By Nisha Susan
We watched Frida on cable TV, my friend and I. The scene in which Trotsky pulls Frida Kahlo down onto his lap is the moment in which my friend, who got her communism with her mother’s milk, huffed in disgust and left the room. Nonsense, she kept mumbling. Back then I found her reaction hilarious. I don’t remember a sex scene in Frida. Perhaps because I watched it on TV.
Then yesterday I read Salma Hayek’s essay about facing tortuous sexual harassment at the hands of Harvey Weinstein during the making of Frida. And I read about his attempt to break her as an artist. Frida was Hayek’s movie; she imagined it, produced it and played the Mexican artist. Hayek writes, “I was hoping he’d acknowledge me as a producer, who on top of delivering his list of demands shepherded the script and obtained the permits to use the paintings [and] Frida Kahlo’s houses… But all of this seemed to have no value. The only thing he noticed was that I was not sexy in the movie… He would let me finish the film if I agreed to do a sex scene with another woman. And he demanded full-frontal nudity.”
Hayek then writes about the day she finally shot the scene with Ashley Judd and how ill she felt. “It was not because I would be naked with another woman. It was because I would be naked with her for Harvey Weinstein…At that point, I started throwing up while a set frozen still waited to shoot. I had to take a tranquilizer…”
Reading this made me think of a phrase I’d learnt a couple years before I watched Frida. In the 70s, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey had gifted the world the idea of the male gaze – ‘the act of depicting the world and women in the visual arts and in literature from a masculine and heterosexual point of view, which present women as objects of male pleasure’. It was so handy and explained so much to me. Now it feels like watching a crime in progress.
The same year that Weinstein was already doing to women actors what would be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention if done to prisoners of war, I assisted in the making of a short film. A friend’s friend donated his time and services as an editor. I spent a few nights in his studio in Bangalore’s Gandhinagar neighbourhood waiting as he worked on big Kannada movies. One night he was editing a song. The Bangalore college girl in the sequence was dancing in a teeny tiny skirt. With the full confidence of someone who had just graduated from college the previous year I said, “No woman in a Bangalore college dresses like that.” The editor gave my salwar a look and said genially, “You don’t know anything.” I remember thinking, “What am I supposed to feel now? That you think I don’t have any short skirts or that I am not cool enough to know girls who wear short skirts?” The ‘male gaze’ was just then explained the ridiculous female characters in my favourite Malayalam movies all of whom sounded like no woman I had ever met. The male gaze explained why they screamed, threw tantrums and were so ‘chulbuli.’
Unfortunately, I had also been taught just then that realism was overrated and that I shouldn’t be so by-the-book in my approach to critiquing Indian movies. So I shrugged at the editor.
But now? Now, I feel a little cheated. And Laura Mulvey, wherever you are, you probably feel a little gypped too. What need is there for us to understand a vast philosophical construct because of which male writers and directors create roles and narratives for women actors that are utterly alien to women viewers? “Why should Frida sit in Trotsky’s lap?” my friend had asked while storming out.
The answer is not the male gaze but something simpler. We were taught that via Gabbar’s gaze as he made Basanti dance, male viewers could have a guilt-free consumption of Basanti. After all, the villain was making Basanti do it, not the hero. But in Hayek’s case, it wasn’t the single-headed artistic, male-gaze of the director or the hydra-headed male gaze of the box office that was making Basanti dance. It was just that Harvey Weinstein wanted it. It wasn’t his objectifying subconscious rejecting Frida’s unibrow and limp. It wasn’t his lack of understanding of patriarchy’s twisting of art that demanded a scene in which Frida Kahlo had sex with Tina Modotti. No, he just wanted to screw Hayek and if he couldn’t screw her, he wanted to screw her over. Actually, he just wanted to screw her over to begin with. That rape is about power not sex, I still believe, whatever other theory has been ripped from my heart.
At TLF and elsewhere, we female critics spend time analysing, praising, half-praising and critiquing movies with our feminist toolkit. I have laughed uproariously while telling the story of the man who wanted to make Buddha In A Traffic Jam, a movie ‘inspired’ by the Pink Chaddi movement telling me that it’s unrealistic to have a woman lead a movement like that. I have told this other story of the male scriptwriter’s gaze a 100 times and had audiences in a mixture of shock and giggles each time. I have been watching movies and television for years with that eager beaver feminist student’s notebook, giving points to the movies that thwart the gaze, and to the movies that give women actors names and a few more lines of dialogue. Spent years like a trudging pilgrim, to be nearer to thee, my non-denominational artistic deity. Because the best instrument of our feminist toolkit has been hope.
But now I want to retire from that game.
Over a decade ago, a filmmaker friend told me a story from the sets of a big Tamil movie. A song was being shot with the reigning chulbuli, a woman with a personality as effervescent as Hayek’s. The director paused action to ream the costume designer out in front of the whole set and the actor. And because this is Chennai, the reaming is in English. The director says, “Where are the tits and ass in this costume? Do you think I cast her for her acting?” The actor quit a year or so later, after getting married. That was the first time I didn’t do my usual moaning about women quitting the movies after getting married. For years I had bemoaned the loss of Manju Warrier, for which I boycotted her husband, nobody’s priya Dileep. I began to say to myself then that acting was just a horrible job for some women and why would anyone continue if they didn’t have to. Even then, I didn’t think that some of the women who quit, seemingly by their own choice, may actually still miss the movies. I didn’t think that, for some of them, it was an artistic pursuit but they were exhausted by its sexism.
So when we ask, where did all those women we loved in the movies go? They went perhaps to a place where they were facing less rape threats, death threats and daily violence. Weinstein threatened to kill Hayek at one point but that’s just him, right? No. In the first paragraph of her expose of Indian theatre that Nandini Krishnan wrote for TLF, she says, “Two years ago, I decided I’d stop acting in plays… In 2014, a co-actor slapped me as a scene was being choreographed. There was no slap in the script.”
This year I heard on the grapevine about an actor’s experience in a south Indian movie playing the wife of a star who’s old enough to be her grandfather. The movie is full of male-gaze-south-Indian-edition absurdities like the young wife wanting desperately to comb her husband’s moustache. The hero dies in this movie and the actor had to be in a scene where she is wailing next to her dead husband’s corpse. In each take, the ‘dead’ man, cotton balls in his nostrils notwithstanding, copped a surreptitious feel of the heroine. The third time it happened she got up mid-wail and yelled at him, “stop doing that right now.” And yelled at, for the first time in his 40-year career, the man quietened down. This young woman actor has a cultivated or accidental air of ‘I can take this career or leave it,” that has protected her from backlash. Or maybe we will read about the backlash 40 years from now in her memoir. It may be like the kind of backlash that actors like Swara Bhaskar are now talking about or the kind that award-winning star Parvathy is currently facing for saying that she was disappointed by Mamooty’s misogynistic dialogue in Kasaba. Or it may be worse.
One of the kindest and smartest things I’ve read all year is what Rima Kallingal said in Leena Reghunath’s profile of Manju Warrier. Warrier is a woman who dumped her husband, made a triumphant comeback and now has to cope with the drama of her former husband allegedly ordering a ‘supaari’ rape on her actor friend. Here is the line. “Kallingal was defensive about criticisms that Warrier was seeking to market her personal story as part of the movie. “That is the only thing that we have, our tragedies,” she said. “So what is wrong if we market that?””
So, no I don’t want any theoretical understanding of why male artists can’t help themselves, what with the weight of civilisation and all. What I want is a sign before every movie indicating that, “no women were harmed in the making of this movie.” I want movies written by women, made by women, funded by women.
Because is there any point knowing about the male gaze as long as there is no female bank balance to poke in that twisted eye? As the Superwoman’s mother said, “Tu minnu bhindiya tedhi aankhein na dikha, okay?”
Co-published with Firstpost.com