Volume 4 : Critic's Column (2)

‘Lajja’ : Ideologies of the Modification and Consolidation of Patriarchy

Nandini Dhar


In his book Bollywood Cinema : Temples of Desire, Vijay Mishra makes an important and interesting claim regarding the representation of women in Bollywood films. According to Mishra, “One senses that women do not want to be represented simply as voyeuristic objects for the male gaze or as composite Other, wife, or lover figures. Indeed it is precisely the struggle within the form itself for the release of alternative voices that emancipates the Bombay film from accusations of parasitism, low cultural form, absence of political awareness, and so on, so often directed against it” [xix]. That is, the “Bollywood” films open up certain spaces within which certain ideological struggles can be represented and articulated. The “women’s question”, I will argue, has always been an important arena of ideological struggle in such films, and how the so-called woman’s question is represented within the film depends upon the specific point in Indian history. Thus, the film ‘Lajja’, released in 2001, came out of the Indian culture industry’s response to the post-independence women’s movements.1 More specifically, ‘Lajja’ as a film seeks to provide narrative resolutions to some of the most important questions raised by the women’s movements in India, namely the complex nature of women’s oppression (the multiple intersections of class, caste and gender), the identification of family as the locus of gender oppression and patriarchy, and the crucial ways in which the political and ideological construction of India as a nation are gendered.

The film can be categorized, to borrow Purnima Mankekar’s term, as a “woman-oriented” film. The film, I would argue, seeks to put forward a definition of new womanhood, which is not only different from the colonial and early nationalistic ideologies of gender, but also departs in a significant way from the late 1980s and early 1990s politico-cultural discourses of Indian womanhood and popular representation, which form the backbone of Mankekar’s phenomenal study. This departure occurs primarily through an inclusion of a critique of the gender ideologies upon which family as an institution is based and by including instances of women’s collective resistances and activist networks. As a film, ‘Lajja’ foregrounds the question of women’s agency and its central narrative is built upon the interconnected life-stories of four women, each of whom belongs to a different social location in terms of their class/caste identity. All the four women possess names which literally mean “Sita”. Thus, the women within the film embody, in different ways, the gender ideologies which the character of Sita2 is supposed to represent within the epic.

What is interesting about the film are the ways in which the protagonists not only embody the dominant gender ideologies, but also challenge the ideological boundaries of such gender discourses. Although, as I will argue in this paper, such attempts to reformulate the social gender ideologies do not move beyond the attempts to forge a benevolent patriarchal order. That is, the film, I will try to show in my paper does not attempt to defamiliarize the categories of a patriarchal ideology, but rather seeks to bring about a modification of patriarchy itself, and thereby to institutionalize a more consolidated and functional patriarchy. I will also argue that the use of the epic Ramayana as the metatext provides an important vantage point through which the film can reach upon a resolution regarding the problematic nature of the gender ideologies and social relationships raised by the protagonists. Such a resolution, as my subsequent analysis will show, does not aim for a radical critique of family or an exploration towards an alternative, but rather embodies an ideological rejuvenation of the family and therefore, of the patriarchal social order, albeit with certain minor structural modifications. This, I will show through analyses of the concluding sequences of the film and the significances of Janaki’s active attempt to provide a gendered reading of the epic.

The Epic as The Ur-text

It is not an accident in this film that the epic Ramayana forms the ur-text, which undergoes certain revisions in order to accommodate the narrative of the film. The presence of Ramayana as a metatext within the narrative is based upon a theoretical equalization of the epic space and the national space. The ‘epic space’ connotes an organic, inter–dependent community, with the epic hero sharing an indissoluble bond with that community and embodying its values in a way that corroborates a complete identification of that individual with the collective destiny of its community. The epic, therefore, provides a convenient allegorical model for the modern nationstate. The image of an organic epic community provides the cultural model for a homogenous national identity within the given territorial space of the nation-state. Such allegories of homogeneity do not allow the entry of any fissure within the body of the community as such, and serve to naturalize any possible patterns/structures of hierarchy that might have been operative in maintaining such a symbolic homogeneity.

Similarly, the epic serves as an important allegory for ascertaining the relationship between the women and the nation. If Ramayana becomes the epic text which provides the dominant allegory of the nation, then the narrative space reserved for Sita within the epic becomes the space reserved for women within the national space. Such a space, I would argue, is essentially gendered and steeped with the power dynamics of the patriarchy. That is, if Sita exists within the epic narrative only in her capacity as the wife of the epic hero, Rama, then her relationship to the social space is inherently indirect and is dependent upon the sanction of her husband. Similarly, if the figure of Sita serves as the symbolic metatext of the modern Indian femininity, then the relationship of the modern Indian woman with national space — or put another way, her claim to citizenship within the Indian nationstate — is indirectly mediated by her relationship with the husband .And it is specifically this gendered allegory that the film seeks to explore by making Ramayana the metatext — what kind of physical and ideological spaces does a woman occupy within the nation becomes one of the primary questions which the film seeks to explore. Simultaneously, as my subsequent discussion will show, the symbolic use of the epic as a primary element of the film narrative also serves to provide a resolution to the questions of gender oppression raised by the protagonists. For lack of space, in this paper, I shall take up only two of the four female protagonists of the film, Janaki and Vaidehi.

Janaki : The Performance of the Revision of the Epic

Janaki (Madhuri Dixit) is one of the most important characters who perform the revision of the epic. Janaki is an actress who works for a working-class theatre group. The film informs the spectators that she is an “orphan” and has been brought up by the director of the theatre, Purushottam. The absence of her family makes Janaki’s social status immediately conspicuous — she cannot be placed within a recognizable social-institutional space or within a specific familial identity. It is interesting in this context to note that Janaki embodies an active desire to initiate a family, which is a marker of the fact that although Janaki is not a woman who has been socialized into the norms of a familial-domestic patriarchy, she does possess the active desire to be integrated into such. That is, Janaki does not possess a critical insight into her own location, or into the nature of the social institutions which would enable her to undertake a conscious critique of patriarchy. During her conversation with Vaidehi, Janaki expresses her hope that marriage will enable her to lead the life of a housewife, in a situation where Manish would be the primary bread winner. In this context, Janaki’s desire does not transcend the boundaries of the dominant gender role expectations. Her critique of patriarchy is predicated upon a moment of crisis, when her dream of total absorption into the patriarchal order encounters the obstacle of Manish’s distrust.

One of the most compelling moments in ‘Lajja’ is the actress Janaki’s attempt to re-interpret the Ramayana and particularly the role of Sita in the epic narrative. I will argue that Janaki’s public reinterpretation through her performance constitutes one of the most important incidents of women’s attempts to wield power within the film. Through her reinterpretation, Janaki is not only attempting to re-configure her own life, she is also debunking the gender ideologies of the canonic version of the epic, which in the Indian context also forms the dominant national narrative of womanhood. It must be remembered that Janaki is taking up the act of reinterpretation and defamiliarization as a performer in a working-class theatre group, a context where she wields very little social power both in terms of her class as well as her gender identity. On the other hand, her love relationship with Manish, which has so far provided her with a sense of stability, is in a moment of crisis.

Janaki’s attempt to reinterpret the Ramayana thus becomes an important way for her to embark upon a critique of the power structures and patriarchal ideologies in which her relationship with Manish is enmeshed. Janaki’s reformulation of the narrative of the epic is accomplished with the explicit aim of initiating a critique of familial ideologies of power and politics of sexual relationships. This element of the critique of the family as an institution is an important deviation from the visual texts studied by Mankekar. Janaki’s attempts of deriving agency out of her own situation apparently ends in failure. Janaki’s reinterpretation of the epic ignites popular wrath, and she herself is brutally assaulted by the mob and her unborn child, who was consummated outside of the wedlock, is destroyed. That is, the social spaces did not have to go through an ideological expansion in order to accommodate the unwed mother Janaki or her child. Just as the abortion resolves the crisis and restores the socialideological status quo, Janaki’s admission into a mental asylum solves the question of her presence within the legitimate spaces of the national society. Her banishment into the asylum is doubly significant, since it signifies a simultaneous trivialization and delegitimization of the very grounds of her ideological critique. Her exclusion from socially sanctioned space also signifies the exclusion of her critique and therefore the rejuvenation of a homogenous social order and, by extension, the homogenous epic community of the nation-state.

Vaidehi : Institutionalization of the Domesticated Femininity

In order to explicate my thesis further, I will begin by analyzing two concluding sequences of the film. The protagonist of the film, Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala), is walking down the streets of New York along with her husband Raghu (Jackie Shroff). The names are significant in this context since Vaidehi is one of Sita’s multiple nomenclatures and Raghu that of Rama’s. The narrative thus seeks to reproduce the epicalmythological coupling of Rama and Sita through the coupling of Raghu and Vaidehi. If the epic space simultaneously symbolizes and equalizes the national space, then Vaidehi and Raghu represent the ideal heterosexual coupling, whose relationship also embodies the symbolic ideal national couple. It is also important in this context to remember Raghu and Vaidehi’s class/caste identity — not only is it upper middleclass and upper-caste, but it is also transnational, a fact which has its own significant political-ideological connotations (this is something I have chosen to omit from this paper, due to paucity of space). Raghu-Vaidehi’s class/caste status also forms an important symbolic co-relation with Ramayana . The endowment of an upper middle-class/upper caste status on Raghu and Vaidehi forms an important narrative extension of the Aryan, monarchial status of Rama and Sita which, within the Sanskritized, cannonical versions of the epic, has been developed in contrast to the non-Aryan couplings of Ravana and his wives, as well as the aggressive sexuality of Surpanakha. The respective representations of Vaidehi and Raghu and their relationship, therefore, have to be examined keeping in mind the above observations.

The concluding sequence of the Raghu and Vaidehi walking together happily, therefore, possesses profound symbolic significance. The spectator is assured through the image of the happy couple that nothing after all is wrong. Vaidehi is not the absconding wife any more, but she has been restored to her rightful space and place both within the conjugal relationship and the family. The visual impact of Raghu and Vaidehi, therefore, invokes not only the image of the restoration of the middle-class ideal family, but of the epicalmythological coupling of Rama and Sita, and thus the images of the restoration of the epic order and by an allegoricalsymbolic extension, of the national social order. Furthermore, the image of Raghu holding their newborn baby daughter acts as a more specific qualification. The image of Raghu holding the baby confirms the fact that the lineage of their offspring runs primarily through him, rather than with Vaidehi. This not only rejuvenates the space of the ideal middle-class family, but also reconfirms the patriarch as the centre of such. This rejuvenation is ideologically important, since it follows Vaidehi’s public denunciation of the newly nominated national hero, the feudal landlord-politician Gajinder Singh (Danny). Here, Vaidehi is positioning herself in direct opposition to the discourse of the state and the dominant definition of what constitutes national leadership. It is therefore important for the film to conclude with a double restoration, the familial-national patriarchal order as well as Vaidehi's faith in such. Consequently, it is important to note the ideological categories by which Vaidehi expresses her opposition.

By giving Vaidehi a public voice, the film narrates the entry of women not only into the public sphere but also into the contested terrain of what constitutes the nation and nationalism. Furthermore, Vaidehi’s attempt to interrogate the national discourses are predicated upon an interrogation of the national gender ideologies and the relationship between the nation and its women. An important part of Vaidehi’s speech consists of her attempt to examine the ideological resonances of the dominant representations of women and gender ideologies within the national discourses. Vaidehi’s speech also embodies an attempt to interrogate the gender ideologies of the epic and to provide a critique of these. An important part of that critique involves the equation of epic space and national space, as well as the equation of Sita’s location within the epic world with the location of the women within the modern Indian nation-state. Thus, the episode when Sita must prove her chastity in the Ramayana is redeployed by Vaidehi as an allegory of how women, within the nation, occupy only a marginal space . Simultaneously, the allegory allows her to critique the fact that the space assigned to women within the nation is peripheral, and dependent on the further legitimation and sanction of the men.

However, it is equally important to note in this context that Vaidehi’s speech is encoded within the ideologies of patriarchy. The repeated invocation of the concept of “shame” on her part is steeped in the reproduction of the dominant representation of women as hopelessly vulnerable and in need of protection by men, or the social patriarchal order. The dysfunctionality of the particular patriarchal order emerges from the fact that it fails to provide women with that protection and instead transforms such modes of protection into modes of persecution and violation. Hence, it is important to note Vaidehi’s invocation of the imagery of the castrated brothers, which, within the film is juxtaposed with the images of men within the auditorium hanging their heads in shame. The conclusion of Vaidehi’s deliverance marks an important moment—this is the first time in the film that the viewer is confronted with images of women’s collective resistance. And this is specifically this aspect of collective resistance that sets this film apart from the filmic narratives of the late 1980s and 1990s studied by Mankekar.

However, it is important to note that Vaidehi does not participate in that collective action. Nor does she attempt to address it in any way. The viewer is presented with her bewildered facial expression, as if overwhelmed by the impact of her delivery. There is, I will argue, a specific class connotation to the whole imagery. While the critique was initiated by Vaidehi, the chaste upper middle-class, uppercaste woman, the women who chose to embrace the path of collective action are unmistakably working-class. The narrative resolutions for the working-class women and the middle-class women, therefore, have to be different. The film solidifies this difference by dissociating Vaidehi from the general collective resistance.

This dissociation, in this context, becomes a marker of her middle-class femininity, which can be defined as refined, domesticated and chaste in contrast to the unruly militancy of working-class femininity. For Vaidehi, her salvation ultimately lies in her husband’s realization of his mistake: he wraps her up with the symbolic saffron piece of cloth which was originally meant for Gajinder Singh. Thus, Vaidehi is anointed as the new national hero, but only within a context where the endowment of her title brings about the reunification and rejuvenation of the family unit. Once her husband wraps her up with the piece of cloth, the familialpatriarchal order is restored, and Vaidehi is once again transformed into the domesticated housewife who fits perfectly into the reformed, modified patriarchal order.

Conclusion : Absence and Presence and Their Narrative-Ideological Significances

The concluding sequence of the film consolidates and naturalizes that order. The rejuvenation reaffirms and restores Vaidehi’s faith in the family as well as the male patriarchal order, thus leading to the reconfirmation of the national patriarchal order after its temporary moment of crisis. In the film, a cab stops right in front of the camera. Raju3 (Anil Kapoor) gets out, calls Vaidehi and informs her that he has married Maithili. Vaidehi informs him that she has named her daughter after RamDulari, the untouchable woman who was raped and killed by Gajinder, and invites him for a charity show where Janaki will be the key performer. The narrative thus provides a resolution for each of the key characters. It should be noted that the viewer does not get to see the other female characters, but learns about their lives only from Vaidehi’s narration. Their absence is significant and will provide us with the means to understand the ideological implications of the gender ideologies of this film. According to Stuart Hall, it is important to delineate and understand the significances of the absences in representations. In Hall’s words, “The absence means as much as the presence. The images must be read, at least in part, in terms of what is not there”. The question we must ask is, why are RamDulari , Janaki and Maithili absent from the concluding sequence.

I would argue that this absence is the product of the film’s decision to bestow its primary subject position on Vaidehi. By making the upper middle-class woman the central presence of the conclusion, the rejuvenation of her domesticated, refined middle-class femininity becomes the central focus of the narrative. That is, gender as a category in the film is welded to a particular class identity and follows a class-specific trajectory, where middle-class femininity has been defined in opposition to and in contrast to working-class femininity and the explication of the mythological symbolism of the epic Ramayana.

End-Notes :

1. It might be interesting in this context to refer back to M. Madhava Prasad’s observation that from the very beginning, Indian cinema was political. Prasad writes, “For Phalke (i.e., Dadasaheb Phalke), who situated his project within the then current swadeshi movement for the development of indigenous enterprise, the screen was a political space. Within the cinematic apparatus, his aim was to achieve an equivalence between the image and the spectators, so that we, as spectators, would then be represented by our own images, rather than the images of others. The cinematic apparatus, i.e. the combination of image and spectator was, consciously or unconsciously, figured as a microcosm of the future nation-state” [123]. In the context of my paper, it is important to keep in mind Prasad’s two interrelated observations—that is, in India, cinema has always been an important political space and that cinema has been regarded as one of the most important spaces within which the debates surrounding the politico-ideological nature of the Indian nation-state have been taken up.

2. “Sita”, here, refers to the character from the Indian epic Ramayana. Sita is Ram, the protagonist’s wife. While, the location of Sita within the text varies depending upon the version of Ramayana we are looking into, the figure of “Sita” offers important insights into the ideologies of coupling within the precolonial social-cultural spaces, within the colonial discourses and within the postcolonial nationalist discourses of coupledom and gender. Within the dominant culture, Sita refers to a chaste, domesticated female figure, who finds her life’s meaning in serving her husband’s interests.

3. “Raju” is another important character in the film, who appears as a kind of comic relief. A thief by profession, Raju helps out Vaidehi when she was fleeing from Raghu

Works Cited :

1. Lukacs, Gyorgy. Theory of the Novel : A Historic-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Cambridge. Massachusetts. M.I. T. Press, 1971

2. Mankekar, Purnima. Screening Culture, Viewing Politics : An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India. Durham. Duke University Press, 1999

3. Mishra, Vijay. Bollywood Cinema : Temples of Desire. New York. Routledge, 2002

4. Prashad, M. Madhava. “The State in/of Cinema” in Partha Chatterjee (ed.) Wages of Freedom : Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State. Oxford University Press, 1998.



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