Okay, after all of the boring place setting stuff to get us into the second half, we finally have a really meaty scene! And it’s also the scene that illustrates the alternative theory of the film. The surface obvious theory, the one that all the critics talk about and so on, is the resolution of the NRI identity/tragedy of the immigrant theory. But the second theory, the one I have been following along, is the questioning of gender roles and patriarchal authority. (last section here, and page indexing all the DDLJ posts here)
This scene in particular lifts right out of the film. It is a universal scene, is what I mean. It could be a mother talking to a daughter about med school, or about a new pair of jeans, or about going to a party at a friend’s house. It’s not about the exact thing she wants, it is about the concept of female desire at all.
Something that has been kind of in the air in America recently is talk about how, when walking down the street or in a store or anywhere really, women might be approached by strange men and told to “smile more” or “you’d be pretty if you’d smile”. I don’t mean that men telling them that is a new thing, that’s been going on at least as long as a remember, but it’s new for it to be pointed out as odd.
First, what does it matter, strange man, if I smile or not? And second, what gives you the right to decide for me that I should be smiling? This isn’t a threatening sexual kind of thing, you could be told to smile in a fatherly (or grandfatherly) kind of way, or brotherly, or friendly, or sometimes flirty. But it is a patriarchy thing. Women are here to please men, and it is disturbing to them when we appear unhappy. Therefore, to please them, we should always be smiling, never let them see you cry, never let them see you mad, just make their life easier and happier, that is your only role.
Patriarchy reproduces itself, not just in men, but in everyone involved. You spend your entire life being told to smile, to please others, to be aware of others’ feelings, to make everyone happy, and you start to believe that is “right”. That the worst thing in the world is for a man to be uncomfortable.
When I was a tiny little girl, 2 or 3, my grandmother was making me breakfast one morning when we were visiting them. She had the eggs scrambled and ready and was about to serve me, when my grandfather walked in. He was hungry, so she moved the eggs from my plate to his and made me wait. It was a small automatic moment. My grandfather would never have asked her to do it, and my grandmother would never have consciously taken food away from her baby granddaughter. But both of them were so used to his comfort coming before everything else in the world, that her first responsibility was in taking care of him, that they didn’t even think about it.
But, this makes no sense! One moment of clear thought will show that it makes no sense. No one person’s happiness is more important than any other person’s happiness. The greater good, sure. I can appreciate and respect Indian film’s which deal with the idea of sacrificing love because by doing so you can please the majority of people. Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for instance, had a very different situation. Several people were unhappy, while two people were happy. If those two people sacrificed and became unhappy, then many more people would become happy. Easy math problem, clear solution. Honorable sacrifice.
In this case, it is not merely a matter of Kajol’s unhappiness=Amrish Puri’s happiness. It is Kajol’s unhappiness, Farida’s unhappiness, and more and more women as the film goes on. All of them hiding their feelings and sacrificing so that Amrish can be protected, so that his fragile ego won’t be threatened.
And this is what happens every day in a million different ways in households all over the world. The kids want to run around and play, their Mom wants to let them because she is tired of trying to entertain them quietly, but Dad wants to sleep in. So the 3 kids and their mother are all stressed and miserable, for the sake of the one person who they have been taught must always be happy and protected.
In a medical office, or a lawyer’s, or dozens of others, the woman is the receptionist, the assistant, the one who answers the phones and calms people down, gets the coffee as soon as it is wanted, makes sure to gently remind of things that might be forgotten, does all these invisible tasks to smooth the way for the man. I do that myself, constantly, in my own job. Of course, in that case I am being paid. I am doing it because I know this is a skill I have, making and keeping someone happy, and I want to get money for it. It’s different from when you are only being paid in social approval and tepid affection.
And it’s not all brainwashing, it is also the knowledge of what can happen if you step out of line. If a man has been used, his entire life, to women “smiling” and never showing an emotion that could disturb him, never bothering him with anything unpleasant (from the kid’s Dentist bills to hiring an exterminator, it’s all invisible to him), then the shock of that first time something goes wrong, the first time someone steps out of line, can result in violence. Or at least an overreaction of increasing anger.
This is what happens with internet trolls. On the internet, a woman can be as loud as a man. And often, for the first time in their lives, men find themselves listening to women. And they do not like what they hear. And instead of seeing it as merely a different opinion, they see it as an affront to their entire identity. How can an opinion that is not the same as theirs exist in the world? How can there be a world that is not created in their own image? Their entire lives have taught them that this is the case, that the world ceases to exist as they walk out of the room, and now a simple post about romance novels or soap operas or how video games or cartoons or superhero movies can be enjoyed by women too is enough to throw them into an insane fury.
And the argument against this is that it is throwing them into an insane fury. As in, “how can you say this? I disagree with it!” Like, that is the end of the argument. The writer must not have realized that a man disagrees with her, but once it is pointed out, that should be the end of it. No need to discuss, to engage, to find a middle-ground. (yes, I have had personal experience of this. If you are a regular reader of the comments, you know what I mean)
This kind of situation has a gendered component, definitely, but it’s not strictly tied to gender. There are plenty of men who are always thinking “how does this make the other person feel? Is this the best option to make the most people happy? Am I being fair to others in my decision? Is it possible that they are right and I am wrong?” (for instance, all but one of the men in my comments section are thoughtful considerate people who enjoy having their assumptions challenged and their minds expanded). And there are plenty of women who never think about those things (none of them comment here, thank goodness). The difference is, society as a whole rewards thoughtful behavior in women, tells them they are being “good girls” when they smile and are polite and think about other peoples’ feelings. And society as a whole rewards selfish behavior in men, tells them they are brave and strong and right and shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks.
What Farida does in her conversation in this scene, and what Aditya Chopra does for the viewer, is very slowly lay all this out. Not in technical language like I used, but through the story and conversation of these two women who are living in this world. How they were brought up to it, how as adults they can see the problems but cannot break through them.
And Aditya starts by establishing that they are having these conversation in a female only space. The opening shot of the sequence isn’t Farida and Kajol at all, it is Pooja Ruperal handing out presents to other little girl cousins. They have left the public area of the room, where men and women were on opposite sides but still visible to each other, and are in a space where women can give and take from other women, and men will never be expected to enter.
Kajol is isolated from the rest of the women. She feels cut off from everything, as the camera pans over to her, you can’t even see the rest of the room any more, it is just here and the open window, her future is open and out there, but framed by the restrictions of the window frame.
It’s a Mona Lisa shot. Mona Lisa, the woman on the foreground, and behind her the entire world. But it isn’t clear yet what the relationship is between the woman on the foreground and the rest of the world.
As Farida comes over to join her, the camera moves seamlessly to an outside shot (I am sure this whole room and windows arrangement is just built in the middle of a sound stage somewhere, so it’s not hard to move the camera through walls). Kajol is still looking out, but now we are seeing her not framed against endless possibilities, but against those same restrictions of home and bedroom and family.
This seems to be what Farida is trying to do in her monologue, frame Kajol back into the home, lock her away. Both women start out in the same place, trapped within this window frame within the home with the bed (representing marriage and family, since it is clearly a family size bed) looming between them.
Farida/Aditya’s script starts by talking about her childhood. It sounds like this will be a lesson in growing up, in putting away childish things and finding something of greater value, in realizing your mistakes and correcting them. Kajol ignores it, looking away from her mother, because this is her mother’s story and it does not relate to her. And it is a lie. Farida says that her father told her boys and girls were equal. And that she believed it. Kajol looks away, she knows this is not true, she is looking towards a different freer future.
As Farida continues, Kajol still looks away, but the camera turns to focus on her. Kajol does not want to hear this, it is still not the life she wants for herself and has nothing to do with her. But the camera wants us, the audience, to hear it. To be confronted with a woman who was told that boys and girls are equal, but then was confronted by the heartbreak of realizing that is a lie in many small ways. Her brothers got a better education. She was married to a man not of her choosing. Noting overtly cruel or terrible, but the lesson is there, “you do not matter quite as much, we do not love you quite as much, learn this and hold it within you as you go forth into the world.”
She is talking about the patriarchy. Not about her father being a bad man, or anyone else in particular. But that this is the way of the world. She constantly had to give up, just a little bit, to ease the way for someone else, for a man, who is more important than her.
It’s these tiny things that eat away at you. In my own family, I have never experienced this, partly because there are no boys in my generation. But it’s there in a million different ways as you go about the world. Women’s healthcare costs are double or triple those of men, because we are paying more so they can pay less. Women’s athletics receives less funding and less coverage. Women are less called on in classrooms. Women are less likely to be promoted. And all of this is to ease the way for men. To make sure there is enough funding for men’s athletics, that men can be promoted, that men can talk enough in class. By the time you can talk, you have already learned that lesson, and each subsequent reminder just makes it hurt more and more.
And you can either accept it, try to drown out the voice of protest within yourself, say it is “traditional”, it is “noble”, that you will be rewarded in heaven. Or you can acknowledge what is happening and that it is unfair.
And that is where Farida’s monologue shifts, as does the camera. For the first time, we see the two women on the inside, with the camera looking out. Farida does not go on to say “and then I learned my lesson and the beauty of sacrifice and if you suck it up and stop crying then you will be happier”. She says that when she looked at her daughter for the first time, she was done sacrificing. That she may have made this life for herself, but it was wrong and bad and she would not let that curse fall on anyone else. That she did not accept it, that she did not agree to it.
And this is when Kajol turns to her. This is what she is feeling now. No more sacrifices, no more giving in and giving up. It’s also a lovely moment for the two actresses. Farida, holding her hands and looking down like she is seeing that tiny baby face again. And Kajol, facing her, the grown version of that tiny baby, looking into the past and picturing her young mother making that promise. And it’s all there, just in their eyes.
But that moment, that was just one moment of bravery, of optimism. That moment inspires Kajol, gets her to look at her mother in a new light. But Farida has to follow it up by breaking Kajol’s heart, just as hers was broken as the years passed. It doesn’t matter that Farida made this promise, it doesn’t matter that she thought her daughter would be free. She was wrong, and Kajol was wrong to feel hope. There is no hope.
Kajol’s face here is everything. I still haven’t seen Wonder Woman (I know, I know). But I know it is about a female warrior, being brave and strong and all of those things. And it’s great to see a women do that, taking out bad guys and being awesome. But this here, in Kajol’s face, this is the bravery and strength that women show every day, and which almost never gets a movie. Well, except this movie, right here.
Before she gives in, Kajol takes one more look at freedom and possibility outside the window. Farida has not looked out this whole conversation. She doesn’t believe in possibilities any more. She is focused solely on her daughter, there is nothing else in the world for her any more, no more promise of the future, no more hope.
And then Kajol gives in. But not with a noble smile. No, this is a face of pain suppressed. And the “little sacrifice” line, that has a bit of a bite to it.
And Kajol gets it. It’s not about marrying someone her father wants, or anything that she is actually doing. It’s about smoothing out his life for him, in all those invisible ways. Making something that, to him, is just a “little sacrifice”, because he is blind to all the ways it is hurting her.
And then the end of the scene, that’s the important part. The two women, facing each other, clinging together. They live in a terrible situation, with terrible pain, and they cannot stop it. But they can share it. And that’s the most they can hope for.
And that last line, as we fade out, you can’t even really hear which one of them is saying it. It is just one last strangled word of protest slipping out.
And then the most vicious critique of society, is the cut to the next scene. The two women, in their all female space, expressed their pain and their anger and their darkness. And now, in the shared space, for the men, it is all happiness. This is the fantasy that men live in. That women always smile and sing and recover from broken hearts. That life is easy and rich and simple. That any emotional pain is transitory, women are just “making it up”, they will get over it.
Because the men are too weak to handle that kind of scene that Farida and Kajol just had. Or, I should rephrase that, the kind of man who had avoided thinking or caring for others in his life, who took advantage of societies permission to him to do that. Not all men. Shahrukh is coming later, but not just Shahrukh, Anupum also presents an alternative version of masculinity. Even Satish Shah, in what little we see of him, seems happy to consider his daughter’s feelings, and is fine with winning a chess match thanks to Shahrukh’s assistance, no false pride there.
It is just Amrish Puri, and Kajol’s fiance, who are entirely hopelessly selfish and cannot even conceive of a worldview contrary to their own. No wonder Amrish wants Kajol to marry him.