CultureCinema How Qissa Portrays Patriarchy And Its Gender Dynamics

How Qissa Portrays Patriarchy And Its Gender Dynamics

Qissa draws light on Margaret Mead’s argument that it’s the child-rearing practices which try to establish certain differences between sexes.

Posted by Sarthak Mehra 

Gender in its original sense has been quite ambiguous. It is quite contrasting to use the term ‘original’ with gender because it is a social construct. It has taken many forms or one can say has been described or defined in numerous ways. Gender has been differentiated from sex while acting like a social organisation of sexual difference. This article tries to condense the huge discourse on gender while Qissa, a Punjabi movie by Anup Singh starring Irrfan, Tisca Chopra and Tilotama Shome, as central.

Qissa is a very interesting film. It is not only a piece of fiction which can be reviewed by the literature on gender but also can give birth to new literature (only if fiction turns into reality, which according to me will not be much surprising keeping the south-east Asian society in mind).

There are multiple instances related to male preference, subordination of women and hegemonic masculinity throughout the movie. The most disturbing element in the movie which is also central to the movie remains raising a girl child as a boy (the father forcibly raises his 4th daughter as a boy). This is a product of all three components – male preference, subordination of women and hegemonic masculinity. This raising of a girl child as a boy is what I would like to call as changing the ‘social sex’ of a person. This shows how strong social relations are, even stronger than natural relations.

Social relations penetrate through all natural relations. We can also see how the same argument has been made by some scholars like Menon who says, “women’s bodies have been shaped by social restrictions and norms of beauty. Body here is not a physical object but is constructed by and takes its meaning from its positioning within specific social, cultural and economic practices.”

There are multiple instances related to male preference, subordination of women and hegemonic masculinity throughout the movie.

No other work of fiction explains Simone de Beauvoir’s quote “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (though the protagonist ‘becomes’ a man, the context is very similar to the quote) better than Qissa. Qissa also draws light on Margaret Mead’s argument that it’s the child-rearing practices which try to establish and perpetuate certain differences between sexes. It shows how the protagonist, though being a woman, is trained in appropriate male gendered forms of behaviour.

We can witness this when the protagonist comes crying to the father because his/her (both his and her are being used because of the change of social sex) sister took away his/her kite away and the father replies “I don’t want to see you crying (because boys aren’t supposed to cry), pull their hair and get your thing back.” This particular instance also shows a glimpse of hegemonic masculinity as it advocates the use of power and violence (though controlled and limited violence). Actions/training like these allows men’s dominance over women to continue. Such actions/training also fabricates patterns of aggression into young boys.

There are other examples of these actions and training given to the protagonist. For example, in order to make the protagonist physically stronger (because the social sex of the protagonist is male and they are supposed to be physically strong) a wrestler is hired by the father. Being physically strong is also an important indicator of hegemonic masculinity.

There is also a general conception that only men should be playing sports (other movies also highlight this, for example, Chak de India and Dangal). The biological explanation behind this again goes back to physical strength. Some also argue that exercising and playing sports are natural to men as it also tends to increase the testosterone levels. The arguments made above are incomplete at its best because there have been achievements by women in sports too and exercise also balances the estrogen level in women so the natural and hormonal explanation too stands invalid.

Subtle instances of hegemonic masculinity can be seen in the movie like making the protagonist to hunt and kill bears. Teaching how to drive a truck also comes under the same bracket (the protagonist is taught driving only because the social sex is male). Hunting has been normalised in some parts of the Indian society in which men take pride. Hegemonic masculinity too has been internalised in the society by giving toy guns to young boys as a gift.

Also read: Film Review: On Sairat and Custodians of Love

The movie knowingly or unknowingly acknowledges American feminist Gloria Steinem’s essay If men could menstruate. She writes “what would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not – the answer is clear – menstruation would become an enviable, boast worthy, masculine event. Boys would mark the onset of menses that longed for proof of manhood.”

Funnily, the same kind of attitude is shown by the father when the protagonist gets his/her first period. The protagonist, having no clue about the menstrual blood goes to his/her father and the father replies with “now you’ve become a real man.” Keeping the patriarchal society of contemporary India in mind, I would like to add that only men who could menstruate would be then allowed to enter inside temples. After getting his/her first period, the protagonist goes through a turban ceremony which raises further questions on religion’s stand on gender. Why isn’t there a ceremony for girls too? These are principal questions but the debate on religion’s stand on gender is beyond the scope of this article.

Hegemonic masculinity and preference for a boy child is so strengthened that the father resorts to rape which in his sense is rational as it is the last and the only way for his family to have a boy child.

We can clearly catch sight of heterosexual matrix and that the protagonist has been forced to materialise his/her social sex over time by practices of what Nivedita Menon calls gender performance. Performing his/her social sex became an integral part of the protagonist’s life. The protagonist was made to learn to be a man.

The concept of hegemonic masculinity goes hand in hand with men’s entitlement. Men’s entitlement can be seen throughout the movie but one specific scene relates to hegemonic masculinity and crime. The protagonist’s father tried to rape his daughter-in-law so that the daughter in law could give his family a son which has been desired by the father for so long.

Hegemonic masculinity and preference for a boy child are so strengthened that the father resorts to rape which in his sense is rational as it is the last and the only way for his family to have a boy child. Seeing this, the protagonist shoots his/her father. A very subtle notion of gender difference was observed when the father was dying. Seconds before the father dies, the father says “Rrahega toh tu janani hi” (you will remain a girl only) to the protagonist, which can be referred to Carol Gilligan’s argument that women are influenced by notions like empathy.

Crimes like rape make other crimes like domestic violence (father beating the protagonist’s sisters) look tiny which too are an ingredient of hegemonic masculinity. All these actions manifest that to sustain a given pattern of masculinity requires the policing of men as well as exclusion or discrediting of women.

The structure in which the protagonist was raised eventually led him/her into an identity crisis. Further in the movie, the protagonist’s wife says “It was all there, I couldn’t see”, realising in hindsight that the protagonist looks like a woman. This can somehow be in line with how Nivedita Menon relates the maintaining of social order with nude make-up. The social and gendered structure created eclipsed reality. Social and gender relations were so powerful that they overshadowed the physical body. This also shows how bodies are just an object or one can say agents of social practice.

Also read: Astitva Movie Review: Reclaiming An Identity Of Our Own

I would like to conclude by saying that the so-called millennial should question every existing social order and relations to find out a way out of this deeply embedded patriarchy which consciously or unconsciously runs in our everyday lives.


1. Hegemonic Masculinities: Rethinking The Concept by Connell and
2. Seeing like a Feminist by N. Menon
3. Interpreting Gender by L Nicholson

Sarthak is an Economics graduate from Deshbandhu College, Delhi University and is currently pursuing Masters in Development Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi (2018-2020). He believes that every social relation (caste, class, gender, race, ethnicity relations etc.) should be questioned so as to envision and march towards a progressive society, while keeping intersectionality in mind. Follow him on Linkedin.

Featured Image Source: Livemint

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