A Popular Kind Of Feminism

Feminist symbols in pop culture look light but should be taken seriously.

Written by Debraj Mookerjee | Published:November 10, 2016 12:04 am
feminism in india, pink movie, chetan bhagat book, chetan bhagat author, women saftey, women of india, india news, express column Popular cultural offerings slip into our imagination so much more easily than ideological prescriptions.

Amrita Dutta’s ‘Don’t be Miss Congeniality’ (IE, November 1), begins well, evaluating two recent artistic products in the market — the Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury-directed film Pink and the latest Chetan Bhagat novel One Indian Girl. She says many contemporary media moments have been about women’s issues, set off by the outrage that accompanied the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case. Amidst so much conversation, she believes, “It is almost inevitable that popular culture wants in on this fascinating narrative.” But, she urges, while feminism is growing, it must not be appropriated by the frivolity of popular culture. To be meaningful, it must be a “serious, disruptive force.” We will look at this divide — between the serious and frivolous, between male and female participation in feminist moments across texts, between what popular culture theorists call the battle between the Utopian (escapist) and the ideological (serious) — later. Let’s begin with what truly prompted this piece.

Amidst arguably credible positions, Dutta writes, “As feminist ideas are multiplied into our mindscape, through organised movements, legal reform and social change, the establishment is eager to contain the narrative.” These suggest an ongoing conversation between the layers of power that comprise what she calls the “establishment”. Chetan Bhagat has, she says, in a classic “manspreading move hopped onto the ladies’ coach, and is now telling the girls where to get down.”

However, you can’t draw a straight line to join the dots in a complex social issue like feminism. Such issues are embedded across layers of society in different, often unseen, ways. Patriarchy is articulated into legal provisos and (sadly) judgements, built into policies, practised in homes, written into sports commentary. There is no “establishment” out there, working its insidious machinations — and Bhagat is no foot soldier of that establishment. We slide in and out of roles in a complex, modern world, where power is shared, exercised and resisted by the same set of people in the same roles they play. Feminism must be located within such a fluid matrix.

Pink features Amitabh Bachchan as a lawyer arguing for three women asserting their right to say “no”, regardless of outfit and attitude. It’s easy to be swayed by Bachchan’s histrionics, as Dutta argues, but the character he plays isn’t Bachchan; it’s the dad from Piku. Conservative, difficult, brash, yet fair, modern and essentially proto-feminist (minus the jargon). When Piku’s dad tells a nosey parker who his daughter sleeps with is nobody else’s business, he is a feminist. This is an inflexion point, as when he derides his sister-in-law for having given up a career. In fact, the establishment narrative on feminism is what’s put out by feminist academics and government-funded thinktanks. That is produced through research and fieldwork. Popular culture straddles the intermediate space between what’s escapist and what is serious. Most storytellers of significance have something serious to say.

Chetan Bhagat’s One Indian Girl fails to problematise many issues assailing the modern Indian woman, as argued by Dutta — but he’s shaping a tentative trajectory, attempting to map a narrative of change. In Two States, the young lovers lose sleep over bringing together their parents (classic right-wing “family first” narrative). But here, Bhagat does the opposite. The protagonist rejects the entire bandwagon of familiar expectations to chart an individual’s journey for herself. Bhagat is neither establishment, nor outside it. He is part of the complex network of relationships that shape and exchange power through ideas and their affects.

I believe Pink and One Indian Girl are good for feminism in India. Popular cultural offerings slip into our imagination so much more easily than ideological prescriptions. It’s rewarding to value what they bring to the table — and perhaps not mind what they don’t.

The writer teaches in Delhi University