The term ‘male gaze’ has become synonymous with feminist film criticism. Though Laura Mulvey coined the term in her analysis of the classical Hollywood film way back in 1975, it is a concept that is widely applicable to mainstream Indian cinema even today. She argued that the classical film structure stimulated the desire to see by incorporating structures of narcissism and voyeurism into the film story and image.

Narcissistic visual pleasure is derived from self-identification with a character in the image while voyeuristic pleasure is the result of looking at another character as our object. Mulvey analyzed visual pleasure in classical cinema as functioning on the basis of the active and passive, and she sees this binary as being gendered.

The male character is the one who provides narcissistic pleasure and is active and powerful, while the female character is passive and powerless. This ties in with John Berger’s broader analysis of western arts and aesthetics in his popular TV series and book Ways of Seeing, wherein he had famously argued that it is as if ‘men act and women appear’.

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While this idea of the male gaze continues to be widely used in a feminist analysis of films, Laura Mulvey’s arguments have been criticized for analysing cinema and the cinematic audience through a constricted lens. Since then, several feminist theorists, notably bell hooks through her notion of the ‘oppositional gaze’, have challenged this unidimensional theory that obfuscates the whiteness of the white female at the centre of the male/female gender binary, among other things.

Moreover, feminist film criticism itself has expanded such that the very concept of a feminist film has become more complex in some ways and less nuanced in others. Parameters vary from screenplay and narrative structure to involvement of women in the filmmaking process to the narrative arcs of female characters in a film.

The male character provides narcissistic pleasure, is active and powerful, while the female character is passive and powerless.

The planes of argument are many, and the one idea that I will be focusing on is the role that feminist documentary film practice can play in defying the patriarchal structure of the film by making the violence of its gaze explicit. Laura Mulvey’s argument was that the structure of the classic Hollywood film itself is patriarchal. This broad argument holds true for all films.

She and early feminists argued that a feminist film should defy conventional narrative and cinematic techniques to engage in experimental practice. Films like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and Sally Potter’s Thriller aimed to do just that.

Film critic Anneke Smelik argues that this style of filmmaking was not limited to the fictional film, but extends to the documentary. According to Anneke, the problem is even more acute with the documentary because the traditional documentary form aims to capture the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, obfuscating the construction of this truth through cinematic structures.

For several filmmakers of the 1970s, this was unacceptable because it could not include self-reflexivity, which is one of the central ideas of feminist filmmaking. Anneke points out that there were oppositions to this argument as well because many traditional documentary films were significant as historical documents for the women’s movement.

I think that a similar argument can be made about feminist documentary film practice in India. Important contributions to the women’s movement have been made by films which are stylistically more traditional like Deepa Dhanraj’s 1992 film Something like a War that criticizes India’s family planning program and its oppression of rural women or Shabnam Virmani’s 1996 film When Women Unite which uses several enacted scenes to tell the tale of the anti-arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh.

Nonetheless, the feminist notion of self-reflexivity, important to both documentary practice and academic research, holds revolutionary potential for it makes the viewer aware of the filmmaking process and the relationship between the filmmaker, the subject and the image. An awareness of this process of meaning-making within the film could play an important role in complicating the idea of a feminist film at a time when many ‘lady-oriented’ films in Bollywood.

The recently released Tumhari Sulu or Secret Superstar have been written and directed by men. We can also consider the relationship between a dominant caste Hindu woman of privilege and her fictional subjects who are from non-dominant castes and Muslim women in a film like Lipstick Under My Burkha.

As far as the documentary is concerned, self-reflexivity becomes an important tool in addressing the power dynamics of documentary films where the subject often tends to be a less powerful other while the filmmaker is the more powerful self. Several Indian feminist documentary films of the new millennium have made use of elements of self-reflexivity.

Nishtha Jain’s 2007 film Lakshmi and Me is about 21-year-old domestic worker Lakshmi and her life struggles but it is equally about the personal journey that the filmmaker undertakes through the course of the film and the way this changes her relationship with Lakshmi. The gaze of Nishtha’s camera on the less privileged Lakshmi remains violent, but that violence is made explicit, especially when Nishtha’s employment of Lakshmi raises ethical questions with regard to her consenting to be the subject of this film.

Similarly, Shohini Ghosh’s 2002 film Tales of the Night Fairies revolves around five sex workers (four women and a kothi) who are members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Unstoppable Women’s Collaborative Committee) in Kolkata. The sex workers make arguments in favour of consensual adult sex work, but the film is as much about these arguments as it is about the lives of these inspiring workers, who are depicted as being independent, smart, witty and fun loving.

The film could have focused only on these five characters but Shohini purposely introduces herself as a character in the film. The main element through which Shohini connects herself with her subjects is through their transgressive sexualities. She says that both she and the sex workers are sexual outlaws, ending the film by reflecting on her telling the stories of these women, perhaps because they had the courage to come out and tell their stories, while she did not.

the feminist notion of self-reflexivity holds revolutionary potential for it makes the viewer aware of the filmmaking process.

Throughout the film, her presence is strongly felt. While most shots of the subjects are individual interviews, there are shots of her engaging in thought-provoking conversation with the subjects, or just having a good time, be it singing songs on a boat ride across the Hooghly river or having fun exchanges at a mela. The layers of self-reflexivity added to the film make it a queer feminist film with interesting reflections on intersectionality.

Pushpa Rawat’s 2012 film Nirnay pushes the idea of self reflexivity further by acting as a personal essay telling the story of her life while also lending a voice to her female friends, whose opinions are often stifled and decisions almost always made by others in their life. It was a definite choice to make the presence of the camera felt in the film, for from over 40 hours of footage that Pushpa had shot, she chose to include scenes where the subjects explicitly comment on the camera’s presence.

Pushpa’s presence too is continuously felt through her voice that changes tone, mode and mood depending on her relation to the subject. The most revolutionary potential of the camera is realized in the hands of the self-reflexive filmmaker who is using the camera to resist her oppressive circumstances. The presence of the camera is palpable, not as an invisible device with a voyeuristic gaze but as an empowering tool in the hands of the woman fighting back.

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Featured Image Credit: BFI

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