After watching Manmarziyaan, I read an interview of Tapsee Pannuu, the lead actor of the film, who referred to director Anurag Kashyap as the most feminist man she knew. Clearly, a feminist audience was what the film was claiming to look out for. I also read one particularly emphatic review praising the unapologetic feminism of the film. Did I expect it to be 'feminist'? I thought at least they would try.
Let me state at the very outset to avoid any further confusion: Manmarziyaan is not a feminist film, and Anurag Kashyap is not a feminist man. In fact, I'd extend the inference to propose that nothing in Kashyap’s repertoire of films has ever remotely been feminist. He depicts women; gives them a lot of screen-time; his films exercise freedom of artistic expression on women’s bodies (the much talked about female nudity in Sacred Games, for instance) but they do not explore any feminist potential.
The Friendless Woman
In Manmarziyaan, Rumi (Tapsee Pannu), whose love life is at the center of the plot, is a woman with no friends—zero. She has a younger cousin with a rather functional role, but no one else. The two male protagonists and Rumi’s love interests, Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) and Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), have friends and allies, and have a range of narrative purpose. But friendless Rumi has absolutely no one to share her predicament with; no one who would tell her that as a young erstwhile hockey player and retailer of sports goods, her primary choices did not have to be related to choosing the man she was to be married to.
Some of us in the audience were rooting for her to get away from the two horrible men before her; and to our disappointment, she ‘chose’ Robbie, the worse of the two: the older, egotistic, manipulative and unreasonably obsessive man. He’s made worse by the fact that the film tries so hard to orient him as modern, cool and well-adjusted, except when he unleashes the spectre of a very angry Amitabh Bachchan.
But why do I think Rumi needs friends? Because friends are an age-old cinematic trope through which characters are described. Because realistically speaking, feminists have friends. In fact, friendship is one of the spaces for feminist practice and thought to emerge. All those hours spent in the company of women and men, who harness in your deepest patriarchal impulses; with them is how we live a feminist life, at least in part. Maybe, Rumi had horrible toxic friends she managed to do away with, we’ll never know. But to be deprived of even the kindness of strangers! That is a truly miserable cinematic existence; to embody the utter ‘social isolation’ of being a ‘bold’ and ‘aggressive’ woman. The film never really educates us about Rumi’s motivations in life, except that they are shaped by the men she wants/needs to be with at a given point in time. We have the jaded option of seeing her through everyone else in the narrative, and let her remain ‘unknown’, because contrary to what some reviews have claimed, the film does not even attempt to explore the possibility of Rumi telling her own story. To be fair there isn’t much of a story to tell in which hockey and lack of sexual apologia function as fetish points on young heterosexual women. To walk in to the trappings of marriage on a raging ‘whim’ serves exactly which feminist purpose, I wonder. To unpack a woman’s ‘selfish motives’ and find the rotten apple of patriarchy within is truly morbid.
Manmarziyan could have been a story for many of us, the un-marriage-able women. There’s no denying the fact that we constantly struggle with how we have been socialised to desire, and to pursue security and our very identities within caste patriarchal structures. Do Rumi’s vulnerabilities make sense? They do; the painful back and forth of desires and decisions, moods and schemes. The desperate battle to reclaim power in the face of repeated disappointment and rejection; it makes sense. Every day, we deal with the reality of being alienated from our foundational relations in society, our families and the friends we grew up with. We negotiate with institutions and spaces that are constantly trying to police us. But, we live our lives elsewhere as well; amongst friends and allies, in trying to realise our aspirations for life, in our ideas and in our politics.
Also, not all un-marriage-able women are single; just that their relationships and their marriages do not form the only framework of choices that they have to make. And every one of us knows not to seek our self-worth or the means of our survival from the men we have to be with. Then to watch Manmarziyaan, that not only claims to be feminist in its representation, but also to be made by a ‘feminist man’ is to sadly feel like how Robbie must have felt when he finds his ‘conquest’ had still been sleeping with her lover: petulant and cheated of false expectations.
Brand: New Identities
Manmarziyaan follows typical Bollywood norms of depicting women protagonists, enclosing them within anxieties about bodies, sexuality, marriage. And Kashyap has hardly made an exception to the prevalent sexism in cinema. It’s great that he narrates women who are ‘excessive’ to representational norms in mainstream films. Kalindi, another woman protagonist from Kashyap's Lust Stories section, for instance, was also meant to be one such character. But it isn’t enough to depict a cinematic anomaly if the very frameworks of representation end up painfully pathologizing polyamorous women in ‘casual’ relationships with younger men. The problem remains that Kashyap is almost always expected to produce something ‘provocative’ and that provocation is realised through the mere fact of putting on screen characters (and not lives) that the audience is apparently not used to seeing. A friend called me up after watching Sacred Games and said, “Did you watch it? They have done great things with it. There’s nudity of the female and trans body.” From where I was watching Netflix, only one of the above statements was correct. Kashyap has said that Netflix gave him a lot of freedom, and I see how being able to show female nudity (and have his characters incessantly abuse) was a revolutionary step in his ‘struggle’ for creative freedom. But he is a smart retailer of the ‘new’ identity on the block; sexually liberated women, lower caste men, transwomen etc. Each of his tirades against state censorship of cinema draws attention and adulation for his films. As a self-proclaimed alternative to the aesthetic and thematic ‘illiteracy’ of Bollywood blockbusters and audiences, Kashyap ironically ends up being a spokesperson for Netflix, where we are paying a pretty hefty price for freedom and art.
A Few Readings Around the 'Kashyap Consequence'
Kamayani Sharma, in a brilliant review of Manmarziyaan, has written about the film’s utter blindness to the realities of love in modern India, where Dalit men are being killed for marrying upper caste women. What then is the point of films that celebrate a woman’s freedom to choose love while simultaneously removing from it its actual transgressive potentials. Read Christina Thomas Dhanraj on Facebook and Twitter for her important critique on how inter-caste marriages can be progressive only as far as it is about the question of choice (precisely so for the upper caste man/woman). But what are the predicaments of Dalit men/women exercising their choice of love? Read Praveena K.P. and Rekha Raj to understand the ‘Speak-Out’ movement in Kerala where Dalit-Bahujan women have unleashed a timely social media-based critique of progressive men and their use of the rhetorics of sexual liberation to make demands on the bodies of women who have occupied public spaces.
The earlier #himtoo movement led largely by Savarna women against sexual harassment in Indian academia also had to deal with the issue of ‘otherwise’ progressive men and their misogynistic treatment of women colleagues and juniors. It does make one think that the claims to feminism or progressiveness cannot go un-interrogated. We must seek out and question its not so subtle appropriations, including by the likes of Kashyap, who are making a market out of it while the rest of us, as Sara Ahmed puts it, live the consequences of it.
The writer is pursuing her Phd in Film Studies from the English and Foreign Languages University