April 01, 2015

Decoding empowerment

Question: What happens when 99 women from various walks of life come together to send out one powerful message?

Answer:  Controversy!
Recently, Homi Adajania directed a short film dedicated to #VogueEmpower, a social awareness initiative. The video was aptly titled 'My Choice' and was based on a piece by Kersi Khambatta. Also starring Nimrat Kaur, Adhuna Akhtar, Anupama Chopra and many others who have made a difference in their respective careers, this short film shows Deepika as a modern day woman talking about her right to be at par with the status that men have been designated (no/few questions asked) by a hypocritical society.
Going by the uproar the video has managed to create, I am pretty sure everyone has watched it by now. But for the few who might have not, here it is.

I first happened to come across this video on a quiet sultry afternoon. Having nothing better to do, I decided to watch it. I'm not a feminist or anything, but #VogueEmpower has always managed to catch my attention. First it was their 'Going home' short film starring Alia Bhat, then it was 'Start with the boys' that had Madhuri Dixit. While I was not too impressed with the former (I found it just okay-ish) the latter was something that hit home. So when I noticed the 'My Choice' video, I was only too keen to know what message it carried this time.
On watching it, I liked the way the message rolled out. The video showed a woman talking about her choices, and the need for equal rights. It spoke about empowerment, the freedom to do as you pleased without being questioned. It reflected satire by the subtle comparison between the freedom bestowed on a man and not a woman.

Personally, I think this video is definitely worth a share. However, the world is always divided into two opinions---yours and mine. While there are some people appreciating the video, there are many who seem to have taken it the wrong way.
It's all fine (freedom of expression et al. After all, the video is about choices.). However, I see a limit being crossed here. There are people frothing at the mouth, claiming that the video was 'oh so wannabe' and pretentious. Lines are picked up on. Parodies are uploaded. Open letters, jokes, hate posts are being written all over the net. Those starring in the video are being defamed. Creative expressions are turned inside out and thrashed, so much that some bloke has tweeted that the film promotes prostitution.
Now what do you say to a thing like this? Give a dog a bad name and hang him, eh?

While haters have gone ahead and searched for Deepika's dirty linen to wash in public, they keep forgetting that she is just the face that has been used to promote the video.
Things about her past are being brought up. Fingers are pointed at her character and abuses are hurled at her for being a hypocrite. Her previous endorsements are challenged. Personal issues as serious as depression are  dragged in. Things are turning ugly. 
I am apalled at the comments on social media, the hate tweets, the perverted jokes on her that were being circulated. Is this just another case of herd mentality? You got a problem with the video? Fine! You have a problem with the message too? That is also fine. But why shoot the messenger, is what I ask.

So let's see line by line what the video had to say. I am going to write about the points that were raised and argued about (wrt the film), and my counterargument as a viewer. In addition, I will also say what the other lines mean to me, just so that I am not misinterpreted in any other way. (If you throw too many brickbats, I might build myself a house with them, and make myself comfortable.)

My body, my mind, my choice.
To wear the clothes I like even as my spirit roams naked, my choice.
To be a size 0 or a size 15, they don't have a size for my spirit, they never will.

A few comments on the above lines pointed fingers towards Deepika's earlier choice of endorsements They accused that it was plain hypocrisy that a superstar endorsing 'weight loss' breakfast cereal was now claiming that being a size 15 is fine as a matter of choice.
What I would like to know is that? How many of our celebrities actually use the products that they endorse? Do you also think ShahRukh Khan MUST use Navratna Tel (Yes, Thanda thanda cool cool), Aamir MUST guzzle gallons of coke, Amitabh Bacchan MUST slurp insstant maggi noodles at meals, Kareena MUST bathe with Lux soap, just because they promote it?

Roping in a celebrity to endorse a product or advertise a campaign is an essential part of marketing strategies. Why? Because they are youth icons. They are popular among the masses. Would you watch a two minute video or TV commercial if it had some obcure run-of-the-mill nobody starring in it? Who are we kidding--of course you wouldn't!

Celebrities provide people the incentive to take notice. So when Deepika stars in a film about women choices, please accept that she is saying what needs to be said...doing what is asked of her. That's her job. If actors started expressing their views about every campaign or ad film they was offered, there would not be any need of scriptwriters, directors and the rest of the crew.
Now coming to what is implied in the above lines (or what I think it means): The 'woman' does not want to be told what to wear or what not to wear. Her spirit is free, unrestricted, and that is how she wants her choice to be. How many times have we flinched when we hear comments like 'She shouldn't have worn that dress' or 'Her clothes invited it' in cases of sexual molestation or rape.? How many times have we argued tooth and nail for the right of a woman to dress as she wants? Inner beauty...strength of character...woman's liberation--haven't we all voted for these before? Then why create a hue and cry when the video says the same thing (in literary expression)??!!!

To use cotton and silk to trap my soul is to believe you can halt the expansion of the universe or capture sunlight in the palm of your hand.
Your mind is caged, let it free. My body is not, let it be.

True, isn't it? Our clothes do not define us. Neither do they protect or limit us. What protects us is our thinking, that ironically seems caged at times. The writer wants to tell us to free our minds, rather than pay attention to our bodies. Our bodies are not caged. It is our mindset that needs to be liberated. Focus on what is more important. 

My choice, to marry or not to marry.
To have sex before marriage, to have sex outside of marriage, to not have sex. 

There seems to be a huge hullabaloo on this topic, especially the 'sex outside marriage' part. In my opinion, this video represents equal rights for women. Like I said before, this might just be the writer's way of challenging the existing situation, when (face it!) a man will not be questioned as much as a woman when it comes to preferences on sex.
Even our movies are evident of this mentality. A man who strays after marriage is most likely forgiven by all and sundry, if he gets on his knees and pleads for forgiveness. Flip side, show me one movie that shows a woman straying and the audience being empathic towards her. In reality, even if a woman cannot forgive her man for his infidelity, there will be a whole society asking her to consider...for the sake of her breaking marriage, for the sake of an unborn child, for the sake of the entire f***ing society. Who can promise mistakes will not be repeated, but chances..a man should get those. A cheating woman, on the other hand, will be labelled a whore, shamed by society, and not given a chance to reprieve her guilt even in hell.

My choice, to love temporarily or to lust forever.

Again, a woman lusting forever is just not acceptable, right? The first to go against this statement would be other women. Visions of a temptress trying to seduce poor innocent victims would come to mind. Mind, exactly! Love or lust are subjective choices. What might be lust for some might be love to others and vice versa. All of us experience it at some point or another. Sometimes its temporary, sometimes it's a little more than temporary. The permanence of any emotion is again a choice. Who are we to be the moral police when it comes to an individual's choice?

My choice, to love a man or a woman or both. 

(Society should not have a role to play in individual decisions as long as they are not harming it in any way. Freedom to choose should be included in the Constitution of India as a fundamental right, eh?)

Remember you are my choice, I am not your privilege.

I simply fail to understand why a man should have a problem with this statement. He should be proud of the fact that his woman chose him because she wanted to and not because he wanted her to. Being someone's choice is always a matter of pride. We should learn to understand that. We should also learn to deserve that,

The bindi on my forehead, the ring on my finger, adding your surname to mine, they are ornaments. They can be replaced. My love for you cannot. So treasure that.

And don't ever forget it. Even when you are bubbling with rage on misunderstanding or misjudging a video  woman. Love needs no evidence. When a man does not need to wear a mangalsutra, bindi or adopt a different surname after marriage, why should a woman? Now, isn't that a tad unfair?

My choice, to come home when I want. Don't be upset if I come home at 4am. Don't be fooled if I come home at 6pm.

This is for all those suspecting married men who have a curfew at home. This just goes to drive home the point that you can never be completely sure of your wife's integrity unless you love her completely and trust her. A wife might be busy working till the wee hours of the morning while her husband suspects that she's cheating on him with her boss. On the other hand, a wily female might plan her moves so well that her husband might never know of her adultery. The message here is, you can't curb her freedom just to make sure.  All you can make sure is that you love her so much that she 'chooses' you till the end.

My choice, to have your baby or not, to pick you from 7 billion choices or not. So don't get caught.

For those who protested against this arguing that a baby should be a couple's decision, let's just get this right. You cannot break a line as you please, especially when it is in relevant continuity with the line(s) that follow. This part of the message might be written to emphasize how much a monogamous relationship means to a woman---She chooses one person from seven billion others to be the father of her baby.
Besides, try as we might want to justify equal partnership (between a man and a woman) in creating a baby, the truth is that a mother will always have the upper hand in the situation. 'Janani', the one who houses the foetus in her womb for nine months, right from conception to the delivery of a healthy child, is the heart of the home. Her responsibilities do not stop just there. Even during the growing up years, the mother's role is most crucial.(Of course, there are exceptions, and I'm not denying that.).
But think of those women who are forced to go to abortion clinics repeatedly, only because the family or husband does not want a girl child, those single mothers who have been dumped by the man they loved, only because he was not man enough to be a father or husband. You still thinking of those exceptions now?

My pleasure may be your pain.
My songs your noise.
My order your anarchy.
Your sins my virtues.
My choices are like my fingerprints. They make me unique.

This speaks of individual choices...independent ones. It goes to say no two people are alike. What may stand justified for one may be totally unreasonable to another. These are choices---they make us who we are...they make us unique.

I am the tree not the forest. I am the snowflake not the snowfall. You are the snowflake.

By 'snowflake' she means, each of us is a part of the whole. Every one of us is as miniscule as a snowflake...as insignificant when alone. But together, we constitute something beautiful.

Wake up. Get out of the shitstorm, or choose to empathize or to be indifferent. 

I guess the writer knew exactly what he was getting into. Perhaps 'Vogue' was aware it wouldn't be easy pie too. This short film was bound to create controversy.

I choose to be different. 
I am the universe, infinite in every direction.

Someone laughed on the validity of this statement by saying that the last three words 'in every direction' were totally uncalled for, as it was the universe that was being spoken about.
Well, to this, I'd just say. The human mind is akin to an universe. And as we all know it, we have witnessed many a minds (in the past few days) go infinitely unidirectional on this topic.

 It is true that women all over India, especially rural India need to be empowered much more and over issues much more basic. It is also true that this topic has been done to death. And yet, 'Vogue' comes up with this new short film on empowerment.Think about it!

To empower someone is to hand over the reigns of their own life to them, to make them confident enough to claim their rights and control their own lives, to give them the power to do as they please so as to enable them to become secure strong individuals who do not need to feel threatened because of their vulnerability...who can make their own choices.

Do you really think that women in cities are all liberated and empowered? Don't these so called 'modern women' face issues of their own? Cases of suicide, female foeticide, depression, rapes, eve teasing, crime against women are seen as much in metros as in villages. What is evident is always just the tip of the iceberg. The problem lies concealed...silent...and in most cases, suppressed. Haven't you heard of the educated illiterates? Empowerment is necessary and of utmost importance for woman in all spheres of life. We have to start somewhere (and go on until it is acknowledged). Is it such a huge mistake that Homi Adajania has chosen to first address the Youtube watching, internet surfing milieu?

As an author, I can understand how painful it must be to have a mad mob dissect your creative expression...to have mass criticism flung at you for something you believe in. As a woman, I can imagine how harrowing it must be to silently witness a negative reaction to something you are part of, for no fault of yours. As a human who has learned to try and see things from another person's  perspective, I can empathize with 'Vogue' who tried to pass on a strong social message and instead got castigated for hypocrisy.

So there! Having explained my interpretation of the video, I leave it up to you. You can choose to understand it from a different perspective or choose to stay hell bent on what you think is right (or wrong).
Who am I, you ask? And why am I defending this video?
I am just a woman who believes she still has choices...


Sutapa Basu said...

Priyanka, you have said it all---so clearly, so succinctly, so comprehensively. You are my voice!

Meera Sundararajan said...

I am one of those who has written an "open letter". First let me tell you something- Do not use disclaimers for being a feminist. Anyone who supports gender equality is a feminist. Me , my husband and my teenaged daughter are proud to call ourselves feminists.
Secondly there is no "wrong" way in which this video can be taken. People are interpreting it differently and it depends on their values.
Thirdly, the anger most of us have with regard to the video is that it is very elitist. It speaks about choices but limits it to women of a certain class category only. If one is talking about empowerment there are about half of our country's population who need to be empowered. If this is a campaign on women's empowerment, then a campaign must be inclusive.
Fourthly, why does this video just talk about a woman's body. No, I am not a prude. I believe that a woman has the right to decide who she sleeps with and whether she wants to be homo, hetero or bisexual but her freedom is beyond that.
Finally, rights come with responsibilities. Exercising them indiscriminately makes one a selfish person - much like a man. In our quest to be empowered do we have to mimic male behavior?
The video looks good with beautiful ladies with a few token images of "National Geographic" style photos of wrinkled old women. Let us not be seduced by glamour. No fashion magazine needs to tell us what empowerment is all about. Let them do what they are good at -sell images that make the average woman feel miserable about her self image.

PS The first two videos were ridiculous. The one on Alia Bhatt baffled me. I am still figuring it out. The second one confused me with two messages - one about gender stereotypes and another about domestic violence.

khushi said...


I really liked your interpretation of the video. And agree with you too!
Gender equality is not a woman's issue, it is a humanity problem!
Unfortunately, we live in a world, where society worships a female God (or Goddess) but can not accept if a female speaks her heart! We live in a society full of hypocrites, who will make a hue and cry if a female speaks up, but will become blind, and non-existent if a female is raped in front of them! Disgusting it is.

Pri said...

@ Sutapa
I am glad you see my point. We need more people (in this case, women) unabashedly talking about what they believe in, and we need more people to get out of the stereotype and view things from another POV before drawing conclusions.

Freedom of expression is the first freedom a woman needs to fight for. The rest would (hopefully) follow suit :)

Pri said...

@ Meera
Welcome to my space! :)

Firstly, I have never once said that feminism is a bad thing. It's great that you, your husband and your teenage daughter are proud to be feminists.
However, I believe I am more of an egalitarian. Had there been some injustice or (undue) negative bias against men or anyone for that matter, I would have tried to understand it in pretty much the same way. (And hence the need to specify the non bias by saying that I'm not a feminist. )
Secondly, I believe tha the RIGHT thing to do helps someone else more than it helps you, and the WRONG thing to do hurts someone else more than it hurts you. The difference though depends on your perspective (not your values).
Your third point is something I have already discussed in my post.
Fourthly, our body is our most important and basic possesion. (Our spirit is one of the few things we can call our own.) Yet, there are so many restrictions posed by society (eg non-consensual sex after marriage etc). So it is but natural that we ask for freedom at the most basic of all levels before anything else. I don't see anything wrong with that.
Finally, when you say freedom comes with responsibilities, I'm totally with you. Who else can understand the meaning of responsibility better than a woman who truly feels liberated in mind, body and soul?

Meera, what I wanted to share here was just another perspective that this 2 min video can be viewed from. We often try and see situations the way we want to. But that doesn't mean that is the only way.
You or I may or may not always be right. Perhaps the actual reality is something very different from what we imagine/know. But any step taken to push a good cause forward should be welcomed.
Promotion/awareness is always a good thing, and every bit (small or big, significant or not-so-significant) is welcome. Something is better than just doing nothing at all.

Pri said...

@ Khushi
True Khushi. Such is the sad state of our society today. 
Changing mind sets is difficult. But I hope we live to see better times and a more equal society some day!

Pragya said...

And yet you say, "I'm not a feminist or anything."
But my love, you are. You just never needed a label. :)