Of Sridevis, Sitas and Harmans…
By Sanjoy Patnaik
India is still mourning the untimely and painful demise of one of her most talented and celebrated celluloid personalities. Tens of hundreds of tributes have been written, prayers organised, reasons of her death analysed, mala fide intentions behind her death insinuated, and so on. Writing one more piece on Sridevi thus runs the risk of getting lost in the crowd. It was frustrating to go through some of the WhatsApp messages detailing the probable causes of her death at a time when the person herself was not alive to counter such unsolicited analysis. A section of the society, which had nothing to do with Sridevi or Bollywood cinema in general, was busy discovering a ‘conspiracy angle’ to the death, ably supported by a few of our highly insensitive television channels. It must have been really tough for Sridevi’s family, which was already finding it difficult to reconcile with her untimely death, to deal with these culture vultures and self-appointed investigators, who otherwise were strangers to general public, stealing an opportunity to be in circulation. This was the time when news broke out that the cause of her death was not cardiac arrest but accidental drowning, which could have been caused due to loss of consciousness from consumption of alcohol.
The turn of events, especially the responses to protect Sridevi’s reputation against being labelled as somebody who died due to consumption of alcohol, was something that drew my attention to write this piece. While the nation was highly sensitive and sympathetic to her untimely death, there were some who were being unnecessarily judgemental and desperately trying to make an uninvited intrusion into her privacy, a right that every public figure is entitled to, more so in case of a woman. During this time, a neta known to be hobnobbing with the glamour world told the media that Sridevi never drank hard liquor. For all you know, it might be entirely true but completely irrelevant to this discussion. He was probably aware that the news of consumption of liquor wouldn’t go well with the masses considering the larger than life characters that she portrayed on screen. Being very much a part of the hounding patriarchy, he knew exactly how vulnerable women are in such situations. The fuzzy and unclear delink in the Indian audiences’ minds between the ‘reel’ and the ‘real’ is particularly problematic for women.
For a large part of our society, a drunken man slipping inside the bathroom is a matter of being reckless, whereas the same in case of a woman is about loose morals. Unfortunately, even today with growth and modernity informing all walks of life, women and alcohol still require wider psychological reforms. Therefore women, including Sridevi and other celebrities, have to conform to established patriarchal ‘purity’ standards to protect themselves from these adverse moralistic conclusions. It may be apt to mention that the best example of conforming to purity standards comes from the great Epic Ramayana where Sita had to undergo an Agni Pariksha for having stayed alone in her kidnapper’s mansion. Mind you, during the same time, Ram was also alone in the forests but nobody asked him to confirm to purity standards. It could be because Ram was a man and labelled as God and thus could do no wrong. His morals were obviously above board and beyond suspicion.
These moralistic conclusions and patriarchal judgements significantly contribute to creating highly dangerous perceptions like ‘modernity being a pre-condition to sexual promiscuity’, excellently depicted in the film ‘Pink” where the culprits were out to prove that ‘if a woman agrees for a drink with a man, she essentially consents for sex’. Over the years, such man made perceptions and stereotypes have become dominant preconditions graduating and integrating slowly into societal values, standards and boundaries curtailing certain basic freedoms for women in the name of tradition. In the achche-din type of India, using (misusing) tradition to deprive social, economic and demographic minorities from basic rights is common and largely un-resisted. Moreover, since traditional norms and practices are largely unwritten, it is not clear who decides what is ‘traditional’ and the ‘do’s and don’ts’ in our traditional culture and values. Therefore, it is the Brahmins for rituals and the male collective for social norms and values, who rise and assume the role of being cultural and moral monitors.
What is laughable and hypocritical is the political clamour that it commits to protect women of this country by merely ensuring a gas connection or introducing a national flagship programme called the Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao, while women largely don’t own any productive asset or have rights over property. Across the country, less than 3% of women own farm land while close to 10% own (jointly with their husbands) homestead lands. While technically women can own land through purchase, allocation and inheritance, the percentage of women who either purchase or inherit family land is negligible. If women claim to inherit family land, which they are legally entitled to, they are labelled as ‘home-breakers’ making a mockery of the Right to Equality guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
The irony is that men in this country still decide what rights women should have. The limits are still set by men starting from whether it is wage disparity between men and women in MGNREGA or to setting a shorter boundary in women’s cricket. The underlying assumption of the patriarchal format is women are physically weak and cannot match men. Therefore, different eligibility standards and criteria need to be set howsoever disrespectful they may be. Seldom do these patriarchs realise that women are more hard-working than men. When a Harman Preet Kaur hits a six, she ensures that it lands in the gallery demolishing the line of meherbani or the concept of shorter boundaries for women. It is time that we realise that sympathy based respect for women does more harm than good and badly needs to be replaced with equality and rights based empowerment.
Achche din will come when our policy makers understand that women’s dignity is not about a gas connection or just implementing a populist programmes for political gains, it’s about respecting through equality in wages or ruthlessly raising the performance bar and making it equal with men.