Two Films – A Feminist Reading

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Mandi (1983) – The Marketplace

Icp044Shyam Benegal's film Mandi or the The Marketplace has been largely understood as a black comedy satirizing middle-class morality. Set in a brothel,Mandi is a rollicking drama of excess. This establishment is faced with a sad decline as its patronage withers in the face of changing times. Middle-class morality is posed against the bordello, with the conflict being played out as the agenda of a hypocritical, desirous, yet authoritarian and morally adjudicating middle-class civil society. The alchemy of this sharply performative delineating breaks down at several points when the madam of the bordello Rukmini Bai retorts with the very same discourse that society uses to attack the establishment, thus exposing the ephemerality and absurdly unquestioned character of such narratives.

The characters are strong, differentially positioned entities with various roles to play within and without this market for women. Rukmini Bai, the madam of the bordello is probably one of the most nuanced characters played by women in Indian cinema. Shabana Azmi executes the role of a ruthless madam who wants the sex trade to flourish with a flavor that is almost schizophrenic[i]. The nature of her various alliances with men outside and women inside is a tension filled process alternating between dominance, negotiation and acquiescence.

She wields power in knowing and serving their secret desires while allying with them to serve her own. With the women or her girls, she is maternal and paternal at the same time[ii] while also ruthless in her understanding of their value as commodities. Her care and concern are instrumental in being able to maintain a household of service workers but she also considers them as her own children much in the manner of a capricious parent. Watch the scene where she negotiates the purchase of Phulmani[iii], playing concerned parent one moment and seasoned buyer the next. In the tone of stern parenthood, Bai seeks to break the virginal girl gently into sex work thus almost erasing her complicity, but the first few frames detailing the actual act of purchase ensure that the audience will not forget. The film further complicates this notion of functional and adoptive parenthood when focusing on the behavior of Mrs. Gupta, a member of respectable society and an associate in the movement for women's upliftment when we see her gently coercing her reluctant daughter into an arranged marriage[iv].

The film is based on Ghulam Abbas' novel ‘Anandi' or ‘The Women's Quarter' (trans. 1996). The novel writes about about religious-minded puritans who force the municipal authorities to evict prostitutes from the city and give them an alternative settlement six miles beyond municipal limits. The poor women move out into the wilderness and build themselves blocks of flats above shops they hope to rent. It soon becomes a more thriving locality than the first and gets a municipality of its own. Once again municipal councilors under pressure from mullahs order the expulsion of the prostitutes. This time they take fewer chances: instead of six miles, the women are ordered to live twelve miles beyond the new township. Building on this, the bordello in the film is a signifier for the configuration of urban spaces in keeping with middle-class sensibilities. In depicting its constant movement between the periphery and the center, Benegal forms a fine picture of middle-class desires and uses the bordello as an instrument to satirize a middle-class respectability that has its own secrets and repressed passions. The film is a wonderfully nuanced reading of the institution of the brothel and its placement at the periphery of civil and civilized society. This periphery however is a point of entry into the center/locale of repressed middle-class desire whose exclusion is what makes possible the making of middle-class morality.

The film is also notable in its focus on peripheral subjects. It is a tale of victims that refuse to be so, and agency through Machiavellian manipulation. It is also a strong portrayal of a community of women in coalition through circumstance and partial choice. The film problematizes even the notion of this community through a clear understanding of this coalitional condition. The sisterhood is conditional, generous in turns and never consistent. This is also one of the few films that represent the vivacity of female bonding in a community. Yet the identifications are intrasubjective and do not transgress the delineated community or connect with the Other of the bordello, the urban middle-class woman. The alter ego of this narrative, the very persona of middle-class morality is a sari-clad, stern looking, middle-aged, scowling woman called Shanti Devi. Shanti Devi is a social worker, member of the municipal municipal committee of Puratanpalli (in itself meaning “old town” or metaphorically “anachronistic town”) and founder of the Nari Niketanor Women's Organization. She is whispered about in the bordello and other places as having an affair with her son-in-law.

In Shanti Devi is invested the entire undiluted hypocrisy of the middle-class, their unexamined prejudices and their ridiculously absurd customs of paternalism, respectability and acceptability. Morality is represented as being a kind of flattened evil through which is created a charter of right-bearing members of civil society. The character of Shanti Devi is of course a caricature. But the caricature is a woman and a woman whose power stems from morality as an unexamined trope. The film thus makes no clear comment on the possibilities for identifying degrees of oppression in both classes of women. Even across their varied ideas of morality, Rukmini Bai and Shanti Devi as also Mrs.Gupta share the experience of a kind of oppression perpetuated by systems privileging patriarchal domination.

The film emphasizes the complicity of the moral woman to recuperate the morality of the fallen one but does not lead towards the possibility of their intersubjectivity. It separates the two frames of oppression to the detriment of its chosen subject. Within these internally textured frames is thus a clear weaving of dichotomous, supposedly moral but completely immoral and repressed urban middle-class women, and supposedly immoral but actually ethical prostitutes. This is also therefore the story of a kind of recuperation of a valorized morality, which while avoiding and caricaturing the rhetoric of victimization nevertheless valorizes the courtesan and the skill with which she practices survival in the face of morality and its strictures. In flattening out its nemesis, the film leaves a gap allowing no ways of thinking about possible points of interaction between the bordello and middle-class society that can function in settings other than the marketplace. The Mandi, I argue, has been emptied of moral content even as it used to comment on morality. It is an unconscious validation and consequent erasure of the machinations of the market.

India Cabaret (1985)

Indian-cabaretMira Nair's debut venture, a documentary called India Cabaret is a close look at a group of female strippers who work in a nightclub in the suburbs of Bombay. Nair focuses on their outlook on life, relating their hopes and fears while also foregrounding individual histories, attitudes, pride and resilience. An unsentimental portrayal, it is nevertheless empathetic and insightful in the ways that she establishes a rapport with dancers, their families, the club owner and the men that patronize the establishment.

Rekha, Rosy and Sona are the strippers that Nair interviews and foregrounds, attempting a clear depiction of their multiple positionalities while also etching their individual mechanisms of compromise, negotiation and rebellion as intense acts of agency performed in an oppressive milieu. Rekha talks about being married at the age of eight and facing abuse in her marital home after bearing a son at the age of fifteen. Refusing to tolerate this treatment, she leaves her husband only to become a dancer in the night-club as she had to fend for herself in the absence of parental support. She admits to making the choice in order to earn the kind of money that would gain her respect and acknowledgement.

Rekha has an understanding of the bargaining power that money holds in a gendered asymmetrical world. Rosy also clearly foregrounds the monetary need when she states that her first job earned her the princely sum of six hundred rupees a month. When asked if they were ashamed of what they did, Rekha and others declare that they had abandoned shame the day they entered the profession. Rekha states, “If the viewer feels no shame, then why should we, the viewed?”[v] In her statement is a clear understanding of the rules of commodification and the sheer mercenary quality of such transactions. But there is also nostalgia for respectability when another stripper says that she only feels ashamed when she walks on the road and somebody points to her referring to her as the woman who dances naked in the club. The film also includes an interview with the club owner who declares that he will not serve as a go-between in the prostitution of the women; he considers them humans and hence cannot serve as a link in that sale. He points therefore to the ways in which the

Rosy calls the girls queens of the night who work in their temple performing duties out of necessity and limited choice. There is a certain resigned understanding of the limits of agency in a sequence where dancer in the club indicates that this choice is really no better than other more respectable ones because even in offices, girls are harassed, touched and objectified. Besides, they speak about a prudent use of resources that will provide for them in their old age and ensure that they will not have to depend on others. Rekha declares herself ready to get married to a man who has been courting her for three years. She states that it is a careful choice made after much deliberation and she is now prepared to leave this profession, which she treats as a necessary evil. But in a moment of doubt, she also narrates that her relatives who are married and confined to their homes to take care of their kids do not seem too satisfied and seem to have aspirations to freedom and mobility. In a self-reflexive strand, she contrasts her desires for stability and security with theirs and wonders if there is any difference.

Perhaps the most poignant moments of the film are surprisingly the interviews with the middle-class representative, the wife of a patron who knows of his jaunts to the cabaret. She shares her naiveté with respect to the world outside her home and says that her desires have long vanished into her heart[vi]. She talks about constantly taking care of husband and family and thus sacrificing all personal desire and want. The sequence is further emphasized through an interview with her father-in-law who states that an unmarried girl is a useless entity in the Hindu world and a good woman is one who is virtuous, married, soft-spoken, and takes care of her family.

The girls from the club also have strong family loyalties and contribute to their upkeep even if they are shunned by them. Rosy gives money to her family in order that her sister might have a good wedding and a respectable family life, but she is not allowed to enter her house and her mother will not speak to her. Obviously pained, Rosy is nevertheless pragmatic in her acceptance of her undesirability as a visible member of the family and talks about the sorrow as a permanent burden[vii]. Rekha's family does not know about her profession and all her son understands is that he gets taken care of by a monthly stipend. The very commodification of these women is thus accomplished as subterfuge and informality. The hopes for emancipation are few and the film hints that these are invested in the wait for the ideal man.[viii]

India Cabaret thus brings together intersubjective readings of sex workers and middle-class women subjectified in equal and opposite ways by structures of sexual domination and patriarchy. In emphasizing structures of oppression across classes, it also suggests realms for coalition between these different classes as a discursive strategy to deconstruct larger social phenomena. It is a conscious representation of the shared experience of survival within a patriarchal system as a route to dialogue.

In a parallel reading India Cabaret can also be seen to embody the melancholia inherent to sustaining these multiple subjectivities in a mutually binding incompleteness and exclusion. I posit that the sex worker as well as the moral woman are secured through a dynamic of exclusion. The identity of the latter is secured through the melancholic introjection of an amoral other whose ghostly presence guarantees its centrality. The amoral object also suffers from melancholia whereby her identity is imaginatively re-inforced through the introjection of a lost, never-possible perfection, an inarticulable loss that comes to form the individual's sense of his or her own subjectivity. The film is thus a magnification of the intersubjectivity that is blocked through exclusion.

[i] I use ‘schizophrenic' here as a description not a diagnostic. The nature of such split behavior is shown inherent to individuals functioning within the logic of the ‘market' or market capitalism.

[ii] She calls Zeenat her ‘ghar ka chirag' or the lamp of the house which is doubly ironic because the bordello is not a regular middle-class household and the ‘chirag' or lamp is a metaphor normally used for the eldest son who has the ability to perpetuate the clan.

[iii] The name of a character who is a virgin girl tricked into prostitution.

[iv] It is later revealed in the movie that the marriage is part of a business arrangement between Mr.Gupta and Mr.Agarwal who are also implicated in the business of the brothel.

[v] Dekhnewale ko sharm naheen, tho dikhanewale kyun sharm karein? (Translation mine)

[vi] Man maa samayi gaya (translation mine)

[vii] The irony of this fact is highlighted in an extended dance sequence where Rosy gyrates over the floor, in an elaborate performance of sexual desire and ecstasy.

[viii] This is highlighted when Sona reacts to the story of Rekha's future marriage stating that her life was now better than their current modes of existence. The point however is tenuous and arguable.