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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

‘The Lost Daughter’ is about the crushing responsibility of conforming to one norm

🔴 Anubha Yadav writes: It is one of the few films in which the female gaze takes a form and tells a subliminal story. A story that can't be said aloud for fear of ostracism

Written by Anubha Yadav |
Updated: January 19, 2022 9:13:35 am
Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson in a still from The Lost Daughter. (Photo: Netflix)

The Lost Daughter (adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal from Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name) starts with Leda Caruso (played by Olivia Colman) driving alone to a Greek island for a holiday. Just as she parks her hatchback at the quaint beach hotel, we know she is a woman who not only goes on holidays alone in her little car but also carries a bunch of books in her luggage.

Soon her “solitary” being on the beach is invaded by a loud Greek American family. A brief standoff happens when the pregnant matriarch, Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), asks Leda to move her beach lounger so the family can “be” together. The heterosexual family always needs more space. It expands. Families are imperialist.

Leda refuses. Callie insists. Leda digs her heels in. She will not move. A young boy swoops in to call her a c**t. Women who don’t obey become c**ts.

This repeats at the cinema when a group of rowdy young men wouldn’t allow Leda and a few others to enjoy a film in peace. Humiliated, Leda walks out. It repeats when Lyle (Ed Harris), the hotel’s caretaker, tries to indulge her at the bar, forcing his company on her, when she wants to be alone. As a single woman dweller and traveller, I have lost count of the ways in which I have been othered by such incidents. I have thrown a bunch of young men out of a cinema hall. I made up an alternate story about having two children to a tour driver in Srinagar. Later, when I sit alone, the sting of it doesn’t leave me. The sting of erasing your authentic self for these arbiters.

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All along, actor-turned-director Maggie Gyllenhaal gives agency to the female gaze. It is one of the few films in which the female gaze takes a form and tells a subliminal story. A story that can’t be said aloud for fear of ostracism. For me, the film unravels itself in a few dialogues in the “birthday cake” scene: A play of three women, Callie, Leda and Nina, around their statuses as “mothers”.

“My sister-in-law got hers right away,” says a pregnant Callie. “Took me eight years.” We know the turmoil Callie would have faced in those eight years. There is a Callie in every family. She then asks the question through which she will gridlock Leda as an insider or an outsider. “You don’t have kids?” (A note of rhetorical lament in Callie’s voice)

Leda asserts with quiet pride, “Yes, I have two daughters.” A shocked Callie replies, “Where are they?” (How can a mother travel alone?) After Callie finds out that Leda’s girls are 23 and 25, she adds, “You are too young, you must have started really early.” (As early as a girl child mothering a doll?) We also watch Callie’s sister-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother struggling to raise her daughter. Nina rekindles a spectre from Leda’s past. A past for which Leda still carries guilt. A past in which she leaves her daughters for a few years. Till she returns. What if Leda chose not to return?

Young Leda suddenly becomes visible to her husband when she decides to leave. She metamorphoses into a woman again. A being with intentions and choices. All her attempts to be visible as a woman (outside her role as a mother) had failed till she decided to exile herself from the role. “For a long time, I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother,” Doris Lessing had said about leaving her two children, still toddlers.

“Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda tells Callie at one point. I would expand its scope and add, “Always conforming to a single norm is a crushing responsibility.” We must find ways to make our gazes gentler on each other as we find many ways to be us.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 19, 2022 under the title ‘She walked away’. Yadav is a writer-academic-filmmaker, who teaches at Kamala Nehru College, DU.

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