The Transparent Politics
Romance is like a drug. It gives people a high otherwise unattainable. It has the potential for becoming the centre of a woman's life. It could sweep her off her feet, and paint her eyes with emotion-soaked dreams of becoming a wife and a mother. It could make her leave her job, career, passions, parents, and finally her friends. It basically has the potential for transforming a woman, who she used to be, her entire being. Romance or prem as we call it in Bangla is highly erotic. As it is not acceptable in our culture to speak openly about sex, not to mention have sex prior to marriage -- prem is always laced with the anticipation of sexual pleasure. prem is also culturally constructed. The cultural construction of prem outlines the gender roles prescribed for males and females in our society. It is an enormously complicated area to speak of because our understanding of prem -- what is romantic what is not, what is sexy what is not, what is a turn on, and what is a turn off -- are always evolving with time. For example, back in the colonial time women with a certain amount of body fat were appreciated as icons of beauty, but today we have started to appreciate stick figures as models and icons of beauty. The idea of beauty changes with time, so does the idea of prem. Besides electronic media, literature plays a significant role in defining our idea of prem and the gender roles prescribed within it. As Bangladesh has moved through a rush of cable TV channels, internet access, cell phone epidemic within the past decade, the idea of prem or romance seems to be slightly shifting.
Nirad C Chowdhury argues that the notion of romance devoid of direct sexual encounter was a cultural revision ushered in by the English educated Bangalis in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Bengal. According to Chowdhury, prior to the British invasion, and the period of cultural exchange (mainly via English literature and Western philosophy) the idea of romance did not exist in India. What Chowdhury finds in pre-British Sanskrit and Bangala literature is not prem or romance, but kam (sexual desire). The notion of sex overruled the notion of romance in pre-British Bengal. Chowdhury's ideas make total sense since there is a whole body of literature about the female emancipation project of nineteenth century Bengal testifying to the fact that the notion of femininity as well as the role of women were being drastically changed in this period. A new type of woman was needed for the new type of hybrid man created out of British education and 'Indian blood, and colour.' Sumanta Banerjee has written about the exclusionary process of creating a middle class bhadramahila by denying the cultural practices of the working class women as vulgar. Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses Rabindranath Tagore's rendering of prem as 'pabitra prem' or 'holy prem,' "ideal of love as a spiritual sentiment, as devoid of any hint of lust" (Chakrabarty 2000, 135). Therefore, prem was distanced from the concept of sexual pleasure in order to create an equivalent to the Victorian fixation on romance. As sexuality was removed from the centre of prem, new attributes, emotions and incentives were called in to fill the vacuum. Therefore, the pioneer writers of colonial Bengal, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Sharat Chandra Chatterjee emphasised the notion of patibrata (unconditional devotion towards husbands), sacrifice, and unconditional service to the family as some of the supporting elements of romance between a man and woman. The notion of motherhood also entered the realm of romance as the icons Durga and Kali appeared as the two main mother/female cosmic forces during this time. The claim of British masculinity that Bangali men were effeminate, and incapable of controlling their sexual urges might have been another force behind Bangali men's cultural revision of prem. However, the Sharat Chandra brand of platonic love is not very popular in the media these days. On the contrary, a rather sexualised brand of prem has become popular. Though sex is not explicit yet, its implicit overtone has become much stronger. Post-Rabindranath literature have emphasised bodily attraction as a very important and crucial element of prem, especially writers like Buddadev Bose, Shunil Gangopadhay, and Shomoresh Bosu.
In contemporary Bangladesh Hindi television channels and Bollywood films have become the deciding factor of what should be considered romantic and not. I have watched with great amazement that even though the technicality, storytelling capability, acting, makeup, and overall technical feat of Bollywood have developed immensely since the 1990s -- the subjugated role of women within the romantic framework remains the same. Sexuality has been brought to the forefront of romance in Bollywood films. It is not uncommon to hear discussions on sex-life and related issues in Hindi films these days. Actresses are more exposed than ever. Female flesh is on sale for a price higher than before. Women have been turned into nothing but sheer commodities today. They are still not seen in empowered roles. Women are still not shown as the primary characters in any mainstream films. Female actresses are paid less than their male co-workers. Basically an overall sense of female subjugation reigns over Bollywood, even though women seem to be at the forefront of the workforce, making a considerable amount of contribution to the industry. If we look at the popular notion of romance advertised in Bollywood films today, the innate politics of female subjugation becomes clear.
Take for example, Kuch Kuch Hota Hain. Kajol has to renounce her tomboyish attitude to fit into the role of Shah Rukh's bride. The most disturbing element of the film is the moment when the two Khans start playing a tug of war at the mandap. Kajol does nothing but look helplessly with her two beautiful eyes and arched eyebrows at each man as she tries to make a decision. Her silence, subtlety and submissiveness are made to look very appealing, feminine, emotional, erotic and romantic. The question remains: is this the type of silenced roles we aspire to as women? Do we desire to become a piece of meat over which two men fight? Do we not have enough guts to speak up like a straightforward human being and say what we feel and want? A similar scene occurs in Veer Zara, when Zara is being seen off by Veer at the train station. Veer and Zara's fiancé have a conversation regarding their feelings about this woman. Preity Zinta, however, stands slient with eyes cast down as the two men go on about her.
Domestic violence is also blended in with romance and sex in Yuva between Abhishek Bacchan and Rani Mukherjee. The fact that Rani is so petit and Abhishek so tall, accentuates the power dynamics of the relationship. Rani appears as petit, fragile, emotional and utterly beautiful. Abishek on the other hand is created as an opposite. He is a big man, cruel, deranged and brutal. Somehow these negative attributes in him emphasise his masculinity in contrast to Rani's timid femininity. Romance between them is created with overtones of pain. They are seen to have a sexual encounter during a song, soon after Rani was beaten and thrown out of the house by Abishek. Many may say that it is a valid representation since it actually happens in real life. But the problem lies in the blending of aggressive masculinity, timid femininity and domestic violence within the framework of romance. In other words, it is detrimental to women when cinema makes male aggressiveness and female timidity appear to be sexy on screen. Devdas, for example, makes a scar on Paru's face and this particular moment of violence is illuminated as a sensationally romantic one both in the novel and the film. Devdas forcefully makes a scar on Paru's face so she will remember him forever. It is done as an act of claiming authority over Paru's beauty, her sexuality, and finally her personhood. This type of violence, should have given rise to a sense of extreme anger and utter disgust in any sane and respectable woman. But in Devdas, Paru is overwhelmed by a romantic feeling for the man who just hit her! The gender roles prescribed for women in itraaz are also quiet fascinating. Priyanka Chopra is condemned because she is very aware of her career, her sexual needs, her beauty and her success. These qualities could look easily sexy on a man, take for example Saif Ali Khan from Dil Chahta Hain, he is made to look sexy because of his sexually promiscuous behaviour to an extent that it is made to appear as playful, boyish, and even innocent. Now it is up to us to put on our feminist goggles before we sit down and watch Hindi films, so we can enjoy it and at the same time critique its gender-biased framework of romance.
We must be aware of the fact that any type of inequality poisons the sense of love between a man and woman. We must be aware of the fact that most relationships are based on poisonous love. We must also remember that Manik Bandopadhay said, "bish khele-o nesha hoy" (drinking poison can also be addictive). Now it is up to us women to say no to this addiction.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005