Having completed my finals and several other quotidian tasks, I finally decided to give myself a break through India’s most cherished form of entertainment- Cinema. (Please forgive the exaggeration, if it appears so.)
Now that I am in the ever expensive new shahar of mine, where I would not want to spend on a visit to a movie hall, I managed to watch yesterday on a much smaller screen, the movie, “Dum Laga Ke Haisha”.
This movie features as its protagonist Bhumi Pednekar, who plays the role of Sandhya, a newly wed bride in middle-class* North-Indian context, and through her brilliant portrayal of the predicament of a plus-size woman , I could reflect on prevalent issues that many of us face in our societies.
Let me be direct in approaching the subject, I am going to talk to you about shaming and how that has affected me and many of my friends, particularly women, but I think it is almost impossible to refrain from the larger structures of power that encourage such shaming.
I would provide some consciously selected context from the movie itself-
Sandhya was teased by her younger brother for her size, and publicly humiliated by her arranged husband, who chose not to love her due to his disapproval of her shape. She had to bear with undue taunting by her husband’s paternal aunt along with her husband’s sense of regret, whose erratic and juvenile behavior was found justified by her own parents- they were surprised at her voicing her genuine concerns. In her divorce petition, Sandhya claims that her husband’s behavior caused her mental harassment, while he admits that he does not love her and married her under family pressure- her degree would enable her to teach and earn for the family.
There is lots more that I would like to recollect and share, but I would pause for now and write what I could relate these cinematic instances with. There are several intertwined and complex societal attitudes at play here, which would seem most obvious and apparent to many, yet we choose to mostly accept these in silence.
Calling names to people (plus-size or otherwise)- it’s acceptable
I have grown up being teased, being referred to as a “Buffalo/Bhains”, “Bull/Saand” and even “Haathi ka Baccha/Elephant’s child”. I do not have a tail, horns or a trunk. I do not even walk on all fours. These adjectives were showered upon me by my nearest and dearest, because I have never been skinny and because I eat food when I am hungry.
I have grown up believing that I am not good enough. I was called an elephant’s child by a much cherished person in my life when I was once running, I was teased for my evident puberty by a close friend when I was running on the school playground, I do not run.
Body or appearance shaming must have been experienced by a majority of people I know, it is not limited to current obsession with size-zero or white skin fairness creams- it has found its place in biases, racism and heinous injustice, in slapstick humor and cartoons, in stereotypical imagery and characterization across boundaries of space and time. While this harassment is much prevalent, its subtle implications on a day-to-day level might not always be discussed.
Just as Sandhya’s disapproval of her husband’s disrespect towards her body is considered strange by both families, I felt the same throughout my growing years when I could not muster the courage to initiate a dialogue with my acquaintances. Sandhya’s brother believes that her husband did no wrong by insulting her in front of his friends since she is indeed a “Saand”.
Many of us must have come across an over-hyped ideology of being strong and not being affected by such irritants in life, a logic that many of the perpetrators would themselves offer as their justification for their thoughtless judgmental remarks and sadist tendency. Bullshit! What do you even mean by asking someone to not be “so sensitive“?
If you are told that you are a buffalo by someone who is at a higher position in your family or societal power structure, chances are that you would not only be affected by it at that moment, rather internalize it for a much longer period. This distorted self-perception would affect your confidence, your relationships, your sense of style and expression. At the cost of sounding paranoid, it is a damage for a lifetime, and most self-help books or advisers that ask you to love yourself and accept your uniqueness, sound mild and serve as meek protestants, in front of the loudness of those obnoxious negative remarks.
I must admit, I have in the past accepted some strange people in my life, and had to bear with their completely avoidable presence, due to a lingering sense of shame on how I must be perceived by others or that I do not deserve any better . Funny that something so external, would have left me so weak internally, but it did, and I face its consequences even today.
It’s alright for males to tease females- the divine treatment for the male child
Sandhya’s brother reminds her that she always looks like a “Chudail/Witch” after her having spent time in grooming herself and hoping for a positive reaffirmation.
I have heard this before, and have often cringed at the sound of this word. Why would you call me a witch? Because I choose to wear a casual t-shirt and pajamas? Because I am loud? Because I do not fit into your ideal of innocence and nauseous cuteness? But then why do I seek your approval at all? So ingrained is this desire to get an approval in me, that even after 26 years with an awareness of my socially inflicted low self esteem, I am unable to fight it. I remember not grooming myself out of shyness, wondering if the very people who remind me of my shape, my dressing sense and my graying hair would make fun of it if they see me taking care of myself.
But many from the “practical” brigade would suggest that my claims here must be unfounded, why am I blaming relations so dear for a crime they certainly did not intend? I think I would blame the structure and an inhuman level of tolerance accepted out of women in this case. How dare someone tease a woman on her physical attributes and how dare the erratic behavior of the male child, whether husband, brother, or son, be acceptable? If my son would do that to my daughter or vice-versa, I would initiate a dialogue on accepting differences and nurturing empathy, on being aware and mindful of words and actions, on knowing the difference between playfulness and hurting. I would teach children how to love than how to silently accept pain. I would request my children to never allow such an irrelevant negative remark to have any significance in their lives, to question and raise their voice, if they ever find themselves unduly targeted.
The taunting vamps and the woman’s fault
There is no dearth of taunting women in our lives. From our neighbor’s cleaning lady commenting on my eyebrows, to a stranger’s remark on my walk, from sisters worried about my lack of prospective boyfriends,to friends wondering when I would look more “girly” (really, what do you mean by girly?), I have faced them all, at times with courage and at times with a broken heart (You are meeting me after a year, after my hard work on a cause I believe in, and all you want to discuss is my nail-paint, thanks!)
Sandhya’s husbands’ aunt is quite a sadist. Having suffered injustice as a woman herself, she leaves no stone unturned in snide comments on Sandhya’s size and appearance. Her nephew’s denial of sex to his wife is also Sandhya’s fault.
Its always the woman’s fault right? I am aghast at how women themselves catalyze patriarchy and support its many conventions, the most prevalent being an uncanny silence, generations living in denial, or celebrating sacrifice as some form of divinity, only to be practiced by women.
Sandhya’s husband compares her with his friend Nirmal’s much thinner wife and fails to appreciate her for herself.
I feel that comparison is an absolute disregard of a person’s being. Why should I compare A with Z, they are different, they both exist, and have their particular character and place. I was once compared with my two year old niece, I thought that it was the death of sanity.
Intellect vs. Body
In the movie, Sandhya had power over her husband because she was educated, she could answer back because she felt confident in her future, she knew she could work.
At times, I have compensated for my negative impressions of myself thanks to body shaming, by performing well academically, in fact its almost an obsession, I always want to do well and try not to compromise on it for anything. Every other source of happiness could be secondary during a deadline or examination, because that gets me a different approval and respect, that makes me feel better about myself and feel a certain power, a certain liberation, a higher self-worth. As much as I respect education and would always advocate for it, I do not think that my sense of self-worth should be limited to it. Just as denying myself respect due to my appearance is nonsensical, so is an undue significance to so-called accomplishments, both are over-rated.
I think I would want to think of myself in terms of the person I am or become, in terms of how much love I give and get, in terms of how much happiness I can spread, how many memories I can cherish, how many mountains I can kiss and how many stars I do count. I know I have come a long way, and so do Sandhya and her husband in their understanding of the complexity which influenced their relationship, but there is still so much to talk about on this, maybe another post, or maybe over a cup of chai and parle-g biscuits?