So, Vogue India, that venerable women’s fashion magazine, decided to dedicate their seventh anniversary to draw awareness to a major social issue: women’s empowerment. Nothing wrong with that at all. [Although, given the poverty and literacy levels of the country, one wonders about the extent of their reach beyond the English educated and affluent segment of Indian society.]
While most of this is being done via features within the magazine — interviews, profiles, features and so on — a series of short films is also being released across various media platforms. These have all been rather tastefully shot with Bollywood and other celebrities and try to address particular themes like domestic abuse, sexual abuse and freedom of choice.
As with all such contentious topics, the videos, more than anything else, have generated the most debate. Sadly, the feedback, dialogue and arguments have mostly veered off-topic so that, rather than addressing the particular theme being portrayed, the focus has been, primarily, on the poor scripting or the questionable sincerity of the celebrity spokesperson(s).
For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the latest video, directed by the famous Homi Adajania with his muse, Deepika Padukone. Putting aside the fact that it is one of the campiest films I’ve seen in a long time, the full-face stares into the lens by a host of Bollywood beauties looking ethereal in black and white while Padukone voices the most inane phrases had me shaking my head in absolute disappointment. Look, I absolutely believe that women should be free to make choices about what they wear, who they sleep with and so on. And, yes, in India today, these are still contentious issues, unlike most of the Western world. It’s just the way that the whole thing has been presented — not only an opportunity squandered but also, sadly, inviting more ridicule than praise.
It is commendable indeed to try to raise social awareness about pernicious crimes against women and, indeed, all of humanity. And, it is, definitely, as Padukone has said in this interview clip, the “need of the hour, not just in India, but globally”. But, particularly in India, where even the topmost leaders of the country make mind-bogglingly stupid public statements about women without any recourse (as recent as today: the Goa Chief Minister advising striking nurses not to sit in the sun because it will darken their complexion and ruin their marital prospects; the Union Minister of State, Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises talking about how the Opposition Party’s President only got her post due to her “white skin”; see a fine recap of such recent statements here), it is more than a need. It is a crisis of significant proportions because women of all stripes are subjected to misogyny and abuse daily, and often by the men closest to them: fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, bosses, employees and so on. This is still a country where people think that an “over-educated” woman will not find a husband; where a single woman living alone is seen as, at best, an anomaly and, at worst, a slut; where men are encouraged to have strong opinions and speak out but women who do similarly are told that they’re being argumentative and disagreeable. Yes, India is not the only country where this goes on. But, here, these prejudices are so deeply-embedded and readily condoned by social, moral and religious values that neither a call for common civility nor law enforcement makes any difference at all.
So, let’s acknowledge, in all fairness, how these videos have got the key themes entirely right:
1) How we raise our boys has a lot to do with how they treat other women (and men for that matter) — the Madhuri Dixit film
2) For a woman to be safe out alone after dark is still unthinkable across much of India because of how many men, regardless of social class, will see her as fair bait — the Alia Bhatt film
3) And, yes, for many women across all segments of Indian society, basic choices of what they can do with their own bodies, whether it is about the clothes they wear or who they sleep with, are still practically impossible — the Deepika Padukone film
Mostly, then,the problem with these videos lies in poor and ineffective execution in the following key ways:
1) Not targeting a clearly-identified audience (are would-be rapists really are going to think twice after seeing themselves portrayed — heavy breathing and all — like some B-grade horror movie jerks in that Alia Bhatt film?)
2) Not articulating the right messages in the right way so that they are not lost in the glitz and glamour of cinematography (all that New-Agey spouting that, in the end, makes little sense, in the Deepika Padukone film)
3) Presenting tenuous hypotheses dressed up as deep truths — e.g. boys who aren’t allowed to cry will make women cry as in the Madhuri Dixit film (even if we accept that this might be a more sophisticated argument showing how people who aren’t allowed to express themselves and communicate effectively will learn to externalize their pain by inflicting it onto others)
In the end, what Vogue India has succeeded in doing is generating more debate on the art and craft of film-making more than the issue of women’s empowerment. Even the more savvy media people are unable to get past their usual “he said, she said” discussions to focus their spotlights where they should. That the magazine has also been advertising an extensive line of expensive designer merchandise tells us that their goals are not entirely altruistic and muddies the waters further.
But, oh, let’s end on a positive note. Inept as these films and empowerment attempts are turning out to be, at least they are generating conversation and dialogue in mainstream media as opposed to in activist circles relegated to the fringes. Also, perhaps, it’s all part of an ongoing maturing process and the next generation of media people, film-makers and social activists will be smarter about how they approach similar projects. It can, of course, only keep getting better. So, even if it seems like, sometimes, taking one step forward and two steps back, at least, overall, we have the right vector, if not the right velocity. Let’s give ten points for earnestly trying to take another bite of the big elephant that’s been in the room for centuries. In the end, that’s often the best that most of us can do too.