A Celebration of “She-Roes”: An Analysis of Female Protagonists in Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad and Meghna Gulzar’s Chappak

 

Gayatri Chakrabarty Spivak famously wrote: “ . . . if the subaltern is to be taught to speak, as I believe she must be, humanitarian efforts (would-be quick fixes) won’t cut it . . . The subaltern cannot speak . . . because her speech falls short of fully authorized, political speech. Too much gets in the way of her message’s being heard, socially and politically.” Spivak’s theory focused on the inability of European classics and scholars to address the non-white woman’s problems and issues; she believed that “white men cannot save brown women from brown men.” Writers, scholars and most certainly filmmakers of India have hardly ever tried to render speech to the “brown woman”; they have rarely departed from the depiction of unequal gender relations in their work. Bollywood directors have, by and large, naturalized unequal gender relations in their films. Meghna Gulzar’s Chappak and Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad deconstruct traditional Bollywood formulaic cinema in a way that is challenging and subversive.

One of the reasons that Spivak was unhappy with the umbrella narrative of Western feminism was that it did not encompass the local and regional discriminations that women have to deal with in third world countries. Meghna Gulzar’s Chappak brutally exposes the harsh realities of heinous acid attacks on women from marginalized classes in India. Chappak fictionalizes the life of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor who is today a prime advocate of banning the sale of acid in the country. The film, featuring Deepika Padukone in the central character of Malthi, follows a non-linear narration: it begins with Malthi, already having endured the attack, looking for a job to support her family and heal herself emotionally. We follow Malthi across the streets of Delhi, as she seeks jobs, first at a beauty parlor (where she is blithely dismissed as not being the “beauty needed in a beauty parlor”) then at a newspaper office where she goes to give an interview and finally to the NGO office where she is tasked with helping acid attack victims like herself.

From the very start, Chappak stands out as a film that does not indulge in melodrama or tears; We meet Malthi as a powerful protagonist whose pain is visible in her expressive eyes but whose spirit is indomitable. We rarely see Malthi without a smile or a laugh; she dances at parties, cracks jokes with her co-survivors and believes that life can be optimistic despite all that has happened. What is also very heartening is the depiction of strong women characters in the film; it is Malthi’s lawyer Archana and her team who file the PIL and launch the campaign for the ban on acid and for stringent laws to punish acid attackers. Chappak reveals the impunity of gender discrimination not only in Indian society but in the Indian legal system; When Malthi (and her real life counterpart Laxmi) is attacked in the year 2005, there is no act that punishes acid attackers; Malthi has to struggle not only to identify and convict the people who have scarred her so heinously but also to ensure that their sentence is a long and just one. (Today there is the Acid Attack Act under section 326A which punishes acid throwing with a maximum sentence of ten years but one wonders whether that is enough for literally and metaphorically burning a girl).

Spivak was certain that white men would never free brown subaltern women; Chappak depicts the gulf that Spivak wrote about. Western countries rarely witness crimes like acid attack; this kind of vitriolic crime is typical in sub-continental countries where it is believed that a girl’s identity resides in her ‘beautiful’ body. By attacking the girl’s ‘beauty’ the acid thrower strives to destroy her sense of selfhood; it is also significant, as Archana in the film points out, that most acid attacks have occurred on women who were subverting their class or caste norms, either by their academic abilities or their wish to overcome social barriers like marriage. Research papers on acid attacks show that while acid throwing on men and women occur across the world occasionally, in India, Taiwan and Bangladesh, women are the most common victims of acid throwing. The National Crime Records data shows that over 249 cases of acid attacks occurred in India in 2015-16. The data further shows that maximum number of attacks occur on women in the age group of 20-30; 30% of the attacks were motivated by marital dispute, unrequited love and to perpetuate ‘honor killing’.

Chappak shows how in India the acid thrower alone does not scar the girl; there are so many others: there is the policewoman who searches Malthi’s phone to see how may texts from boys are there in the phone, there is the friend of Malthi’s brother who cackles with laughter at the ‘ghost’ his friend’s sister has been transformed into, there are the relentless people on the streets who scorch Malthi with their pitying gaze, believing that if a girl’s ‘beautiful’ face is disfigured, she is better off dead. Gulzar never lets her audience forget the suffering of Malthi or her overcoming of it; but, at the same time, she explores the biases against women to the fullest, trying hard to make the audience question as to why one human being would commit such a terrible attack on another. Chappak does not make you weep or cry and it certainly cannot entertain you; it makes you scream silently against a society that refuses to grant a woman her right to live on her own terms; it makes you punch the air silently in victory as Malthi moves on in life, not as victim but survivor, winning her case as well as her convictions.

Bollywood films are seldom known for their subtility; most of the times, everything is in excess, be it tears, laughter or anger. If Chappak breaks that trend then Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad dismantles it completely. Thappad, as a film, celebrates protest against patriarchy, but it does so silently, without yells of rage. The plot revolves around Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) who is a devoted wife, committed to furthering her husband’s prospects and career, till one fateful night at a party when she is publicly slapped by him. While the story is overtly a straightforward one, the layers are multiple. We have all heard of the term “domestic violence”; Thappad asks the question: what encompasses domestic violence? Does a single slap constitute violence? Or does domestic violence go beyond the slap and beyond the physical? Perhaps, violence constitutes all the silent abuses that patriarchy heaps on women, especially in India; every time a woman is asked to choose between her career or her home, when she runs after her husband to ensure he eats his breakfast before heading to work and when a man becomes entitled enough to vent his pent up frustrations on his wife by slapping her. Sinha’s 2 hour 21 minute film delves into the rarely spoken of and accepted gender discriminations in our society; an impulsive slap at a party becomes a metaphor for all the unspoken ways in which women are marginalized in Indian society. We see how Amrita is interpellated into the norms of her traditional marriage, giving up her passion for dance, taking over the household management, doing everything she can to support Vikram, her husband. Amrita’s mother-in-law constantly reminds her of a ‘woman’s responsibility towards her home’. We rarely see Amrita questioning this skewed division of responsibilities.

However, when Vikram, in his fuming temper, slaps her, Amrita is jarred awake. She resolves to end the marriage and from hereon begins her struggle. We meet a lawyer who cannot comprehend any wife leaving a marriage just because of one slap. Amrita is repeatedly told that a ‘slap does not constitute violence’. But what Amrita and Sinha want everyone to realize is that the slap is part of the larger pattern of discrimination; the slap is a symptom of gender bias rather than a cause. Sinha poses the larger question of what empowers a man to physically abuse a woman in our society, just as Gulzar tries to explore the reason for a man believing that he is entitled to throw acid on a woman simply because she spurns his offer of marriage. Both Chappak and Thappad question male empowerment in Indian society; Malthi and Amrita, through their silent protest and courage, challenge and overturn patriarchal supremacy. While the plot of Thappad may seem repetitive of feminist woes and a rant against patriarchy, the sensitive and layered direction makes the film expose much more than domestic abuse; it shows the years of conditioning that a woman undergoes to become a slave to male domination. Gender Studies revolves around the axiom that gender is social rather than biological; Thappad proves that again and again through its trio of women characters.

Other than Amrita, we meet her maid who is regularly beaten by her alcoholic husband. Then there is Amrita’s neighbor (Dia Mirza) who strives to succeed as a single woman. Sinha intertwines all of their stories to evoke empathy for the struggles of women trying to overcome patriarchy in a society that does not allow them to do so. Like the character of Malthi, Amrita is restrained and quiet; she rarely rages and screams but her anger and disillusionment shine through for the audience. Sinha makes it very clear that abuse is abuse, whether it is committed by a serial offender like Amrita’s maid’s drunken husband or it is a solitary episode of a ‘slap’ by an otherwise ‘good’ husband like Vikram. Vikram is not a villainous monster; he is simply blinded by male privilege. Thappad beautifully depicts various kinds of men, from the misogynistic Vikram to the very lovable father of Amrita, who roots for his daughter all through the film. Sinha does not demonize men; he simply projects the many facets of the Indian male: we have our share of understanding and caring men who help women achieve success or happiness.

Sinha’s Thappad is flawless cinema; its awareness of gender bias goes beyond the overt and the obvious. Indian cinema has for far too long catered to patriarchal clichés. It has appeased the male ego far too many times to count. However, Thappad and Chappak are path breaking in their ‘slap’ to patriarchy; they are buckets of ice hurled on the sleeping audience to jar them from their stupor. In the words of Simon de Beauvoir, both these films tear themselves away from “the safe comfort of certainties” and get “rewarded with truth”.

Poems by Shirsha Bandyopadhyay

১.

তবুও প্রেম।

 

শৌর্য্য আর আমি একসাথে স্বপ্ন দেখতাম,

শৌর্য কালো পাঞ্জাবি পড়ত ,

আমি সাদা শাড়ি পড়তাম ।

শৌর্য চশমা পরতনা,

আমি মাইনাস পাওয়ারের গ্লাস পড়তাম ।

শৌর্য অগোছালো ভাবে কলকাতার রাস্তায় হাঁটত,

আর , আমি কালো টিপ , খোলা চুলে বাউলে ডুবতাম।

আমি সুররিয়ালিসমের নোটস গিলতাম ,

আর শৌর্য , সুররিয়ালিসমের কবিতা লিখত।

আমি শক্তি চাটুজ্যে পড়তাম ,

ও কোলরিজ, ব্ল্যাঙ্ক ভার্স আওড়াত

শৌর্য কোনোদিন গোর্কিকে ভালোবাসেনি ,

পড়েনি মার্কসের প্রেমের কবিতা,

আমি শেষ বিকেলে গড়ের মাঠে চিৎকার করে

চে এর সবুজ নোটবই পড়তাম।

আমি ‘অনিমেষ’ হতে চেয়েছিলাম,

বন্দুক হাতে বিপ্লবে নেমেছিলাম শহরে..

আর তিলোত্তমার রাজপথ জুড়ে

বৃষ্টি এসেছিল বাহাত্তরের ভোরে।

শৌর্য এখন স্বপ্ন দেখেনা ,

ভৈরবী সাধেনা কবিতা জুড়ে;

স্যুট – টাই পড়ে কেরানি সেজে

রাত্তির করে বাড়ি ফেরে।

আর , আমি দিগন্তরেখা ছুঁয়ে

ছুটে যায় , লাল সূর্যের দিকে।

ঠিক যেদিকে রবসন এর গান ভেসে আসে …

ঠিক যেভাবে শৌর্য চুমু এঁকেছিল ঠোঁটে।
দ্রষ্টব্যঃ – বাবির ( Debasish Banerjee ) ” শ্বেতা ও আমি ” তিরিশ বছর পেরিয়ে।

২.

রোদ্দুর ও ড্যাফোডিলের সংসার।

 

সেদিন বৃষ্টি পড়েছিল সারাটাদিন

আমরা হেঁটে গেছিলাম রাজপথ,

সেদিন রোদ্দুর চুরি করেছিল রাখাল

চিলেকোঠায় শালিক পাখির বকবক।

আমরা হেঁটেছিলাম , সমুদ্দুর পেরোলাম

পেরোলাম ট্রয়ের অলি – গলি

নেশাতুর চোখে রাত নেমে আসে ,

স্টেশন জুড়ে ঘর-ফিরতি কাহিনী।

সেই চোখে চোখ রেখেছে মিদাস

জাল বুনছে গবলিনের বাজার ,

আমি দেখেছি তাকে কিটসের শেষ ছত্রে,

আমি দেখেছি ওই মদির চোখে,

নীরার ফেলে যাওয়া ছেঁড়া খাম ।

আমি সেই চোখে সাঁতরেছি খনিজলে।

আমরা ডুবুরি নিয়ে তলিয়ে গেছি ,

প্রশান্ত মহাসাগরের প্রবালদ্বীপে,

আমি সেই চোখে পেয়েছি

চে এর বিপ্লব , ছোটগল্পের উপসংহার ।

আমরা ঝর্ণার জলে স্নান করলাম ,

অবগাহন করলাম ড্যাফোডিলের সংসারে—-

আমরা পেরোলাম তারায় ঘেরা রাজপথ।

৩.

ট্রয় ও রূপকথারা

বিকেলের নিভে আসা আলোয়,

ছড়িয়ে পড়া ক্যাথারসিসে

তোমায় দেখেছি আমি

ভ্যানগগের রং তুলির টানে,

তোমার স্বপ্ন বুনেছি আমি।

ট্রয়ের ইতিহাসের আঁচড়

নেমে এসেছে আমাদের ব্রজভূমে–

প্যালেটের শেষ হয়ে যাওয়া লাল রঙে,

আঁকিবুকি কেটে সাজিওনা আমায় ,

সাজিও তোমার সাদা-কালো-ধূসরে।

আমি তো রাজপুত্তুর চাইনি ,

চাইনি , ঝলসানো আলোর রাজমহল,

শুধু অবগাহন করতে চেয়েছি

অপার ভালোবাসার সমুদ্দুরে,

শুধু আমাদের রূপকথা লিখব বলে।

––———————————
Sheersha

শীর্ষা বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায় , কলিকাতা বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় থেকে ইংরেজি সাহিত্য ও ভাষায়,এম.এ । হেস্টিং হাউস থেকে বি.এড পাঠরত । বাংলা লিটিল ম্যাগাজিনে কবিতা , গল্প , প্ৰবন্ধ লিখি, কলকাতা সহ অন্য জেলার অনেক ম্যাগাজিনে প্রকাশিত হয়েছে লেখা । সাগ্নিক পত্রিকার সম্পাদক মন্ডলীর সাথে যুক্ত। লেখিকা ও কবি হওয়ার স্বপ্ন দেখি ।

Poems by Ritoshree Chatterjee with Illustrations from Subarnarekha Pal

Ragdoll

My sweet, you
asked me
about                                  Insanity

Ragdoll
insanity
/ɪnˈsanəti/
noun
the state of being seriously mentally ill; madness.

I held up
peachblossom
candies

for you, and
ruminated
the whistling

monster; eyes
carmine, chasing
me

till I slipped into
my greyscaled,
homestead

listening to mom’s
sewing machine
ratatat

ratatat

‘Ma, I want to play’
ratatat

‘Sing to me at night?’
ratatat

‘Ma, there’s a monster outside’
ratatat

her eyes, red
from Moscato
wine, red

wool for my
stillborn
brother

red with the
monster, now

inside

in our family,
the heir wears
red wool

ruffles

blessed be

but I crowned
myself, with
a wreath of

peonies

My sweet, my
insanity
lies in peony

wreaths and
watercress
tufts

not in the angry
willowtree of
welts

father carved
in
me

nor in the
porcelain
Buddha

that smashed to
smithereens
as the old man with

bald spots and
garlic
breath

shoved me
down on
his aisle of

little
crotches
smelling like

daffodils

and an old
photograph of a
buck naked

ukulele
lady with
blackbeetle

nipples,
smoking
Havana

how I wanted to be her

‘You’re a  whore’
he
whispered,

his white hands
poking
down my

tadpole legs

and I believed him

Homecoming

Homecoming

There are days you
smell of
sad white linen and

aftershave

and I let you brush off
cobwebs from
my back and

cigarette stubs
from my
navel

… and you
drown yourself, in
drunken whiffs of

long withered buttercup
breasts, and
smoldered

sea-salt smiles

There are days I
toss, mustard
seeds and lima

beans, my
cluttered beads
of rosary

and wonder why
someone with a
smile like

dawn
breaking open

would drift to sleep, to
paltry thighs, and
purplish

skin

There are days our
tiny porch lies
strewn with flaming

leaves of Chinar

and you gently
blow them snowflakes
off my sweatcaked

sleeping, forehead

and you let me
lie, amongst
solitary chirps

of homecoming
swallows, gathering
straw

wishing I knew.

 

 

Fable of a Mayflower

  1. My eyes trickle sand and sweat and seasaltshe is an April girl and her island is overgrown with watercress and flamingofishes her nipples smile at me bits of salmon sun dripping from her lips uncouth

Mayflower I
after my starved half lidded eyes scan past her soft red mud underthighs I veer into her eyes and see the ocean I cannot afford to drown again so I close them sickly portholes and let the sun dry up my tears instead

II. She stared at me till the sky broke open
Mayflower II
she cracks open few coconuts and we slurp the virgin nectar and we let the rain drops kiss our naked skin she hums ditties and lullabies only a mother could
hum her brazen fingertips run over her belly bulging like waves and lemon flowers

it is when she intertwines my coiled hollowed digits into hers and tiptoes into a cove layered with pink debris and pondscum I realise I have known her before for inside lies a skeleton which is barely a skeleton for its skull is smashed to bits and miry worms tear off dregs of rainsoaked flesh still hanging by the ribcage

III. My memories creep back as leaves blush amaranth
Mayflower III
we made love on a mottled autumnal carpet and she giggled while I sucked her areolas peached with perspiration the earth crumbled and the oceans waltzed astray from afar drifted hushed voices of bearded men frigid with frugality and foresight to them we were damnable bloodworms feeding on sweat and semen

while they excused their woebegone desolate pride to law books and zephyrs from primrose canopies none of them had known the wet aching mouth of a woman craving a fortnight’s bliss none of them had spent themselves on distant dreams of bumblebee lips I felt spit settle down my collarbone and tasted blood and clinks of skull and clasped her waist underneath me melting

IV. The graves are done and the only mourners are snowflakes
Mayflower IV
we let ourselves be draped in myrtle and seaweed and fasten barbed icicles and make our sturdiest dig the child lies unborn motionless when I brush my tongue along her waning navel my tongue is cold and dormant and my hands ache as I warble for the babe to wake up to whiffs of fossilized plumeria she pecks me not on the torso not on the lips
I have never felt so unaccustomed to forehead kisses before I hold back frozen gnawing at my grave and hers her eyes are jagged an insane shade I have never seen before

 

a bluebird trills then she’s a breeze that never has been I lie down wooden and wait for spring and the wildflowers

RC

 

Ritoshree Chatterjee studies English Literature at Chandernagore College, writes poetry to find peace and voraciously devours much, from Marquez to Murakami.

 

 

Subarna

 

Subarnarekha Pal is an independent thinker and enthusiast and jams poetry with her friend. Amidst everything, she struggles to be an artist.