Posted by Asavari Sharma
Just because a film isn’t sexist, it doesn’t qualify to be called feminist. This is a thought that struck me when I watched Veere Di Wedding earlier this year and heard people talk about how it depicted elite feminism. All I could think was, it didn’t really depict anything feminist. I just saw it as an entertaining tale of very rich women with severe mommy and daddy issues trying to come to terms with them together. What was so radical about this?
On reading up further on how we have come to define a film as feminist, I came across two tests that were invented for the purpose. The Bechdel test made in 1985 by Alison Bechdel defined a feminist film to be one that had at least two female characters and at least one scene in which their discussion involved something other than a man. Later, this test was revived by Swedish theatres to bring to attention how few in number the films were that passed even this very basic test that didn’t require much from filmmakers – just a simple inclusion of dynamic female characters.
it was realised that to actually deem a film as feminist, it required more than just a count of female characters and their conversations.
Later, it was realised that to actually deem a film as feminist, it required more than just a count of female characters and their conversations. What developed as a result of this was the Mako Mori test named after Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi’s character in Pacific Rim. This test required there to be a female character with a narrative arch of insight of her own, where she was seen as subject of the film rather than object. However, this test also became obsolete in understanding whether a film is feminist since a character in a film could be a feminist creation while the film may not be.
So what actually made a film feminist? I would understand that the answer would be its radical intention to be feminist. A feminist film is consciously thought about while being made.
I thought a lot to come up with a few that are seemingly feminist – perhaps because they are women-centred movies – that simply have female character representations or feminist characters but don’t offer anything radical (that is, intersectional in a way that tries addressing inequality at its basic level, at its root) which, therefore, disqualifies them from being feminist.
Neerja was a great film detailing the real life experience and contributions of a woman who was an airhostess in a plane that was hijacked. The protagonist of the film was a feminist creation. However, the film as a whole was not. It had no intention to advocate for the equal social, political, or economic rights of women. In fact, it even glorified its feminist protagonist for her spirit of sacrifice like most mothers are which serves as the sole qualifying factor that makes them worthy of recognition. I also got the sense that she became a sort of nationalistic acquisition, a ‘shaheed’ – a symbol of nationalistic feminine incarnate bravery.
Aisha traced a Bildungsroman of a female character, hence, passing the Mako Mori test. It probably also did pass the Bechdel test. But it wasn’t a feminist film and not because Aisha eventually ends up marrying her love-hate childhood friend in the end but because it once again did not embody an intention for equal representation. In fact, it enabled problematic and annihilating female hierarchical relationships based on beauty and class.
I did think that the character of Geeta Phogat was feminist especially when she goes through a period in her career where she tries to break off from her father’s excessive control, thus humanising her. However, the film packaged with nationalist Beti Bachao – Beti Padhao-esque propaganda was not feminist by any means as it was basically a story about a man trying to fulfil his dreams by rearing his daughters (who were alternatives to sons) to be like himself.
4. Chak De! India
Chak De! India was a similar movie. It had a lot of varied female representation (kudos on that!) but was not a feminist film in that it, once again, followed the story of a man trying to fulfil his ‘un-achieved’ dreams through the female hockey team. Once again, the women in the film served as a means to an end for a story that was really about a man who needed to overcome his failure.
5. Mary Kom
This film had an incredibly strong feminist character whose story follows a complex path of its own. However, the simple reason it disqualifies from being a feminist film is because a North Indian woman got to play the real life story of a girl from a marginalised region of our nation. Her more mainstream North Indian features were worked on to appropriate those of the Manipuris. This made its intentions ‘unradical’ and was not intersectional in terms of its representation. And another message I derived from the film was that women are worthy of being celebrated only when they bring national recognition and pride.
These are seemingly feminist films that have representations of female/feminist characters but in reality do not offer anything radical .
Films on the other hand that I do think qualify as feminist are English Vinglish, Queen, Angry Indian Goddesses, Margarita With A Straw, Pink, Fashion, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and A Death In The Gunj to name a few. This is because they all shared intention to represent radically, to outline nuance not just in the female and/or effeminate identities but in the way those identities really interact with the ecosystem of the narrative in the film.
I believe these films were actual feminist endeavours unlike the ones listed in the article that capitalised on the potential of a story to be presented as tangentially feminist in a script from a surface-level or as an afterthought without even claiming the ‘F-Word’ but retaining some of its elements in an attempt at manipulating popular and sometimes nationalistic appeal.
Asavari Sharma is a feminist writer trying to take up space, exhausting herself attempting to do so, and starting once again.