This isn’t really Indian film related, except that it is a universal question including within Indian society. Maybe even more within Indian society because the difference between the top and bottom is so extreme?
Early in this pandemic, I was feeling very very lucky for the position I was in. I already had a dog, I lived close to my relatives, and most of all I had a secure job where I could work remotely. I was hearing these horrible stories of young people in retail jobs or “gig” work who were now unemployed, or else forced to risk their lives to be able to keep working. That could have been me, actually that WAS me. 10 years ago I was working those jobs and barely surviving, not even able to pay bus fare. Right now I would have been unemployed or risking my health.
But then I thought, “wait, no, I wouldn’t.” If it reached a point of risking my health, my family would have rallied around. Even if my parents didn’t have the funds to support me, they would have called on uncles, grandparents, a whole back up of support and would have paid me minimum wage just to make me stay home. If I wasn’t able to pay rent, they would help me pack and move back in with them. I would never, no matter what, have had to work a job that put me at risk. Not just my parents either, my sister, my aunts and uncles, even cousins, and then on top of that family friends and current friends and on and on. I have a massive rolodex of people I could turn to if I really really needed help, and who have the resources to help me.
So then I go back to looking at what I have with me right now. A good paying job that is unaffected, that is lucky. A dog, that is very lucky. Living close to my family, that is a choice I made years ago and have never regretted. But the big picture, the being able to quarantine and not risk myself, that is privilege. Even if I didn’t have any of those other things, I was born into the resources that could help me.
Maybe the difference is that luck helps bad things not happen to you. But privilege makes it easier for you when those bad things happen. There are certain things that are out of anyone’s control, illness, accidents, even stuff like sexual abuse or physical abuse or your parents getting divorced. That’s just luck. But the resources you have available to you to deal with those bad things, that is privilage.
I think seeing the privilege in situations that are just tragic is really important, and also really uncomfortable. If, let’s say, two soldiers die and one is an officer and one is a regular enlisted man and they both leave widows behind, then the initial horrible thing is equally horrible. But the officer’s widow will be able to take her time to mourn with family and financial support, will be able to pursue her own interests and build a new life for herself, will if she wants be able to act as a face for the army and have some sense of honor in her position. The enlisted man’s widow will not have the financial support, may not have family around her, will not be given the space to find new interests, and is unlikely to be such a good public face for grief and be offered the same sort of honors. In that first moment, the two women may come together and be equals. But a year later, they will be the same in terms of their initial trauma, but very different in every other way. To say to a woman who has lost her husband “acknowledge that you have had it easier than another woman who has lost her husband” is an ugly thing to say. But you have to say it, right? Otherwise there will never be the understanding and support needed for the less privileged.
An easy example from Indian film that springs to mind is Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela. It’s a well-made movie that follows a family as it goes through a cancer journey. Part of the message is showing how important the mother of the family is to everything. As she goes through chemo and gets sicker, everyone has to learn how to cook, to clean, hire workers to take care of the ill grandfather, and so on. Great, we are learning about breast cancer, we are learning it can be treated, and we are understanding the value of the middle-aged mother to the household. But there is never an acknowledgement of the massive privilege of this family. Their cancer journey is in a beautiful empty hospital with loads of one on one care. Because they are rich. They hire employees to replace the sick mother. Because they are rich. Some of the children leave their day to day lives to help out and spend time with their mother. Because they are rich. The film is weaker for not acknowledging this, for not saying “it’s terrible that she is sick, but it is so much worse for other families in the same situation who do not have our privilege”. I’m not even saying they are wrong to take advantage! Absolutely, use every tool available to you to save the life of your loved one. But be aware not everyone has those tools.
There’s also the oddity of situations that temporarily or permanently erase privilege. Spousal abuse, for instance. Spousal abuse usually comes along with economic abuse so that choosing to leave the abuser means also leaving behind all your privilege. On top of that, the abuser has isolated you from your familial and social support system, cutting out additional privilege sources. This is part of the fear and shame, admitting that you are just the same as someone in a position of less privilege than you. And giving up everything you have in order to escape the situation, going from the Wife of an Important Man to just another woman with nothing struggling to survive in a shelter. From the outside, it also means acknowledging that a woman who is seemingly rich and powerful and has everything is in fact as powerless in this particular situation as any other woman. That’s a hard thing to acknowledge, and becomes harder when we are afraid to talk about it.
We talk mostly about celebrity and Indian film here, so lets think about how this effects celebrity stories. I don’t care how rich you are, if you lose your parents at a young age, if you are a survivor of abuse, if you are struggling with a disease, that is a terrible trauma and no privilege can erase it. I have sympathy for Jhanvi Kapoor, for Ranbir Kapoor, for Deepika Padukone, for many of these seemingly privileged and perfect celebrities who went through terrible things. But on the other hand, I want them to acknowledge the privilege that made these traumas easier for them and, ideally, try to pay it forward. Deepika Padukone has a mental illness, that is very bad luck and I am sorry for her. But she has loving and supportive people all around her, and the resources to get treatment, that is privilege. She has chosen to publicly speak about her illness and start a foundation, that is acknowledging her privilege. To look at your terrible situation and think about what made it easier, and then think about how to share those things with other people.
What I don’t like in celebrity coverage, what I strive to avoid myself, is when that careful balance is not respected. On the one hand, expressing terrible sympathy and concern for privileged folks who do not need that concern as much as others (for instance, fans rallying to support Salman during his court cases. He can afford lawyers, he is fine). And on the other hand, what I see much more often, pretending that privilege can protect to such a degree that those bad things don’t count any more. Jhanvi and Khushi lost their mother, it doesn’t matter that they are getting good movie roles and living in a nice house and wearing fancy clothes and all the rest, this is still a terrible thing that will effect their entire lives. So they are privileged, say that they are in a better position than many other young women in that same place, but don’t say it doesn’t matter any more.
Does that make sense? I kind of wandered all over the place here, but really it is just about encouraging a separation between luck (good or bad) and privilege. They aren’t the same and shouldn’t be mixed together. One does not fully erase the other.