By Jugal Mody
The trailer to the Y Films’ web series Man’s World had me excited. It bragged of a series of cameos from cool women. Plus, it came from under the umbrella of Yash Raj Films, which if I have my Hindi film legacies right, have attempted to be good (relative to the times) to their women characters – be it Silsila (1981) or Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) or Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), or at the very least, inoffensively entertaining – think Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011). So when they announced a web series that was to address women’s issues directly, I was thinking, “Looks like this is going to be one of the rare good ones.” (Seriously, the way things are right now, the bar for films to cross when it comes to gender politics doesn’t look very high.)
The series, which premiered on September 30, is made by writer-director Vikram Gupta and stars Gaurav Pandey as Kiran, a man who believes he is trapped in a world where women are asking for more equality than they deserve, and not even being grateful for it.
The pilot opens with a glimpse of the climax, where we see Kiran claiming that he has broken the world. To find out how, we flash back to the day before.
The previous day begins and ends with Kiran describing the world he lives in – a world that he thinks is biased in favour of women and against men. His tirade is the kind you find in the Twitter mentions of any woman working in the media or in activism. (Kiran may not threaten anyone with rape, but there is a scene in which he drunkenly talks about his confusion regarding marital rape – he likens married sex to taking money out of one’s wallet.)
The drunken night leads to a drunk-dial to God in the style of Amitabh Bachchan from Deewar (a Yash Chopra film, mind you). Kiran rants and swears at the sky, saying that he’d be grateful if the roles of the two sexes in the world reversed, He claims that if his wish is granted, he will be happy with all the “privileges” women have and won’t cry “feminism ke aasu”. God grants him his wish, and the next day begins with the established polarities being reversed.
Kiran wakes up with menstrual cramps and then has to deal with the flipping of gender roles in his home. Starting from the mockery of male cooking by women to being told that he is being “allowed” to go work and that right can be taken away from him, he faces the same domestic microaggressions he and other men put women through till that day. On stepping out, he sees a lack of male representation in the work force, is objectified by women, and he even meets the female version of an asshole like himself. Other 24×7 misandry (in this case, really just inverted misogyny) is shown in as much detail as is possible for a web video series.
What the show does really well is use the pre-broken-world time to establish the everyday misogyny that women face, even if only from the outside. There are some great details like men defending their lecherous behaviour, mocking women for expressing their grief, and other basics like the fact that Kiran works for a company named “Kantibhai and Sons”.
But when the switch happens, on realising that the world really has changed, the sight of women everywhere – women of all classes, castes, body-types, skin tones, carefree, going about their day – he starts freaking out. That is when the period fairy decides to visit him. The scene ends with him lying on his back, limbs in the air, and a bloodstain growing on the fork of his beige trousers.
This last scene with women everywhere might be one of the best things I’ve seen come out of Indian pop culture in a while. To me, it seems to be the only scene in the episode where the ideology and the intention of the project are aligned. For a Bad Feminist – who seeks pleasure even in being given fair cultural representation in pop art if not more – the gratuitousness in terms of representation is equivalent to the feelings of a Tarantino fan when first encountering Japanese and Korean crime/horror. Or those of a desi Tarantino fan on first encountering Anurag Kashyap.
This scene is also my favourite because it brought back, for me, the memory of a shock I received a few years ago. After having lived in Delhi for about three years, I was on my first local train ride in Mumbai, from Kandivali to Bandra. As the train rolled over at Khar station, I decided to stand at the entrance.
As my compartment passed the area of the platform where women were waiting for the Ladies’ compartment to arrive, something felt incredibly different. The sight seemed a strange one to someone having grown used to Delhi, but my brain could not compute it at first. I was reminded of what a writer friend had said to me when I first moved to that city, “I can tell if a girl was brought up in Delhi or not by just looking at how she walks.” At the time, I did not believe her.
When my train slowed down at Bandra station, it happened again and I actually did a double take. It struck me: it was the sheer number of women, and the very different body language of a group of women standing all together in a public place. Their chins were up without any hesitation about their throats being visible. Their arms were relaxed, and not held in place to elbow someone who might creep up on them from somewhere. They were comfortable, they were still. This wasn’t the nervous energy that I had gotten used to when navigating crowds in Delhi.
* * *
Man’s World isn’t just meant for entertainment – it is an initiative to foster gender equality, presented by The Global Goals for Sustainable Development. The show’s end credits remind us that gender equality and empowerment of women is goal number 5 and suggests that gender equality can be achieved by liking, commenting and sharing the webisode.
The clip during the end credits is much like a This Is What A Feminist Looks Like video. But celebrities who made the cameo and Gaurav Pandey talk about empowering women in the same way they’d talk about saving cancer victims, AIDS victims, poor children in Africa or the trend of the year: refugees.
Dear Y Films, being a woman is not equal to being a victim. It is also not equal to being terminally ill. And it definitely isn’t the same as being a man.
As Zizek Chachu says in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,
The task is always to save the perceived victim. But what really drives the violence of the hero is a deep suspicion that the victim is not simply a victim, that the victim effectively, in a perverted way, enjoys or participates in what appears as her victimhood so that, to put it very simply, she doesn’t want to be redeemed, that she resists it. The result of this debilitating deadlock can only be an outburst of violence (in the “attempt to save” the perceived victim). […] You should have the outburst of violence and you should direct it at yourself but in a specific way – at what in yourself chains you, ties you to the ruling ideology.
Plenty of celebrities appear in cameos in the first two episodes (each episode is about 15 minutes long) and the cameos are designed to highlight the key features of gender equality. Much in the same way that a male writer-director might work on content for the brand “Gender Equality”, being in charge of ensuring that all the key aspects of the brand are highlighted in the video. Except this means the show doesn’t delve into the lives of women at all.
The show is conceptualised and packaged well (for a male target audience) quite along the lines of the well-known joke about homophobia: homophobia is the irrational fear among straight men that gay men will treat them the way they treat women. According to the show’s universe, misogyny seems to be the irrational fear among straight men that women will treat them the way they (men) treat women.
Their good intentions are to teach men that a woman’s life is tough and men should quit bitching about women standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. The tonality of the show establishes that they are not cutting their women characters any slack just because they’re women. At the same time, the show mollycoddles its protagonist who lives deep in the ignorance of his privilege. It’s a message so contradictory that it isn’t funny.
You can’t show what women go through by making all the women on the show behave like men with men also behaving like men. That’s just a show about men.
It’s the same pit that other male filmmakers have fallen into when trying to talk about gender in a short film (think Homi Adajania and Vikas Bahl’s Vogue Empower films, Anurag Kashyap’s That Day After Every Day). All of them talk about women from the perspective of how can women match up to men or how they fit or don’t into men’s lives – never about the women or their lives directly.
In fact, if you look at the credits, the people working on Man’s World are mostly men. Hey Y Films, wouldn’t you agree that a better way to promote gender equality would be to employ more women?
* * *
If you take away the save-the-women disguise Man’s World comes in, its script is a bit like a frat skit, where men and women cross-dress to play each other for laughs. It then has the political correctness of a sangeet night at a drunken Punjabi wedding crossed with the Stanford prison experiment.
In trying to educate men about women, Man’s World actually seems to distance women and reinforces the idea of them being “the Other”. The conversations between Kiran and his best friend (in both the real as well as the inverted world) and the conversation between Kiran and Soheil (the office hottie played by Meiyang Chang who all the employees accuses of using his sexuality to get ahead in his career) are prime examples of that. They talk to each other exactly how a clichéd man imagines clichéd women talking to each other.
Then there’s the prudishness of the writing. At no point does the show establish what happens to people biologically in the switch, and some scenes make it even more confusing. We know people’s sex organs haven’t changed because the protagonist doesn’t notice that the world has gone haywire until he interacts with it. But we know the functions of everyone’s sex organs have changed. The guy bleeds (from his penis, I presume) in the first episode. In the second episode, Kalki flips Kiran a nest (opposite of bird?) and women pee standing up. You literally see a perfect parabolic stream of pee hitting the wall and trickling down. Were they using pee-cones? Or in a world where penises can bleed, do women’s urethras urinate differently? In the way that Rohit Shetty fucks with physics, Vikram Gupta fucks with biology.
Also, by bringing in pseudo-biology in a show about gender politics at a time when there’s more attention on it than ever, they’ve triggered a stream of neurotic questions: Will they include trans and queer people in the plot? How will they be portrayed? Will the series be taken seriously (at least by the meninists)? Or will it be taken PC-seriously – like Satyameva Jayate?
Because so far in the series, it looks like the whiney, entitled man-child is going to throw a tantrum no matter how much things change. It would have been so much more interesting to see him try and “exploit” the systems of the inverted world in the same way he accuses women of doing in the real world. After all, in the inverted world, he has the power and privileges that he assumes women have in the real world.
The show distances women by glorifying them. Women do everything right, even men-as-women do everything right – even under all the constraints of gender-based oppression. Why does one need to show women as the protectors and doers of all things right? Is it to prove that if allowed to do what they want, women will behave themselves in public and civilisation won’t crumble?
Man’s World is a timely show, because – let’s give it to them – they have already shown a mirror to the meninists who harass women on social media on a trolly basis. But does the concept scale to anybody beyond that demographic? Will they make the men watching the show ask the right questions about gender politics? Will it turn that potential outburst of violence from men inwards to find what chains them to the ruling ideology of patriarchy? Or will it just cement their male audience’s paranoid belief that empowered women will oppress them right back?