In the past few days, I have watched two old Hindi movies: Guide, released in 1965, and Aradhna, released in 1969. While obviously, one is not supposed to take these movies as true to life, we can still acknowledge, to some degree, that in cinema, characters and attitudes would be reflective of the lives of those times.
Both movies are very much focused on women. In Aradhna, Vandana meets Arun and they fall in love, and are slated to get married soon with blessings. Disaster unfolds as Arun, an air force pilot, dies in a plane crash and Vandana decides to still give birth to his illegitimate child. Guide is the story of Nalini, a repressed dancer married to Marco, who meets Raju guide and finds in him the strength and support to leave her cruel husband and pursue her passion for dancing.
In both movies, one problem which stands out for me, big, large and bold, is the problem of what is to be done with a young, jawaan, woman, in a world where it is assumed that everyone is out to get her. What should be done about Vandana, a widow, now with a child, fatherless, and so incredibly beautiful? What is to be done with Rosie, later name changed to Nalini, who has left her husband for dancing, and has no pillar of support except perhaps Raju guide? Who, the society questions, would embrace them?
The word usually used in this scenario is ‘apnana’, and the best possible English equivalent of it would be embrace. And so the question hangs, large and looming, posed again and again by the members of the society, posed to the audience, who will embrace these young, sexual women so that they aren’t corrupted and violated by the world outside.
Now maybe I could further explain what exactly would ‘embracing’ a woman entail. Embracing a woman would mean literally taking all responsibility for her, ensuring that no harm would come to her, looking out for her, providing sustenance in terms of food, clothing, comfort and shelter, and mostly protecting her from external circumstances (rape, loot, slavery, prostitution, corruption of the mind etc etc.)
For it gives the impression that in the time then, which is a few decades ago (and surely also today in many parts of the country), in India at least if not also most other places in the world, a woman, especially a dignified woman, one who wishes for respect and equitable status in society, simply could not survive on her own. And so to ensure the survival and perpetuation of this apparently weaker sex, mainly two systems are in place.
- The Father’s House
- The Husband’s House
- Although less in stature, The Brother’s House (think of the eternal, unmarried bua)
Vandana had a big problem when her to-be husband suddenly died: she not only suddenly had nobody to share her future with, she was also soon-to-be mother of his child, and so obviously not a virgin. Vandana’s ultra-cool progressive father offers to help her get an abortion and when she refuses, he supports her in her decision. He goes with her to her late betrothed’s house, to the people who would be her future in-laws and tells them about the unborn child. They refuse to ‘accept’ Vandana and the child, and turn them away. Vandana stays with her father, but he is old and frail, and soon dies, leaving Vandana quite truly alone in the world. The question of what to do with Vandana hangs in the air once more, and then the child is born. While another family adopts the child, Vandana accepts the position of the servant and the nanny in the house, taking on the role of the desexualised woman, something which she carries on even later in her life.
For Rosie, it was slightly more complicated; coming from a line of devdasis, her mother wants her away from this debauched world of dancing, and so Rosie is made to marry Marco, a wealthy archaeologist and historian. He neither loves her or understands her, and so when Rosie meets Raju guide, she gets the strength to leave him, and so the audience is asked again: what must be done with Rosie now that she is without a father or a husband? Raju guide welcomes her into his house then, and hence is shamed by the entire community for opening the doors to a depraved dancer. He loses business, his mother leaves the house and he is mostly isolated in the society. Because he ‘embraced’ the woman.
The woman in question, whether it may be Vandana or Rosie or any other woman, is passed on from one house to the next, always at mercy, always the victim of her circumstance, unable to determine her own fate. And so one is forced to think about it, forced to question that why is it that she needs to be embraced at all? And so one needs to only look at the material and sociological surroundings of the time to find the answers.
Let’s completely forget for a moment of the Log-Kya-Kahenge-Syndrome, the eternal contemplation on what people of the society will think. Let’s assume that nobody cares about that, because people will speak if the material surroundings support their talks, and so let’s focus on what is around these women.
Any woman left alone in a world like this one will have a series of problems to face, one after the other. Maybe she would have received some education, but mostly not enough training to actually be immediately employable. And so if she isn’t trained in a particular skill enough to beat a man for the same spot, she wouldn’t be able to earn her livelihood, and just as the society suspected, would have to resort to depravity, prostitution, poverty, or a life of celibacy at a convent or an ashram.
But let’s say she gets a job. She’s able to earn enough to survive, but she still has to live alone: who would rent a flat to her in that time? For women, according to society, invite all sorts of trouble, including but not limited to, uncouth men and unwanted attention. The owner would find renting a flat to a single woman pure trouble, for he would think they are more vulnerable and easier to rob and he wouldn’t want to be involved in unnecessary crime.
But say a single woman in the sixties finds some decent people willing to rent out a flat to her, the transport would then fail her. Soon it would catch the eye that she lives single and alone, and so she might be followed, catcalled and generally harassed. There would not be the safe space of the metro, the buses crowded and packed with men who constituted the majority of the workforce, and any other private form of transport maybe too expensive to afford.
But suppose she overcame that particular problem as well, and functioned as a citizen who actively contributed to the economy by earning a livelihood for herself, she’d still not be accepted as a dignified member of the society, for everybody around her would find it so hard to digest, the fact of her independent functionality. She would be chastised, regarded with malicious eyes, and constantly questioned about the lack of a husband and a family. In other words, if a woman were to live like this, she’d be the exception, and not the rule, always the outcaste. If she, by some fluke of luck, ends up doing very well for herself and gains all that a man in the time would have found a 1000 times easier to gain, she will be lauded and appreciated, her evils perhaps forgotten, but still not accepted as the normal way of life. For that is not how girls from good families live, the younger ones would be told.
That brings up the importance of an institutional level change if anything has to change. Sensitive institutional setups are the backbone of any society, and are the only way that any real change can be catapulted into having significant effect. Gender sensitisation and equal chances in education, robust, public transport, unconditional support and help for victims of assault, quick and ready responses on emergency calls, skills training that reaches out to women, adequate street structure and lighting, and gender sensitisation programmes at the grassroots level are only the beginning of what is a very long road.
Then imagine a single woman in the city. How things could be different, how she could have the opportunity to shape her life on her terms, how she could transcend her circumstances. Delhi in the sixties may not be very different from the Delhi of now. The exact same problems still exist, just in different degrees; while the metro has made a large scale difference, the secondary transport for a city so huge is absolutely unaccounted for. The workforce has a huge percentage of women, but ones who travel back and forth in constant fear of being subject to the rampant crime present in the city. Education has obviously improved, but hasn’t translated into equal pay, and neither are most kids trained into any kind meaningful sex education or gender sensitisation.
It is both one small step, and one giant leap, from what is to be done with a woman, to what can be done by a woman.