An attempt to indigenise the female reading of popular films in India, here comes the Female Integrity, Male Utility Sensitivity test.

Indian cinema needs a feminist reading We present to you the FItMuS Test
Flix Cinema Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 08:51
Written by  Uma Vangal

Too often, popular films become the whipping boys of feminists and geeks alike for presenting ‘unrealistic’ female character portrayals, along with newer forms of sexism. One can expect the usual immediate responses to this, ranging from “But it’s just entertainment and fun, why do you take it so seriously?” to “One film is not going to impact young impressionable minds with such insensitivity.”

Sure, it is just time pass, and sure, it is fun to laugh at these sexist jokes (I have had to exit many WhatsApp groups with the surfeit of such jokes) and of course, it is only one film.

Except, it is not. Not when 98% of the films you see on screen these days feature the same things every Friday - stalking scenes, lewd lyrics, item numbers and stories of aggressive abusive men who harass, gaslight, assault, kidnap and threaten women and yet end up winning them. Often, women pay a huge price for being forward-thinking and modern, or ‘unwomanly’ or whatever it is that they should not have done. Or worse, what the men with them should not have done. And yet, many of these films are marketed as feminist or empowering women.

Could some of the subliminal sexism and misogyny be absorbed? Yes, indeed, it can. But the rise in polarised male-female positions, the increasing debates on misogyny, usage of terms like ‘feminazis’ and the Twitter wars around feminism make this the right time to explore how female characters are written, presented and performed in cinema. Call me a feminist (I am proud to say that unlike some of the young actors in Bollywood) or even a (gasp) Geek. But it is time to mainstream a female reading of popular films.

A Quick rewind

The Bechdel Test (1985) required a film to have at least two named female characters that actually converse in a scene, but not about men or romance. If not, the film gets an ‘F’. Just to add some fun, the Sexy Lamp Test (2013) insisted that if the static women characters could be replaced by a lamp that could titillate ‘the male gaze’, the film will get a ‘D-‘.

About 95% of films failed these tests, when along came the Maka Mori Test (2013), and hold your breath, the Furiosa Test (2015), demanding that that not only should women have well developed character arcs, but that there should also be clear female orientation to the happenings on screen. These are the benchmarks applied individually or collectively to films in the West from a feminist perspective. Hear the sound of all Indian films descending down the scale of below fail grade?

Can one apply these, or even their variations, to Indian popular films? Possibly, and yes, several master filmmakers and milestone ‘feminist’ films will fail the rigorous testing. And my own pet peeve as a film researcher and scholar in India - the lack of an Indian theory in feminist film studies. Almost always, when Western analytical frameworks are applied to Indian popular films, many aspects go unaddressed.

So, in an attempt to indigenise the female reading of popular films in India, here comes the Female Integrity, Male Utility Sensitivity test. That is a mouthful, so let’s call it the FItMuS test. (Chennai, 2017)

So, what is this FItMuS Test, you ask?

Well along with the above feminist requirements of the other tests, I propose that - one, we need films to have ‘female character integrity’ (meaning character consistency); two, that they not be there for mere ‘male utility’ (on and off the screen) and finally, that such female characters be handled with cultural sensitivity. Is that a tall order? But isn’t that what we women live for, to try the shoe on the other foot?

Our Guinea pig – Mother India

Let’s switch on test mode as we attempt this test on an iconic film that is often discussed and viewed in film schools and universities here and abroad as representative of the Indian dramatic film format. Apart from being the first Indian film to be nominated as India’s entry to the Oscars, Mother India made history as one of the most expensive and successful films to be made in 1957.

The film passes the Bechdel easily, with the several female characters, primary among them being Radha the protagonist; Sundar Chachi, her mother-in-law; Kamala, her neighbour and friend; Rupa, Lals’s daughter; Chachi’s cohorts who gossip and the village women in the fields in song sequences. Also, Radha and Kamala converse about water, the rains, the harvest and the evil practice of usury that can destroy a family and a village.

Forget the character arcs for the Mako Mori Test, the women drive the entire narration of the film, which would collapse without Radha. If anything, one can accuse the film of not having well-developed male characters.

As for the Sexy Lamp - well, there is not a hint of skin, and moreover, Radha is too busy making the transition from the demure quiet bride into the dervish of a woman who takes on the family burden, fighting off the lustful Lala, farming with a vengeance (her sons and herself play the cattle). These scenes would fail to bring up any sexy images to the viewer’s mind, let alone titillate them.  

By virtue of not only following a woman’s story, but being told with all the anger of the strong-willed woman, the female-oriented film automatically gets the A+ grade for an Indian Furiosa film. The CBFC in particular would have been extremely unhappy with the excessive ‘lady-oriented’ nature of this film. (Do you think they will now ban Mother India or recertify it?)

Now that all the Western parameters have been ticked, let’s get into the Indian flavours of the FItMuS test.

Radha fulfils ‘Female character Integrity’ in a surprisingly consistent manner in all her different social roles. As the shy bride and dutiful daughter-in-law, one can be forgiven for believing she is an aurally-challenged person. She slowly changes into the nurse, counselor and farming partner, moving from submissive to assertive as she takes on the family burden when her husband abandons them to their fate and walks away to his death. She is aggressive as she takes up the plough, an achiever when she succeeds, an inspiration to the villagers asking them to trust the land, and finally wins accolades as the idealistic mother who guns down her own son Birju, becoming the mythical Mother India of strength, stoic acceptance, resilience and determination.

Male utility be damned. If anything, the filmmaker can be accused of doing the opposite – the male characters for female utility. The men serve the sole purpose of enhancing and building the female protagonist’s arc. 

As for our culture sensitivity test, the film is a direct response to the book “Mother India” by Katherine Mayo (1927), that was seen as a vilification of Indian women and culture. To effectively counter this, Mehboob Khan remade his own Aurat (1940) and peopled it with a host of rural women who represent the many women of India, from differing classes and castes, imbued with the spirit of Indian womanhood - moral fibre with deep cultural roots to complete the Mise en scene. They are comfortable in their skins, lives and roles as they celebrate the wedding, Holi and the harvest festival for the cultural and economic significance, and relevance of these to Indian rural life. The songs are used to establish the cultural locale, rituals and festivals of the Indian landscape and the famous ‘Duniya mein hum aage’ and ‘O jaane waalon’ reverberate with patriotic fervor and espouse the cause of nation building underscoring the love and connect with the Motherland.

If ever there was role model for a well-rounded female character and women empowerment in popular Indian films, this would be it.

But, one may not always find a film that hits all the tough benchmarks. But the iconic Radha of Mother India passes the FItMuS test with a resounding A+ with distinction.

The FItMuS test is too tough on popular films, you say? Perhaps, but don’t you think it is about time filmmakers took cognizance of a potential for a counter-narrative instead of reinforcing the innate sexism and misogyny in their films?

And we decided that instead of the usual carping, this can be done through highlighting the positive.

Starting this month, we will be analyzing some of the most popular Indian films through the lens of the FItMuS test. Watch this column for more.  

The writer is a feminist scholar, an independent documentary filmmaker, writer, Visiting Professor of Film, Kenyon College, Ohio and an eternal optimist.

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