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THE SAINT OF SANDALWOOD
This girl cannot act and is only mildly good looking, the thin, tall, fair sorts that we Southies seem to find exotic, hence attractive. She plays the damsel in distress most times, and I suppose the perplexed look, as if she doesn’t quite know why she was where she is, suits her. By that measure, I suppose she is a top heroine.
But then, this is not about her. Though I cannot help reflect on the part that she, and the other deliberate bimbos, play in reiterating gender roles.
Radhika Pandit cannot act and is only mildly good looking, the thin, tall, fair sorts that we Southies seem to find exotic, hence attractive. She plays the damsel in distress most times, and I suppose the perplexed look suits her.
The other day I happened to be travelling in a nice air-conditioned bus from the state’s central regions back to the capital. The monsoon had crept in, finally, after a particularly brutal summer. The grass was green, the wind so generous and at intervals, it rained. When it stopped, hints of the sun’s rays gleamed from atop buildings and rice fields. I even saw a giant rainbow, my first in many, many years and I wondered if, like they said, there would be a pot of gold at one end of it. It was all nice and worthy of a pretty passage in words, except that there was also a TV mounted on to the front of the bus. Keeping with the spirit of “Siri-Kannadam Gelge [long live Kannada]”, the bus conductor chose to play a relatively new Kannada film featuring Radhika Pandit. The bus journey was about six hours long. We were forced to watch nearly two movies. Both, her’s.
Now, I haven’t owned a TV in many years, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this column. I treat a TV like a fragile piece of Belgian glass, not quite knowing how to handle it and, at the same time, a tad apprehensive about setting it down on a rough surface. Here on the bus, with no chance of escaping the crass dialogues and the terrible songs and the sad, sad acting chops, I remained glued to the screen, the only thing to do. Every other scene seemed to give me cause for outrage.
As I write this, the two films get mixed up in my head. The heroes were different and I remember noting in passing that the first one was better than the second, which isn’t saying a lot. But of course the two were love stories, right versus wrong, right triumphing over wrong, tradition and respecting elders and the rest of the same old rehashed drivel. But what kept raising my hackles was the way regressive gender roles kept getting reiterated and shoved down the audience’s throats. Subtlety abandoned, the direction of the films was clear—this is how a “good” girl ought to be.
There is a scene in one of the films where the heroine is required to be in a police station. Her work done, the macho hero, who she has wronged, tells her that a good girl ought not to be in a police station for long. Then there is another where he, in college for the first time after many weeks—he’s too cool for school—spies on her from a distance and remarks that this is what a good Kannada girl looks like. She lights a cigarette just then and devastated, he launches into a rant of how “modern” girls behave like boys, that “modern” girls are not “good” girls, and so on. (It turns out that the poor girl was only being ragged, forced to smoke a cigarette by the bad boys from a senior class.)
The heroine has promised her widower father that she will never ever fall in love, that she will marry the boy he chooses for her. That’s the only way he will let her go to the city to study journalism. After spending the first act being surrounded by a band of loyal female friends and stalked in full Raanjhanaa style—followed, harassed, tortured and teased into falling in love—by the hero, she has to go attend a friend’s wedding.
Father says no, but a benevolent uncle gets him to relent, saying once she is married she will anyway have to ask her husband permission for every little thing, so he might as well grant her this one freedom. Father gives permission. Heroine goes, is followed and harassed further by the hero, but only because he is madly in love with her, mind you. Oh, he is also the heir of a grand royal family, whose kings have been brave and brilliant for the last several hundred years. He masquerades as an irritating good-for-nothing because…oh well, never mind.
But what kept raising my hackles was the way regressive gender roles kept getting reiterated and shoved down the audience’s throats. Subtlety abandoned, the direction of the films was clear—this is how a “good” girl ought to be.
Strewn with such examples of morality, films—not restricted to Kannada or Hindi or any other language, for that matter—go a very long way in reinforcing an old society’s diktats for girls of various ages. I always want to gasp when I think of how powerful a medium cinema is. Think Iranian cinema and the influence it has had on society and the larger cinema fraternity. The fact that a popular Bollywood song is heard and repeated in every corner of this linguistically heterogeneous, multi-cultured country is but a small measure for how much cinema is and remains a part of our lives. Films mirror society, just as society picks up cues from what is advised on screen.
And that is what makes these seemingly minor references to good girl versus bad girl so dangerous. So if I am at a police station to register a complaint against sexual harassment and am made to sit there for hours (real story), the man on the street will make me the bad girl? Likely. Remember theburi ladki poster?
It is tiring sometimes, these relentless rants against how stupid some people who misuse their power to influence and some sections of the society are. But moving on to write about other issues is giving up, wouldn’t you say? I wish we could preach to the masses not to watch these films, to get more high-cultured and watch films and read books that make them reflect and opine and judge and be sensitive. But then, cinema is also the greatest escape strategy ever invented. Who then are we to tell those desperate to escape the mundane soul crushing drudgery of their lives to not watch these mindless films? Could the directors, scriptwriters, actors be more responsible? But then, they need to play to the audience because a lot rides on the box office’s verdict.
This is like two highly individualistic friends trying to forge a next-level relationship. Neither will relent on anything; they already know each other so well. Yet they must somewhere relent to move ahead. Perhaps a bridge right in the middle somewhere is the only solution.