Hindi Film 101: Feminism in Translation, India versus the West and Sexual Agency

I’m pretty sure I’m not the best person to write this post, and fairly sure I don’t know what I am talking about. But I’m frustrated that no one else better than me is even trying, so I’m going to take a stab at it.

I think part of this is the slippage between the cultural specific aspects of the patriarchy and female empowerment, and the way the upper middle class Western female version of “feminism” keeps being forced on to other cultures willy-nilly. And I know I am myself an upper middle class Western white woman, but I hope that I am able to listen and think and just generally understand that my experience of the world and my concerns are not the same as every other woman in the world.

I first ran into this Western/Indian feminism difference specifically related to Indian film when I mentioned in a post that I admired Sushmita Sen for choosing to adopt two little girls, in contrast to Priyanka. The response in a comment was to critique me for implying that women need to be mothers to be whole, say that I was un-feminist for saying I admired Sushmita when she was just playing into cultural expectations that limit women.

Image result for sushmita sen daughter
This is a lovely photo of a woman being a happy partner and mother. But she is a mother by adoption, and her partner is her younger boyfriend. In America, it is still falling into cultural patterns that a woman needs children and a man to be happy. In India, it is radically breaking the patterns.

This is a comment that would make sense in modern America. Even 50 years ago in America, a single woman adopting would be a radical and not culturally expected thing. But today, a single woman adopting is no longer shocking. Instead, praising a woman for adopting is praising her for falling into a cultural accepted pattern of femininity, the woman who cannot be fulfilled without children. If someone were to say “I admire Angelina Jolie because she is a mother, unlike Jennifer Aniston”, that would be a wrong thing that should be called out in an American setting. A woman can choose to not have children, and that is okay.

But in India, my comparison between Sushmita and Priyanka means something completely different. Sushmita had to fight a court case to adopt her daughters. That is how unacceptable it was to society. In addition, she adopted daughters (not sons) which is making another social statement. And she did all of this at the peak of her career, when the eyes of the public were most on her, when there was the most pressure to confirm and do what is expected. In contrast, Priyanka remaining single and childless well into her 30s is not such a radical statement. Indian women are expected to be either single (no dating, no boyfriend) or married. If Priyanka had stated she was single and childless by choice, that would indeed be radical. But without that statement, Indian society accepted her as yet another woman who would be visibly single and childless until marriage.

Feminism is about having choices. That is universal. But the choice that is easy and culturally accepted versus the choice that is hard varies culture to culture. Female public figures can act in a feminist manner by making a hard choice in a public way, showing others the way it can be done. Trying to apply Western rich white lady feminist constructs to other cultures means sometimes you are celebrating the choice that was easy, not the choice that was hard. And it means the impact of that hard choice is blunted, since it is not celebrated.

Sonam Kapoor got married and her father was happy at her wedding day, and she was happy too. That is a hard choice in Indian society, saying that a bride shouldn’t be crying, that a father shouldn’t see his daughter’s wedding as the end of their relationship. That deserves to be celebrated. Deepika Padukone went public with her depression, and with a public service campaign for safe sex. That deserves to be celebrated. Alia Bhatt is publicly in a romantic relationship, not ashamed to be dating and in love, and that deserves to be celebrated. These are all hard choices that they were brave enough to make, and brave enough to make public. And in America (except for maybe Deepika’s safe sex), they wouldn’t be brave or hard. Saying “I admire Sonam for being so public about her wedding” or “It’s so brave of Alia to say ‘I love you’ to her boyfriend in an awards speech” would be nonsense sentences in the American context.

Image result for sonam kapoor anil kapoor wedding
Sonam is one of many recent happy brides, and I celebrate all of them, but I pick Sonam in particular because her father is also a celebrity and was also sure to show the world that this is a happy day, celebrating her love for her husband and their coming together as equals.

Now, here’s the tricky bit, the way Indian culture treats a woman’s honor. At a basic level, when we are talking about rape or sexual harassment or molestation, we are talking about the same thing. A person has power over another person and enjoys using that power to torment them sexually. The person being attacked feels dirty and ashamed and like it is their fault. They hide what happened because of that and it takes a lot of bravery to come forward and speak out. All of this is universal. But what is not universal is the messages from the media and society about the “proper” way a victim is supposed to react, and what they are supposed to do. And also what constitutes an attack.

In DDLJ, Shahrukh says to Kajol that he would never have date raped her because he knows what honor means to an Indian woman, he couldn’t do that even in his dreams. What he is saying is that a proper Indian woman, such as Kajol, would be driven mad and miserable by having sex outside of marriage. There are two dangerous messages hidden here. One, that a non-proper Indian woman would be totally fine with whatever he did. We see this all the time with how white women are treated in Indian popular culture, you can lie to them, you can drug them, you can do whatever you want to them, and it doesn’t count because obviously a white woman has no “sharam”, she won’t mind whatever you do. But the second message is that a “proper” Indian woman can never and will never enjoy sex, will react with maddened horror to the very thought.

This is one of my favorite songs, a parody of the usual village girl song pointing out that an Indian woman who drinks and dances on tables can still dream of, and deserve, true love. But at the same time in the middle of it is a white woman who casually goes home with Abhishek Bachchan. Because white women have no honor, they are only there for sex.

In the Tamil move Indian, there is a flashback to the colonial era and the atrocities of the British. They find a group of Indian women and force them to strip. And then the women (and children, I think there were young girls with them) all run to a cliff and jump off and die. The hero puts it that the British did not understand what honor means to an Indian woman. As in, we should be proud of our women who are driven to maddened suicidal despair at being seen naked, and we should be angry with the British who did not understand that. The director Shankar returns to this theme in Robot, he has the Robot who does not understand human emotions save a young girl from a burning building and bring her outside, while she is naked. The young girl, embarrassed and confused, runs into traffic and kills herself. The message is that it is the fault of the Robot, he did not understand what shame means to women and should not have brought her outside naked. The film does not clearly say what he SHOULD have done, take the time to put a towel around her while the building burned down around them, or never saved her at all, it is not clear. But the message is that she died as a direct result of her nakedness being shown in public.

The lesson this is teaching women is that, as “proper” Indian women, they should aspire to modesty of such a high degree that death is preferable to being seen unclothed. Not death as a reasoned decision, but death as an instantaneous reflexive reaction. Meaning that if you do not feel that instant reflex reaction, you are not a proper Indian woman at all. It has to be instinct, not thought, anything else doesn’t count.

If my apartment catches on fire and I have to run outside and save myself with no clothes on, I don’t think I will want to die. I don’t think that is a natural urge for a woman, or for anyone. Deep embarrassment and shame, possibly. Cultural pressure building up until I kill myself a few days later, perhaps. But the body’s instinct is to save itself, not destroy itself. That instinct cannot be overcome by any social conditioning to shame of our bodies, even Indian women shouldn’t expect this of themselves.

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This is what is remarkable about Pinjar, the lesson is that you can and SHOULD survive rape, that life goes on and you can too, and you should not be ashamed for wanting to live.

Now let’s look at an example from another Tamil movie, Abhiyum Naanum. Prakash Raj plays Trisha’s father. When she is in high school, Trisha gets a love letter from a boy and doesn’t know what to do. Prakash talks to her calmly and tells her that it is okay, she can just do nothing. Trisha’s first thought is that the “proper” thing is to report the boy, to complain about him writing to her, that she should be horrified and scared and disgusted. But by talking to her father, she realizes she isn’t actually horrified or scared. This is nothing, she was merely reacting as she thought she should, not as she actually felt. She forgets the letter and the film never brings it up again, the boy doesn’t stalk or bother her, he leaves her alone because she didn’t respond.

Even something as simple as a love letter in high school is expected to create such shame and shock in an Indian woman that they will want the “perpetrator” to be thrown out of school. It’s not something that comes from your parents necessarily, the people who know you best as an individual, it is a fear that society builds within you. And an expectation that society builds as well, if you do not react the way society is telling you to, it is better to keep it quiet, to not let anyone know you were NOT horrified, as that would say terrible things about you.

Running Shaadi has another Valentine’s card plot. In the opening scene, Taapsee tells her friend Amit Sadh how a boy gave her a Valentine’s card. She accepted it and agreed to go out with him on Valentine’s, and then had sex with him and now she is pregnant. The way the story is told, we can follow Taapsee’s logic. In her mind (as a sheltered high school girl), accepting a Valentine’s card is directly the same as giving permission for sex. She didn’t really like the boy and didn’t see him after that, but because she accepted his card, she obviously had to do the rest of it. Taapsee is not treated as a rape survivor by the film, she seems to have no shame or horror over what happened. But sex wasn’t something she really wanted or enjoyed. And yet, society told her there was no difference. If her father had found out she received and accepted a Valentine’s card, he would have been as horrified as if he found out she went on a date, and almost as horrified as if he found out she had sex. There is no sense of proportion, no difference between these things in her mind or in the collective social mind.

Aishwarya’s chracter in this film equates kissing with sex, worried that she could get pregnant from a kiss. And later in the film, she decides that separation from her “true love” who she had kissed was equal to death. There is no sense of proportion in her character, and the film romanticizes that. The ideal Indian woman is so innocent that the loss of her first love will make her unable to live.

India has a strong Virgin-Whore binary, only “Virgin” doesn’t just mean an intact hymen, it means never having received a Valentine’s card, never having been accidentally seen naked by someone outside of your family, never having talked to a boy in any way after puberty. If you have not done those things, than your “virtue” can be imperiled almost equal by any of them. The rapist, and the boy who asks you out for pizza, they are the same thing. And if you have done those things, than whatever else happens doesn’t matter, can’t “really” bother you because you are that type of girl.

Let’s look at how this can effect women through the story of Saloni Chopra and Sajid Khan. Saloni was an independent working woman who had had boyfriends and sexual experiences. Sajid learned that in their first interview. And he used it, he shamed her for her sexual activities through out the time he was harassing her. And when she went to her mother and tried to say what was happening, her mother’s response was “quit, or find a way to handle it” (link here). Her mother also put the responsibility on her, that Saloni was “asking” for it to happen by not quitting. In Saloni’s own mind, she did not have a right to complain, because she had put up with it so long, because she was asking for it, and most of all because she was already an “unclean” woman. Her own mother reinforced that societal view, that a man can do anything to you with consent assumed once you have allowed the first smallest boundary breaking.

Let me back up to those naked women in Shankar’s films again. They don’t allow any boundary breaking. As soon as they are seen without clothes, they kill themselves. They save their honor with their lives and the film celebrates them. Padmavat of course ends in an orgy of suicide, women and children jumping into fire to save their honor, not giving the enemy a chance to even look at them, dying before their honor can be harmed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Not just in reality, but in media. Hamare Dil Aapke Paas Hai is about Aishwary as a rape survivor who is taken in by widower Anil Kapoor, they fall in love, and her life goes on in happiness. Where are more stories like that?

There’s a logical flaw in the Padmavat suicides. According to some historical versions, the women and children of the Chittor fort were allowed to leave unharmed. If they had actually committed mass suicide (which, in history, they did not), they would have missed out on this chance of survival and rebuilding. Suicide cuts off any possibility of a better future. At what moment are you sure, really truly sure, that death will save you from something worse? That’s the problem with suicide for any reason, death is forever. If you fail your exams, you can kill yourself or you can study and take them again and maybe do far better. If you lose your farm, you can kill yourself or you can move to the city and start over and end up in a better place after all. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a moment where death is truly imminent and there is no other option. But those moments are very very rare, and usually involve diseases eating you from the inside more than other people attacking you from the outside. Too often in Indian society and popular culture it appears that “suicide” is shown as a viable option, even a noble one, especially for women.

If “suicide” is the noble correct response to harassment, or even the threat of harassment or rape, where does that leave the women who are not shocked to the point of death by men harassing them? I don’t work in Indian film and I don’t know the environment there. Heck, I don’t work in India at all, I don’t know what is right or wrong in the Indian setting. But I do know that environments can vary a lot, especially in terms of acceptable sexual behavior. One story that makes me uncomfortable is the tale of Chetan Bhagat and his texts. He was interviewed by a reporter, and then they had a series of text conversations:


I truly do not know what to make of this. Chetan is flirting with a woman he met professionally. But her main objection seems to be his married status, not that she met him professionally. Of course, that could be a front, she could be picking on his marital status because it seems like a safe way to turn him down. Another problem is that we don’t know who this woman is, she posted these screenshots anonymously. I have no sense of what kind of power Chetan might have had over her. Is she a wealthy young woman who can afford to lose her job? Is she a woman with a good position who would never be fired on the say-so of one interviewee? Is she a struggling woman who can’t afford to offend a man who might complain to her boss? Is she working for a media outlet with a relationship with Chetan that gives him power over her? I have no idea.

Without context or details, what we are left with is an exchange that could be read through the Western feminist lens of “men in power harassing those who can’t fight back, women should speak up and support each other”. Or it is an exchange that crosses over into “A man flirting with a woman is horrifying, and she is rightfully embarrassed and miserable to the point of maintaining anonymity over this, her ‘virtue’ has been offended”. The responses are so similar that they can be confused. And I think, often, they are confused.

In the West, we are coming from a place where feminism and the sexual revolution meant sexual agency, meant men and women could have one night stands and flirt and date and all the rest of it. And now we are re-evaluating that, asking what “consent” really means, asking if it is okay for someone to flirt with a co-worker. You can see it in our popular culture, we went from Gunsmoke in the 1950s and 60s where the male and female characters were so chaste we could not be sure they were even dating, to Mary Tyler Moore in the 1970s where our heroine dated freely but was still suggested to be a virgin and only worked so long as she was unmarried, to Cheers where our bartender hero seduced and slept with women constantly (including an employee and a boss), to Friends where the central 6 characters enjoyed a free and easy sex life with a variety of partners most of whom they met through work, either their employees or their supervisors. America needs an assessment of our media and our public statements about what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior in a professional setting. But India never had that phase where the culturally accepted norm was sexual freedom, where there is a need to walk that back. And so reactions to harassment in the workplace carry a different weight.

Image result for friends rachel ross jealousy
Remember the whole Friends storyline of “Ross is jealous because he thinks Mark is only helping Rachel because he wants to have sex with her”? The basic premise of the storyline that everyone accepted is that it would be possible and expected for a man to help a woman professionally with expectations of sex. That’s the kind of attitude America has to leave behind, the acceptance that this would be possible instead of seeing it as “well clearly he isn’t interested in her, because if he was he would never try to be her boss since a boss and employee shouldn’t date. And if he is interested, obviously Rachel won’t respond not because she is in love with Ross but because dating her boss would be icky icky icky”.

The Right-Wing of India has their own definition of “feminist”. It is a woman who is proud of being a woman, who is protective of her honor, who will not endure any man approaching her in any way (except her husband or relatives of course). This version of feminist has a lot in common with the Western view of feminist (which is a view that has been exported all over the world, and in India seems to be shared by man of the English speaking elite), both are shocked at the #MeToo stories that are coming out and angry at the terrible actions of the men. But India still needs its sexual revolution, still needs media that talks about normal healthy female desire and how women can fulfill it in normal healthy ways. Without that contrast, it is possible that the anti-harassment message can become an anti-free-sex-of-all-kinds message. Especially if women are told that the proper response to any advance at all is instinctive horror and fear unto death.

The response to even sex within marriage seems to be horror and fear as well. This is your typical bridal image, a scared shy bride being taken out by her father and handed over. Very different from the image Sonam and others are presenting in their public weddings these days. No more eyes downcast and passivity in the face of eminent sex.

6 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Feminism in Translation, India versus the West and Sexual Agency

  1. Can you by any chance watch Padi Padi Leche Manasu, starring Sai Pallavi and Sharwanand. It is a very nice and unique movie. you will really love it.


  2. I don’t understand why somebody criticised you for appreciating Sushmita’s motherhood. People are really crazy these days. She wanted to have kids, so she adopted and that’s freedom, and feminism. And you also felt like saying it’s cool, and it’s your right.

    I agree with all you said, maybe exept Alia’s part. Yes, saying “I love you” is something nobody does, but I don’t know how much of feminism and freedom, and how much of promotions is in her words.


  3. I’m gonna reflect more on the ideas in your post in a later comment, but I just had to ask- do you not like Priyanka Chopra? I feel like she’s done so much to bridge the gap between Indian cinema and Hollywood that she holds a special place in my heart. Of course, she has amassed immense popularity, but I do think she is talented and can carry a character very well.


    • I don’t much like Priyanka. For complicated reasons that boil down to I think she is far better at PR than anything else and is not worried about burning bridges in order to promote herself. There’s kind of a line between when I admire someone for being strong and smart, and dislike them for being a bit uncaring of who they hurt along the way. Did you follow her exit from Bharat? It was really not nice. She was offered a Hollywood film and dumped the major Indian film that had already started filming, leaving them in a terrible position. Abhishek did something similar with JP Dutta’s movie and he has been on a year long apology and explanation tour since then because it was such an unacceptable thing to do. But Priyanka never apologized or even really acknowledged her behavior. Which is what brings me to this post, I feel like sometimes Priyanka plays the feminist card to excuse her selfish behavior, when really it is just being selfish and no one, male or female, should be able to get away with it.

      On Thu, Apr 18, 2019 at 9:56 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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