By Remya Sasindran
In the recent Malayalam release Mayaanadhi, Aparna (Aishwarya Lekhmi) tells Mathan (Tovino Thomas) that the two people she loves the most have called her a prostitute in the span of just a day. In the scene before this one, we see the couple spending a passionate night in her house while her mother is away. As dawn breaks, Mathan asks her to come away with him to Dubai. After the passionate night of love making, he is sure she, a struggling actress in Cochin, would have changed her mind about staying back and will move abroad with him.
Her response is simple but powerful: Sex is not a promise.
His reaction is perhaps too predictable: Why are you talking like a prostitute?
Just as she asks him to leave after this hurtful comment, Aparna’s mother comes home and finds them together. Mathan leaves embarrassed, in a scene that is bordering on comical (for him) as he clumsily grabs his shoes. But the director, Aashiq Abu, leaves it up to the audience to imagine what might have happened between mother and daughter, after the man leaves. The next day when Mathan shows up to apologize for having said what he had, Aparna tells him that after he left, her mother, too, called her a prostitute. Visibly hurt, but composed, Aparna tells him she wants to be left alone to live her life as she wants to.
The habit of calling a woman a whore/prostitute/slut [insert synonym and language of choice here] is perhaps as old as the word itself. Women are called this for sexual and non-sexual behaviours and thoughts that don’t fit into the scheme of things for the person (usually the man) calling her the name. What is more, the fear of being tagged a whore has worked very well in keeping women from stepping out of line. In fact, the genius of the patriarchy is such that the word does not even have to be uttered. Years of regressive socialization ensures that pointed questions or underhanded comments are enough for women to pick up on the impending doom of being called a whore and regulate themselves, thus.
Aside: Some women have embraced the word (a la Slut Walk) and wear the tag proudly to protest the very idea: I will not be shamed for my thoughts and actions, or for being a woman. But those women are few and far between. Appropriation of words such as “slut” is a luxury not all women have access to.
While there should ideally be nothing exceptional about female sexual desire and her choice to wear that as part of her identity, if she so pleases, in the real world, a woman who does not feel guilt is one to be feared. Aparna in Maayanadhi is that rare female character we almost never get to see. Pushing the envelope just a little bit are films such as Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), and Aiyyaa (2012) where we catch women fantasizing about a man without his permission. In that sense, Aiyyaa was a breath of fresh air, in which the female protagonist, Meenakshi (Rani Mukherji), unabashedly and without guilt fantasizes about her object of desire, Surya ( an artist played by Prithviraj Sukumaran).
Is Meenakshi the first female stalker we have seen in a Hindi film? I don’t know. I liked it but am not sure if I liked it enough to excuse that the film climaxes (no pun intended) with the promise of marriage and forever togetherness. In my version of the ending, when Surya asks Meenakshi to marry him (his words: “my mother would like a bahu like you”), I imagine her turning him down for something less predictable and more exciting. Which is also why Maina, Meenakshi’s quirky and sexually explicit friend, is the actual star of the show and it is Maina’s story that truly deserves to be told.
However, beyond the fleeting glimpse of Meenakshi and Maina, we haven’t seen too many other women who wear their sexuality on their sleeve for themselves, till Aparna came along. That in itself says a lot about the fear men have of women who don’t cushion their own sexual behaviour with bouts of guilt. Cinema continuously throws up the usual suspects: from the quivering virgin to the foul-mouthed, fearless sex worker. And the goodness of all these women is assessed by how they express their sexual desire to the male protagonist. Somewhere between “silence is golden” and “she asked for it”, women, on and off screen, continue to weigh their actions and words, unsure of how an instance of sexual desire or consent can be extrapolated to her entire being and existence – of her being a whore – here whore taken to mean not a sex worker as they are in the world but as the object of derision that exists in the male mind.
Remember the cringe-worthy scene in Fashion, when Priyanka Chopra’s character wakes up next to a black man after a night of excesses? So bad is the resulting guilt that it makes her quit her modelling career and go back to her small town life. And let us not even begin talking about the bordering-on-rapey scene from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge when Raj tells Simran that they got drunk and had sex in the hotel room, when they actually hadn’t. Raj treating this (presumably non-consensual interaction given she was drunk) as a joke, while she is horrified at the prospect, is an indication of what an act of sex means to each of them. It makes me wonder if there are any female characters in a main stream Indian film who has sex with a man she will not eventually marry and then not be attacked by a sense of regret, shame, guilt, gratification, or even, love. Can a woman have sex and wake up to get on with her life like the many “play boy” male protagonists we see all the time?
As things stand now, it seems we have a long way before we get there. Within the spectrum of how female sexual desire is expressed, the scariest one is the woman who does not feel guilt. The idea of a woman who can have sex with the person of her choice and then decide the level of connection she wants to maintain with him, seems anarchic and chaotic in the world we currently live in.
Given this reality, the question that we need to repeatedly ask is: isn’t it high time a woman also thought of sex as something that just is? Not every act of sex has to be a promise, as Aparna tells Mathan, in that rather poignant scene in Mayaanadhi. This statement hangs in mid-air, gaping and unresolved, because men still struggle with the basics of understanding female autonomy. If she is not a girlfriend, wife, or whore, what is she? So much so that there isn’t even a word framed for this kind of a woman. What do you call a woman who has guilt-free sex and refuses to be identified as a whore, by herself and others?
If only men gave women the same flexibility to be fallible and make human mistakes as they give themselves, perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard for them to understand female autonomy. Men seem to be in a perennial state of being confused by the nuances of female existence and never have any trouble saying so. But in the face of an autonomous woman who they cannot box in, the default mode for men will be to turn to the omnipotent tag of “whore”. An easy way out of saying: there must be something wrong with you, which is why I can’t figure you out.
Remya Sasindran is a feminist, a development communications professional, and a movie buff. In that order.