Tag Archives: Indian women

A Tale of Two Civilizations

This weekend I watched two shows on Amazon Prime which were like cultural inversions of each other – Four More Shots Please and A Suitable Girl. They reinforced my beliefs that Indian culture is a tale of at least two (if not more) civilizations, that coexist like planets in the same solar system, occasionally brushing each other like strangers in orbit, but never really meeting.

And, I became even more convinced that the distortive mirrors of Bollywood fail to depict Indian women with the nuanced respect they deserve.

Four More Shots Please is an original Amazon series based in Mumbai, India’s ‘sin and sex city.’ It depicts a quad of ‘liberated, educated, gainfully employed (or not), bar hopping, shot drinking, middle class women who indulge in a fascinating potpourri of X-rated behavior that, unfortunately, is only mildly shocking by today’s standards, (Sacred Games, Saif Ali Khan’s  Amazon series broke the censorship ceiling on Indian shows!) The pole opposite of this show is the alternate universe of A Suitable Girl, an award-winning documentary, that follows the lives of three middle class Indian women as they hunt for husbands with their mamas and papas in tow.       

The protagonists in Four More Shots Please are aspirational young women; the show’s creator (Pritish Nandy’s daughter, Rangita Pritish Nandy) advertises the series as a modern take on Indian feminism. It thrives on its sense of frothy fun as the quad navigates what it means to be young and independent in a patriarchy that they imagine arches like an invisible cobra hood over their female heads. They do represent a certain .1 % slice of middle-class women in India – the ones with privileged seats and the best view of the stadium.

That being said, Four More Shots Please reels one in with its gossipy  and brazen take on issues usually pushed out of sight, like lesbianism, bisexuality, sex and the single Indian woman, and whether no sex for four years leads to a growth of cobwebs over female vaginas.

The Gang of Four includes Damini, an investigative journalist who is  compulsively obsessive about her single sex life – she will not allow any of her lovers to spend the night for fear of contamination. Anjana, a successful corporate lawyer is still fixated on her ex-husband;  she shares custody of their daughter with him, but his new girlfriend is wooing their little girl with teddy bear pancakes – a major source of conflict for Anjana. Umang, a personal trainer, is muscled, tattooed, bisexual and unashamedly promiscuous; she has fled the terrors of an arranged marriage in Ludhiana to work in a Mumbai gym. Finally Siddhi, the most outwardly submissive of the crew, has a chic, body-shaming mother who is obsessed with marrying off her daughter before, (mama predicts), she blows up into a fat-encased balloon.

Female bonding at their local bar is an act of mental striptease and catharsis; the girls talk about their sexuality, their loves, the famously oppressive patriarchy (which doesn’t seem to have stifled their lifestyle in the least), and flirt with the bartender. The screenplay weaves between thoughtful and revealing, with some authentic discussions about issues women can relate to, but pretentious and preachy at others times. It’s exciting to see Indian shows opening the door to taboo topics that range from how single, professional women in India navigate dating and sex in the metropolis, to divorced women dealing with child custody issues when the ex acquires a new girlfriend. 

Along with the clichés there are some genuinely hilarious moments. Siddhi goes on a date arranged by her mother, with a rich, self-absorbed suitor who happens to have a foot fetish.  But when she stands on the seat to stick her head out of the sunroof in his BMW, Siddhi accidentally bashes his nose in as he drools over her feet. The entertainment quotient for this series holds for a while, but slowly, drop by drop, its shallowness and repetitiveness becomes wearisome.

If only there was a backbone of substance to its allegedly feminist message. If only the women weren’t dolled up constantly in the latest fashions, coiffed to perfection, not a hair out of place as they prance on the dance floor, or moan about their ex’s new girlfriend. It seems that (as the series title indicates), the instant, easy solution to all the obstacles in their lives is guzzling shot after screechy shot, delivered by a tattooed, cynical, and sexy barman in a pumped up, floodlit bar.

It’s hard to believe that A Suitable Girl exists in the same dimension as Four More Shots Please.

In this absorbing documentary, we meet three, young, middle class husband hunters. They range from Dipti, a plump schoolteacher who lives with her parents in a cramped flat on Mumbai’s outskirts, to Ritu, a financial advisor at Ernst and Young, whose family owns a swanky apartment in an upscale, Mumbai building. There’s Amrita from Delhi, who is already engaged, but hopes fervently that she’ll be allowed to put her MBA degree to some use after marriage. 

A Suitable Girl won the Best New Documentary Director award at the Tribeca Film Festival, in Manhattan.

The documentary follows the real-life experiences of arranging a daughter’s marriage over four years and does so with a lot of empathy and humor. Much of the humor is situational – like the Swayamvara organized by the Rotary club in Dipti’s neighborhood, where dozens of hopeful bachelors present themselves to three women (including Dipti), and their families. The bachelors are seated in rows of chairs arranged like a schoolroom, with the girls and their mothers and fathers on a stage up front. They rise one by one and nervously announce their names, ages, and occupations, while the young women studiously write down the names of suitors who look promising enough to interview further. 

Ritu’s mother is a professional Alliance Consultant (a euphemism for the modern metro matchmaker,) who refers to families by the amounts they are willing to spend on weddings – ‘the 500,000-dollar party’ or the ‘100,000,000-dollar party.’  Clearly worried about finding a match for Ritu who is slim but not fair, she sighs, “All the boy needs to do is have money, but the girl must be slim and fair.”

Amrita marries a boy she has liked since 10th grade in a lavish wedding, but her ambition to use her MBA is thwarted; her middle class marriage shows her running her in-law’s kitchen, cooking traditional food and displaying her massive sari collection – now she only wears saris prescribed by her mother-in-law for each occasion.

After the shot drinking, swearing, and sex-life discussions in Four More Shots, I couldn’t help noticing how different the two worlds depicted in these two shows were, and yet, in many ways, how similar. While the women in A Suitable Girl are clear that their identity will be defined by marriage and family, and don’t actively resist their fate, the girls in Four More Shots seek the same type of validation, but, from their peers. They want to be seen as emancipated norm smashers and fearless feminists, but the norms they chase are superficial -drinking, smoking and sex. 

When Damini confronts her mother about a remark on on women and glass ceilings, what sounds like an adult tantrum blows over – no boats are rocked, no ceilings shattered. When Umang encounters a Bollywood Diva at the gym, she backs off from reprimanding her for breaking a gym rule because she has a crush on her. Siddhi doesn’t resist her mother’s attempts to arrange her marriage, but neither does she try to get a job to demonstrate her independence. Her rebellion is sly and sluttish – she launches a website where she strips for strangers and revels in their drool over her curves.

The women in Four More Shots Please rage about gender and workplaces biases but do little else for systemic change. In real life there actually are compelling stories of women turning patriarchy on its head.

In Ranikhet, for example, Mala Srikant, a divorced, retired army doctor started a knitting circle for poor, illiterate women, often with abusive, alcoholic husbands. They learn to knit to supplement their meager incomes and along the way, they’ve learned self-confidence, financial independence, and the power of talking about shared taboos and pain. Their grassroots feminism is turning the oppressive patriarchy of their Uttarakhand villages into a matriarchy as they become the financial support of their families and stand up against unjust customs.

If the producers of Four More Shots Please hadn’t projected their show as a bold, feministic statement, I would have no problem with its lightweight forays into the world of social privilege and mild cultural oppression. While A Suitable Girl wins four stars for authenticity, Four More Shots Please has a long way to go, before it lives up to its reformist platform. 

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal , contributing editor at India Currents

 

The Story Behind Oscar-nominated Film Set in India

In a rural village outside Delhi, India, women lead a quiet revolution. They fight against the deeply rooted stigma of menstruation. Period. End of Sentence. — a documentary short directed by Rayka Zehtabchi — tells their story. For generations, these women didn’t have access to pads, which lead to health problems and girls missing school or dropping out entirely. But when a sanitary pad machine is installed in the village, the women learn to manufacture and market their own pads, empowering the women of their community. They name their brand “FLY,” because they want women “to soar.”

Their flight is, in part, enabled by the work of high school girls half a world away, in California, who raised the initial money for the machine and began a non-profit called “The Pad Project.”

 

The Story Behind Period. End of Sentence.
Period. End of Sentence. the documentary, began with a group of young feminist students from Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, who wanted to know why girls in their partner schools abroad — in countries as far reaching as India, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone — were leaving school at an alarming rate, just after they started to get their periods. The Oakwood students discovered there was a severe lack of access to sanitary products and an even greater dearth of educational health awareness in many of these communities. The Oakwood students learned their counterparts often felt ashamed of their periods and would be rendered helpless by this natural process of womanhood. Consequently, period-shaming was reaching epic proportions and stories of suicides in Indian villages attributed to this were increasing. Diving into the statistics, the students learned in developing countries, like India, between 25% and 57% of adolescent girls miss school or drop out altogether because of their periods. If girls receive seven full years of education, they will marry an average of four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. If they attend only one additional year of secondary school, their lifetime wages could increase by up to 20%, consequently raising their country’s GDP by billions of dollars. This means if India enrolled just 1% more girls in school, their GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. This is an example of the concrete economic and social impact on individuals, communities and nations. Just as importantly, a complete education provides young girls in harsh circumstances with financial security, knowledge about the world and a sense of self.

With urgent curiosity and progressive awareness, the Oakwood students wanted to take action. The group was already involved with the Feminist Majority Foundation’s high school program, Girls Learn International (GLI). They worked closely with the FMF to research and ultimately purchase a locally-manufactured machine that can produce sanitary pads for an entire rural village. This business-in-a-box could also offer an additional opportunity for the women of these communities: A micro-business making and selling the pads. The pad machine was created and produced by Indian-inventor Arunachalam Muruganatham, who is affectionately known as The Pad Man. It is easy to operate, only requiring locally-sourced, natural resources and a small amount of electricity to function and can be set up in a home or semi-permanent location. Once the machine is up and running, the women are able to bring pads to the villagers at approximately 5 cents a unit, a stunningly low cost. In addition to the economic incentive, the pad machine makes the product more easily accessible, thus empowering women and girls to feel comfortable with their bodies, avoiding period-shaming and continuing their education.

Armed with this plan, the Oakwood students embarked on a fundraising journey with vegan bake sales, yoga-thons and two successful Kickstarter campaigns in order to fund the machine and its supplies. Aware that their efforts could have a greater impact by sharing this journey on a more amplified scale, the girls produced a documentary that they hoped would encourage others to join this philanthropic effort. Now producers themselves, the students hired director Rayka Zehtabchi, a recent graduate of USC film school and a young female writer, director and producer. Zehtabchi spent a great deal of time with the core group of students who shared their ideas for the film and discussed their fears of being perceived as “white saviors” in the process. Zehtabchi helped craft the narrative and then travelled to Hapur to begin filming. The producers researched and arranged what would become a lasting NGO partnership with Action India to forge educational links with the most needy and deserving women and girls in the villages outside New Delhi, specifically the village of Hapur. They also established an official 501c3 nonprofit to continue elevating awareness about period-shaming and to raise funds to provide pad machines in other areas where a need is identified around the world. Period. End of Sentence. screened across the United States at film festivals throughout the summer and fall of 2018. The film continues to inspire students to realize their power in thinking globally and recognize the impact young women can create. As Muruganatham says, “The strongest creature on Earth is not the elephant, not the tiger, but the girl.”

This article, provided by Netflix, was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

 

A Life Crafted with Grit and Grace

 

One of my earliest memories of my mother, outside of the home, is on a badminton court. My father’s job as a doctor with the Indian Railways allowed us the use of the Officer’s Club. It was the norm for us to troop down to the club every evening, where we spent several hours actively engaged in the various sport facilities it offered. At the time, we did not realize how unusual it was for a woman of my mother’s generation in India, to be considered a sportswoman of some merit. Of course, I realize that there have been many celebrated Indian sportswomen through the ages. But it was certainly not a traditionally accepted role in a small town.  Draped in her sari, hitched up and tucked at the waist, bare feet, racquet in hand, long braid flashing behind her – she proceeded to vanquish a young man in a singles match while my sister and I watched from the sidelines. I will never forget applauding with everyone else, and the pride I felt when she collected her trophy.  We pored over scrapbooks she had filled with newspaper clippings of her victories going back through her high school and college years. And slowly, the idea that there was more to the woman we called ‘Amma’ – more than just someone who cooked our meals, and cared for our every need – took hold.

My mother Gita was born on March 26,1948. Maybe it was her birth amidst the exuberance of post-independence India that imbued her with the gumption to buck the established notions about the ‘proper qualities’ in a conservative, middle class girl. It blessed her with a stubborn streak. She was determined to pursue her innate talents as a skilled sportswoman, much to her dear father’s disapproval. We were often regaled with a story narrated by her aunts of the time when she was eight years old. In an effort to get her to practice music, they locked her in a room with her violin – which was of course, considered a proper skill for a girl to master – and she proceeded to break the bow to make her feelings clear.  Needless to say, this incident ended any chance of a bright musical career! Her older sister was born to fill that role. My mother was simply exercising her right to choose something else.

Although she has since hung up her racquet, the sportswoman in her has helped chart her course through the most trying time in her life – her separation from our father. Divorce among her peers is a rarity, and yet, she has managed to retain her essence through all of the heartache. She has, with grace, held on to another aspect of her identity – her creativity. Just as the tanpura or tamburi was synonymous with her older sister, the sewing machine is my mother’s personal crest – her very own coat of arms!

Her passion to create marvels of “upcycled” products never ceases to astound us. On each of her visits her one request is that I help her design the next in a line of beautifully crafted creations. Our favorite outings are to craft stores, and our discussions are usually about how she can embellish her latest project. From the minute she wakes, right up to dinner time, she is consumed by her need to create. And her greatest reward is when we share her creations with friends and family as gifts.

She has used her unique talent in creating memory quilts for each of her grandchildren. Painstakingly piecing together fabric from baby clothes I had saved, she spent hours making my daughter a patchwork of love sewn together with her strength and courage. It is a brightly colored legacy, and will be cherished for all of time.

My mother did not choose to be a career woman. She chose instead to devote her life to bringing up her daughters instilling in them her firm notions of right and wrong. And she led by example, that being female did not make us feeble, or less in any way. Her single minded devotion and support was the backbone of my sister Divya Raghavan’s singing career when she first started. She was, and remains ambitious for us hoping that we scale every path we traverse to achieve the things that she could not.  But the biggest lesson she has taught us, is in accepting her shortcomings while continuing to live with grace.  The label she affixes to every piece she creates speaks volumes:  “Crafted with Love”.

Much has been said about the bond between mothers and daughters. Having experienced nearly half a century savoring the many nuances of this relationship, I can only say that my respect for my mother has deepened with every day that passes. That much is true. On the cusp of her 70th birthday, it is only fitting that I acknowledge her fighting spirit, her creative passion and her ability to stride ever onwards – changing, evolving and nurturing.

This is a tribute in words during Women’s History month for a woman I cherish.

Happy 70th Amma!