“I never thought of myself as a bachelor, I thought of myself as a person.”
“Who is a bachelor? Someone who can pay their own bills?”
“You have breasts and a vagina and that is the central problem.”
Ad film director Shikha Makan’s latest documentary “Bachelor Girls” highlights the plight of single women wanting to rent a house in the urban metropolis that is Mumbai.
The “instigation” for the movie, made over the course of three years, was an unpleasant experience that the director had to face while she was looking for a place to live in Mumbai.
“I came from Delhi and I thought Bombay would be a change. I initially dismissed it (her experiences) as bad luck. But then I saw other similar stories,” Shikha said at a screening of the film in Bengaluru on Friday.
The women, whose stories have been brought out in “Bachelor Girls”, fall in the mobile, urban and educated category. That is because, Shikha said, it is also her story and how she related to it.
The professions of these women have intentionally not been listed to show that it does not matter what they do; they all face the same discrimination.
From a researcher to a student, a banker and an ex-French Consulate employee, the film speaks to a number of single girls from different professional backgrounds.
Ramya, who moved to Mumbai five to six years ago, had met at least ten owners and checked around 30-40 flats before she finally got a place to live in.
The process to get a house involves full-scale interviews by apartment owners or society members where prospective tenants are asked questions that are often invasive.
Sample this: “Do you smoke, do you drink, do you have a boyfriend, and do you throw parties”. But then don’t married people smoke, drink or throw parties?
One woman described how she “felt interrogated as a criminal. A procedure is fine, but that shouldn't make you feel sick about yourself.”
The watchman in an apartment where Anita used to live complained to the Secretary that she used to return home late at night. “How can someone ask me to leave because of my work timings?” she asks.
After she separated from her husband, actor Kalki Koechlin had to look for a new place to live in. While she agreed to the regular no-drinking-smoking-partying- clause, a while later she realised that her guests’ belongings were checked at the entrance to the building.
Speaking about the discrimination, Kalki says, "They all want my autographs, but treat me like I am diseased or something. It's exhausting.”
Like most problems, there are also ways to go around this one - like pay a bribe or simply lie.
"It is easy if you lie, but difficult if you say the truth," one woman says, pointing out the irony.
In 2004, Lakshmi Pandit from Mumbai won the Femina Miss India-World pageant, but had to return her crown following allegations that she was a married woman.
Lakshmi later revealed that while she was single, she had lied about being married in order to rent a flat.
Of the several challenges that Shikha faced while making the documentary, one was dismissive housing societies.
"They told me it (the problem) was a fragment of my imagination and that they allowed everyone (to rent) their apartments,” Shikha said.
The few who did agree to speak on camera only proved their interests in acting as moral guardians of society.
“When girls leave their homes, they get freedom. They wear all kinds of dresses and start going out. We need to take precaution,” one such member, a woman, said.
Another housing society representative claimed that smoking and drinking are not part of "our culture" and that there is a need to protect the same.
And while the film, which the director said is a “manifestation of society's view of single women”, focuses on the financial capital of India because of its “liberal” tag, the subject could hold true for any other city in the country.
Arundhati Ghosh, Executive Director, India Foundation for the Arts, has faced the same problem in Kolkata as well as in Bengaluru.
"It seems like a typical middle class morality problem,” she said.
When Arundhati first came to the Silicon Valley of India several years ago, she managed to get one of the extra rooms on the terrace of a building on rent.
On the other side of the locality, lived her house-help in a similar room. She noticed the difference in attitudes in both the communities.
“She (her house-help) was single and used to drink a lot. But that didn’t seem to be a problem with their community,” she said.
Throughout the course of the film, women constantly spoke about how the experiences left them sad, dejected, low, depressed, embarrassed and traumatised.
Those who try to question or worse, defy these rules are just asked to leave. Leaving is not easy simply because they would have to go over the hassle of finding another house all over again.
Staying, on the other hand, can invite threats and coercion.
Shikha spoke of a journalist in Chennai whose apartment members arranged for a man to stalk her when she refused to leave.
Often, these women end up staying in places that are not fit for living or are unsafe for them. Or they simply give up, and return home.
"I have become conditioned to the fact that someone has to tell me that I have a good character. In fact, I ask them if they want to speak to my boss, HR manager or my father,” one woman states wryly.
“Bachelor Girls” is a film that many of us can connect to personally - of what it is like to live in a patriarchal, hypocritical society that feels threatened by anything that challenges its value system.
The film also talks about the law, how women in such cases are not in a position to demand safety from house owners and the corruption involved in the process.
One of the questions that, as expected, arose after the screening is whether single men also face the same problem.
While they too may face similar scrutiny, “men are not slut shamed, or are infantilized, they don’t need to provide a character certificate or are asked why are they wearing shorts,” Shikha put it aptly.
(Note: "Bachelor Girls" is currently being shown only at private screenings. It may soon be made available for viewing on the internet.)