Art & Culture

Sisterhood and the 77th Cannes Connection

Within Indian cinema, we have had some classic films on sisterhood in its various manifestations.

Shoma A Chatterji

Art and Culture

Published:

A still from All We Imagine as Light.

Most feminist critics argue that patriarchal ideology focuses prominently on heroes while the female experience is generally silenced or compromised. The hero’s tale is told as if it were universally representative of human experience. This finds prominent representation in mainstream Indian cinema and in its regional worlds divided by language but not necessarily by culture, entertainment and sizzle. Representation is what cinema is all about, denoting symbols, signs, images, portrayals, depictions, likenesses and substitutions. 

The representations of gender produced and circulated by Indian cinema are constitutive of gender as a cultural identity. This article intends to explore how from 2001 onwards, the politics of representation of women characters in mainstream Indian cinema is changing in many ways and often, the patriarchal audience is lapping it all up.

The Indian films selected for screening and also for the competition sections at the Cannes Film Festival this year have demonstrated that the bonding between and among women in films and in the film industry is not limited to screen stories, renditions, and characters but also revealed among the crew. The portrayal of sisterhood in Indian cinema is not new at all. But the people behind the camera and the film crew, plus the actors, unfold layers of sisterhood that cannot and need not necessarily be clubbed with screen appearances and reaches far beyond in terms of audience impact and bonding behind the camera. 

Sisterhood or female bonding began a long time ago and over time, we have had some classic films on sisterhood in its various manifestations. The scenario began to change subtly, slowly but surely into the 1990s when both mainstream and off-mainstream films came out with powerful portrayals of women. Neeta and Radha in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) used their close bond to rebel against filial oppression and humiliation. The two middle-aged sisters in Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994) led independent lives free of men and made choices. Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand (1997) is a classic example where individual rebellion becomes collective rebellion without breaking out of the framework of motherhood where the ‘father’ is rendered superfluous. 

All We Imagine as Light 

Director Payal Kapadia, an activist alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India and the director of the film All We Imagine as Light, is one woman who has raced everyone else, man and woman, master, genius and newcomer with the highest prize as presenting the first Indian film to win in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 30 years.

Payal Kapadia is Gujarati and made a film in Malayalam and it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which underscores the harmonious identity of an Indian filmmaker who shines with her first film at a festival like Cannes. Her film which bagged one of the top awards is also a story about three women and the sisterhood that evolves between and among them within their work and daily ambience. 

In the film, Prabha and Anu are Malayali nurses living in Mumbai who are both troubled by their relationships. The two embark on a road trip to a beach town where “the mystical forest becomes a space for their dreams to manifest.” The film features brilliant female actors like Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha and Chhaya Kadam in a story about migrant women trying to find a footing in the work world in a big bad city like Mumbai. 

In a layered narrative, Kapadia manages to subtly structure a critique of the socio-economic struggles that the working class, especially women, face in Mumbai. Kapadia manages to create a beautiful world filled with a poetic tale of love married to friendship and self-discovery. Kapadia weaves in a beautiful tale of friendship between two nurses who are ‘outsiders’ in the city whose routine and rather boring lives keep facing a series of ripples that bring in the excitement they do not expect. 

All we imagine as Light uses a beautiful palette of basic colours blue in varied shades, followed by reds and greens. The city life shows the loneliness that peeps often from behind the noise, the bustle and the crowds. The end is magical, reminding one of sighting a rainbow at the end of a dark tunnel. The cinematography is brilliant and the bonding between the women is something women in the audience can easily identify with.

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The Shameless

Konstantin Bojanov has written and directed The Shameless. Other than shedding light on a different dimension of female bonding, the film naturally proves that a film does not necessarily need a woman as director to portray female bonding through an essentially Indian story. The film portrays the story of three women belonging to three different age groups and fetched for Anasuya Sengupta, the Best Actress Award, won by an Indian actor for the first time in the history of Cannes.  

She portrays the character of Renuka, a raw, foul-mouthed, aggressive sex worker who not only kills a cop but also engages in a lesbian relationship with Devika, (Omara Shetty) and is   a defiant outsider who rejects all social norms. In hiding, Renuka encounters Devika, a quiet young girl who is confronting the future as a devadasi as she is born into the system. As the two women’s attraction blossoms into an illicit romance, they challenge entrenched beliefs. But bringing their relationship into the open isn’t without risks, as religious authorities and family members disapprove.

Devika has her own tragic trajectory and feels she is in a no-exit situation. She is born into the Devdasi cult and her grandmother (Mita Vashisht) is a matriarch who is torn between what she has always known and her all-consuming humanity. On the one hand, she truly wants to liberate her granddaughter from the trap of a cursed heredity but does not know how to. Mita Vashisht is a brilliant veteran who has worked with directors ranging from Kumar Shahani through Mani Kaul to Govind Nihalani and slips into her role as if she was born to portray it.  

Born into a life of devadasi sex work like her mother before, Devika carries herself quite sadly. Yet, one can see her rebelling suddenly which offers us a glimpse of the rebellion within her. This film portrays a completely different portrait of female bonding. Anasuya Sengupta shows that she truly deserves the award.  

As Arash Nahandian has written here, “Though different in background, both Renuka and Devika know the persistent grip of patriarchal control all too well. Renuka reacts to her circumstances with unapologetic swagger, proud of who she is despite society’s disapproval. Her jaded exterior hints at inner pain, yet she remains fiercely dedicated to her freedom. Devika, meanwhile, keeps her head down, resigned to the oppressive future mapped out without her consent.”

Santosh

Another woman entry was Sandhya Suri’s Santosh, a powerful perspective on several issues met within Indian states when Santosh, suddenly widowed and the young wife of a cop, lands her husband’s job by virtue of the rules of appointment.

But she has never worked for a living before and suddenly finds herself in new surroundings which begin to change her perspectives on life, on work within the police force filled with men doctored strongly within patriarchy and caste issues. She is faced with the case of a young Dalit girl who is raped and murdered and this opens her eyes to the communal strife in her region plus the direct and indirect attack on gender. 

In addition to the empowerment of an ordinary woman brought up in the middle of a communally conflicted state, Santosh is a very powerful statement of the inner solidarity between and among women even when the two women have never known each other, where one is raped and murdered and the other is a woman police constable and a Hindu on top.  

As Debanjan Dhar writes, “Santosh is a much-needed intersectional inquiry into the state of minorities, gendered entitlement, and caste-engineered clear divides in India. There’s lofty ambition packed into this film, which admirably addresses its loaded nuances with due patience and rigour. What especially elevates the film is the quiet tenacity of Shahana Goswami’s performance. As the protagonist, Goswami compellingly charts a rich trajectory from being an observer on the sidelines to tentatively stepping inside the circle of fire.” 

Santosh is portrayed with the right blend of subtlety and power by Shahana Goswami who, unlike other women like her, does not beat her chest to scream in grief when her husband dies. Her bonding with the character played by Sunita Rajwar is a unique example of sisterhood between two women though the two women are as distanced as chalk is from cheese in terms of being canny and smart.

Conclusion

These films depict women who begin their lives as ordinary or less-than-ordinary women with their youth and their assumed weakness – of character and physical strength in common.

But as the narrative moves on, the rhythm changes as does the chemistry of their characters who refuse to surrender to the powers-that-be, be they the moral dictates of a village sarpanch (Parched), the incredible powers of a corrupt police officer of a corrupt police team pitted against an honest but useless woman police inspector (Akira) or, the collective social and legal ‘punishment’ a girl is forced to go through because she chooses to live life on her own terms (Pink). 

(Shoma A Chatterji is an Indian film scholar, author and freelance journalist. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)


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