One of my favorite Bollywood movies of 2020 was Anubhav Sinha’s “Thappad”. Amrita (played by Taapsee Pannu) was the ideal wife and wife on paper. She conveniently put her dreams and aspirations on the back burner to look after the needs of her husband and family. She spent every day of her life in a sequence of mundane events that mostly revolved around her husband’s goals, and her sole purpose was to serve and support her partner’s decisions, no matter what. She was always so satisfied with the banality of her daily life, until one day, despite her endless dedication to her marriage, she received a hug from her husband in a room full of guests as a ” gut reaction ‘to an ongoing struggle.
For others, it was just a slap in the face. For her it was the slap. Her world crumbles upon her as she begins to question her own reality and her complicity in the misogynistic and patriarchal ways of the people around her. The moment she realized that it was time to stand up for the value of her own existence was when she was questioned and scrutinized not only about her upbringing and her “failure to let go”, but even about his sanity.
As uncomfortable as it sounds even to me, I loved this movie because I could relate to it on many levels. I called my mom right after my viewing and urged her to watch it too because it wasn’t just a call to action against domestic violence, but also a movie that refused to normalize the environment that we women have been conditioned to accept. It wasn’t until a few months later, however, that she finally looked at it. His reaction left me both surprised and not so surprised, as did the discussion we had afterwards.
“She finally made the wrong decision… pyaar tou karta tha na usse, sorry bhi kaha… it’s the woman who has to compromise for the relationship to work. This world is not a space for one woman.
This was more or less the gist of his argument.
[Read Related: ‘Thappad’ Film Reaction: one Slap is Enough to say Enough]
I don’t blame her. These are the kinds of values and beliefs she was brought up with; the same that was taught to her mother, her mother before her, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle – it’s patriarchy, cemented and applied over the centuries in our culture.
“Women have to compromise, he’s a man, he can get away with it!”
“Forget it, shit happens. That’s life.”
“No one likes a dominant woman.”
“Stubborn women end up ruining their own lives!”
If you grew up in a desi family with distinctly South Asian parents, I’m sure you’ve heard similar statements a million times in your life. In fact, as the wedding hour approaches, the frequency of this advice becomes limitless. It almost sounds like a crash course in preparing for a successful marriage. Or, everything is pessimistic for you. Woman, in South Asian culture, is meant to be a submissive being; sacrificing and devout.
Sadly, whether it’s reinforcing these stereotypical notions or simply acting as a reflection of the deeply ingrained chauvinistic norms in our society, the popular South Asian media has greatly compounded the problem and continues to do so. While significant progress has been made in storytelling over time, there’s always that movie or series that reiterates the assumption that independent, self-sufficient women are “hard to deal with” and “less suited to marriage.” .
Step into the new Netflix reality series, “The Big Day”. This is another popcorn entertainment docusery from Netflix India all about couples and weddings – the kind we either hate to love or love to hate. The opulent settings, the grandiose of the wedding events and the real couples bound by love: it quickly makes us ecstatic and transports us to a world of naive dreams that we all grew up with, courtesy of Bollywood. Add to that the celebration of diversity and inclusiveness, seen through the journey of same-sex couple, Tyrone and Daniel, but in doing so, it only scratches the surface, losing the essence of that. what does being gay and wanting to marry mean in a culture like ours.
If you look past the extravagance and the drama, there are some real issues with “The Big Day”. Airbrushing and ignorance of the division of classes in India is definitely one of them. It is a show that focuses solely on the lavish lifestyle of the privileged and the wealthy; it is in stark contrast to the majority of the country’s population.
Another major issue takes center stage in episode two of the three-part series, titled “Here Comes The Type A Bride”. The problem begins with the title itself. Simply categorizing a woman’s personality type in a short episode title clearly seems to be a direct implication that woman fits the oft-maligned “bridezilla” – she’s the type of woman considered “difficult.” And this is evident in every lens mount, through the sometimes cautious and sometimes brutal remarks from those around the couple.
Ami Pandya – a young professional – has a clear sense of where life is going. She knows exactly what she wants down to the smallest detail. But her self-confidence and self-assurance are often criticized as micro-management, perfectionism, and, as the wedding planner cautiously suggests, “OCD.”
Pallavi Bishnoi, the second modern-day millennial bride, further expresses her reservations about centuries-old customs and rituals. She chooses to withdraw from “kanyadaan” and certainly earns more than her husband, who seems assured of his professional success compared to his. She even makes a point of separating the term “bridezilla”, referring to the annoying connotation attached to it. Her in-laws, however, are clearly unhappy and less enthusiastic about making her part of their family, and her partner is seen constantly justifying the choice he made.
We saw a similar premise in “The Big Day” predecessor, “Indian Matchmaking,” where the portrayal was much less subtle. Aparna Shewakramani and Nadia Jagessar, the two independent and strong women looking for a life partner, were bluntly pointed out as problems by matchmaker Sima Taparia (the former more than the latter). The fact that they are strong women with a clear set of expectations for their future partner meant that finding love for them would be a difficult task. According to Sima, the ladies did not have the flexibility and adjustment to be happily married, or even have a chance to marry in the South Asian community. This is most likely because marriage, for her and for the many parental figures featured in the series, is about the submission of a woman.
The saving grace and the ray of hope in both “The Big Day” and “Indian Matchmaking” were the women themselves who did not get discouraged and resisted patriarchal mindsets, even though their ends were presented as potentially darker than some of the other subjects.
Millennial women have come a long way in trying to break free from the stereotypical and orthodox norms of South Asian society that strives to lock them into a standard set of traits, while denying basic equality. And the same is true of television and cinema in their portrayal of a respectable woman. Women are no longer presented only as sacrificed lambs or damsels in distress, but also as cops, professionals, single mothers and more, all with strong and opinionated personalities.
[Read Related: ‘Indian Matchmaking’ Creator Smriti Mundhra on the new age of Traditional Indian Marriages]
It seems, however, that in their attempt to challenge existing stereotypes, popular media may be paving the way for building another. Women are interesting, fearless and empowered but, at the same time, these same women are also presented as selfish, unpredictable, unreasonable and difficult. Their priorities do not lie in the needs of their families and they can eventually make life very uncomfortable. And after all, who wants a tough woman? It is an insult to the many years of struggle women have waged for their own cause.
If difficult we are, then difficult we will be. Changing these ideas and stereotypes comes down to confronting outdated patriarchal perceptions and revolting against them. As they say, “difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations”. Maybe popular media like “The Big Day” need to show more of these beautiful endings if there is any hope for a better future.