
But she is disappointed that movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up didn’t gain mileage in India, as compared to the West.
Such movements pitching for women empowerment has seeped into the West, taking in account how people in powerful positions exploited people entering the industry, resulting in exposure of many, including Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.
Expressing her opinion on the initiatives, Nandita said: “Some of us hoped the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements would hit Indian shores harder, exposing the open secrets of Bollywood and of every other profession where men have misused their power to harass and assault women.
“Unfortunately, the murmurs have been too low. The few women who did speak were predictably ostracised. Often abuse was given the colour of being consensual, silencing the ripples, even before they could become a wave.”
She is not giving up on hope.
“Despite the low murmurs, I hope that we will find a way to be heard. Voices will emerge that will open doors for many more. After all, even in the West, rampant abuse has stayed under the surface for decades, some of the most powerful women had chosen to remain silent. It took a few brave ones to break it.
“The onus needn’t only be on the women to speak up, joining the #MeToo campaign. Our dream for an equal world must be seen collectively, a call to action because the Time’s Up,” added the actress.
At the moment, she is looking forward to the release of Manto, in which she has traced the life of writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Nawazuddin Siddiqui will be seen bringing the character to life.
Manto, co-produced by HP Studios, Filmstoc and Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, is expected to release in India in September.
Nandita also took issue with how “artists, writers and rationalists” were being attacked in some form or the other. Be it the debate around growing intolerance or the agitation around the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat or the issues around S Durga or the occasional calls to put a temporary ban on Pakistani talent from working in the Hindi film industry — the conversation around the extent of creative freedom keeps coming back. And Nandita feels there have been attempts to silence creative voices.
“Martin Luther King Jr. said: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’. These days whether it is media or individuals, people are being censored by self-proclaimed vigilante groups or are self-censoring themselves, out of fear,” Nandita said.
“Conservatives and right-wing groups are increasingly becoming the moral police. At the same time, official censoring bodies are becoming more bigoted and their rulings are getting more and more subjective and arbitrary,” added Nandita, who had faced protests over her socially moving and bold film Fire.
“A society can grow and develop only when it gives space for dissent and free thinking. And this shrinking space threatens democracy and human progress,” she said.
Taking her forthcoming film Manto to draw comparisons with the current scenario, the director said: “Manto was tried for obscenity six times because he wrote about sex workers, giving them dignity that was rare and used the language of the street, deemed inappropriate. He said, ‘If you can’t bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times’.”
The film provides a window into his life during the tumultuous partitioning of British colonial India into two new nations — India and Pakistan.
Do you think Indians have moved on from there?
“Far from it. Partition remains a very important part of the subcontinent’s narrative. It has been invoked for all kinds of reasons.
“Sometimes for political agendas, sometimes to understand the pain and trauma some still feel today. Close to 14 million people were displaced, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, women raped... all the heinous crimes that come with sectarian violence. It is bound to have a lasting impact. But I am not sure we have learnt all the lessons that we needed to learn.”
Nandita doesn’t agree with the calls to put a temporary ban on Pakistani talent working in the Hindi film industry. She asserts the role of art is to build bridges and not walls.
“When there is political tension, culture can become the means to bring people closer, lessen prejudice and trigger conversations. Whenever I have been to Pakistan, I find people in admiration of our democracy, diversity, art, culture and in particular, cinema. Good stories are local in their context but universal in their emotions. It is a pity that we in South Asia cannot travel and collaborate freely.
“If we want to be peaceful, we need to have peaceful co-existence with our neighbours.” “Fight governments that encourage it instead of stopping it, but we also need to have the wisdom to separate the people from those governments. People are suffering there too. Art can, in fact, become the balm to our common wounds.” — IANS
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