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Teen Behenein: A Response

By The GigglingGirls

Does being astounded by the mediocrity and didacticism of a morally suffocating film on dowry deaths; mean that one is insensitive to the idea of women struggling against systems of power? Is there only one prescriptive way to respond to all films that speak of ‘social evils’?  Is there no space in political imagination where one can collide with narratives of violence against women?

Further, is there no conception of progressive politics where satire and laughter can function as modes of critique? Perhaps the only person in the Bombay film industry who was able to suggest irony and laughter as potent modes of critique was Kundan Shah whose dark comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) remains something of a benchmark in social and political satire in Hindi films. It is therefore disappointing that he made a journey from the nuanced execution of a film like JBDY to an over-simplified film like Teen Behenein (2005).

While we were surprised by the scope of this film—which we will take up in a moment—what was more troubling was the response it generated. Teen Behenein seems to have become one in a long line of films that receive praise despite fatal flaws at nearly every level (script, dialogues, acting, direction) merely because it takes up a topical social issue. Not unlike the reviews of a prescriptive and ultimately badly made film like Taare Zameen Par (Khan 2007), some of the responses to Teen Behenein conflate the intention, the issue at hand and the final film product[1].  And any response that dares to criticize the film is quite easily branded unaware and insensitive.

A case in point is this review of the film/the film’s reviewers or rather the film’s criticizers (click here). While we don’t intend to take on what seems like a moral high ground from where our immediate response to the film—of laughter— has been somewhat severely judged, what we do want to spend some time doing is trying to think through some of the things that this ‘review of reviewers’, throws up about the film.

Teen Behenien seeks to make an important point about the kinds of sexual, social, psychological and physical violence that continues to be encountered by women. The fact that it is premised on an act of suicide that has many factual resonances, the most remembered being the 1988 Kanpur suicides, is something that imbues the film with immense possibilities. What the film makes of those possibilities, is however, extremely disappointing.

The fascinating and troubling premise on which the film is based i.e. a day in the life of three sisters on the verge of killing themselves because of the social climate that prevails around them, is systematically and brutally dismantled by the film as it gets on. The characters emerge not as people but as caricatures. These are listed as follow

(1)  Pious older sister-full of compassion and wisdom- completely devoid of anger-quazi mother figure-ready to sacrifice even her life so that the parents will have lesser to worry about.

(2)   Opinion-less middle sister- lives up to her title of ‘Manjhali’- looking up to moving up the ladder of piety soon, despite of her beauty.

(3)  Rebellious –angry –youngest sibling- immature but sensitive. Pampered-bratty- outspoken. Speaks mostly babble and feels misunderstood.

(4)  Lechy-well wisher neighbor uncle-looking to take advantage of helpless girls.

(5)  Arrogant, rich matchmaker- more than ready to keep reminding the girls that he feels nothing but pity for them and their father- drops his mask of compassion and transforms into a malicious, prejudiced, evil proponent of dowry within the space of a single scene.

(6)  Etc.

What makes these types even more insufferable is that they go on to give lengthy, verbose and stilted explanations of everything they think, want, believe and hate. There is absolutely no space for silence and the unspoken. This cacophony of ‘let-me-tell-you-why’ also finds its way into the performances and the acting becomes a painful exercise in illustrating the dialogue. The memory of such cardboard characters and performance styles seen in countless films, comes back with a vengeance, as one sees entire dialogues being spoken in measured tones, against blaring tear jerking background music while people are being shown to be breaking down with grief.

The ‘nuance’ of both emotion and cinema, therefore, completely escaped us.

Further, on the film’s idea of  ‘empowerment’—that peaked with the song ‘hum banayenge apna future’— and ‘oppression’; the fact that it can imagine only a linear journey from being oppressed within the confines of a house to being empowered outside in the realm of employment, is a limit.  The inability of re-formulating resistance within domesticity  and a redrawing of power maps by these young sexualized bodies within the immediate space they occupy, keeps the film well within safe confines. Ultimately, the only real desire the girls seem to have is to get married as the empowering song goes to naught and the oldest girl goes goo-goo-eyed at the thought of being a bride. Limited by the premium it places on marriage, the film posits it as an ideal to be achieved, and is unable to make room for any doubt about the mental, physical suffering and humiliation that many women face after marriage. This ‘vision’ and ‘authenticity’ is at best questionable.

Having said this, we would also like to say that every kind of articulation- a story, a film, a song and even a review, is inhabited by it’s own disruptions. Teen Behenien is too. There are moments that stand alone in memory, almost as if from a dream. A queer sequence in which one of the sisters dressed as a groom and the other as a bride are deeply immersed in erotic intimacy and a television show which by the end of the film becomes a surreal device where the ghosts of our world can find a voice, are instances, which when thought of closely can push some ideas in interesting directions.

Responses that aim to defend the moral weight of the story not only stifle dissenting voices but also gloss over the magic of such moments of potential rupture. In response we would say that to push any understanding of politics and power in newer, sharper and more productive directions it is important to understand that disagreement must be allowed to exist at multiple levels.  Only a very reductive idea of feminism and politics will say ‘if you disagree then you’re not a feminist’/ ‘if you don’t like this film then you’re disconnected from reality’/ ‘I know what reality is, and therefore hold the right to trash any other interpretation of it’. It is therefore no surprise that most feminists are not quite as taken with this film.

To end we will just say that like there are many ways of being feminist, there are also many many ways of watching films and reviewing them. To assume the privilege and insularity of people who you know nothing about, only creates a very narrow, bitter, alienating and self-righteous idea of radical politics.

Finally, even the ‘real ‘, ‘oppressed’ of the world deserve good cinema, don’t they?  In our opinion, Teen Behenien fails.

 



[1] We are well aware of the vast budget differences between the two films, but we argue that these differences are almost immaterial in this discussion since it is the response that is of the essence, a response that ignores the film and fixates on the sympathetic issue that the film bases itself on.

7 comments

1 Aquatic Static { 11.05.11 at 12:03 pm }

Hi Giggling Girls,
I’m glad you wrote this because it’s clear now that we both saw this film in very different ways. For me, the three sisters were extremely believable characters (in spite of the singing & dancing and even praying that someone in the audience took exception to) because I have met & interacted with such women (Ok, they didn’t sing as much…but you get my point).
(You write ‘Ultimately, the only real desire the girls seem to have is to get married’ – Yes, this isn’t just the filmmakers over-simplifying things, this. I’m sorry to say this is quite accurate across many sections of society, as I’m sure you know. If you recall in the film, the sisters – the youngest one from the get go & even the eldest one towards the end – rebel against this claustrophobic ‘desire’. Plus, I wouldn’t simplify this need to get married as mere ‘desire’ or frivolous whim. It is a result of deep-rooted conditioning…I’ve written about it in my blogpost quite clearly.)
I’d also like to clarify that my piece was not based on the fact that you giggled (to be honest, as I wrote in my post, the giggling threw me because we were all obviously having different reactions to the film). The ‘insensitivity’ that I wrote about stemmed from the comments that followed once the film was over (which I’ve written about in the blog post). Yes, the treatment of the film has its flaws, yet for me, the film was never as unbelievable as it was for others.
I never claimed to own exclusive rights to the definition of feminism. I never claimed there was a right or wrong way to speak of women’s issues. I never said it was wrong to think this film didn’t work cinematically. All I said was that if you’re saying these are ‘unreal’ characters or parodies of women in distress, then that is simply not true. Because it is in my experience to know that this is not true. All I can speak from is my experience.
Beyond that, it is neither my intention nor my place to dictate who or what feminists should be. Nor am I here to speak on behalf of all Indian women. When I spoke of ‘privilege’, I was referring to the fact that many of us in the audience are fortunate to be reaping the benefits of generations of feminist movements. There are certain freedoms we enjoy that perhaps others might not. In this regard, some of the comments that followed the screening seemed to be oblivious to the fact that there are women in this country who perhaps are not as fortunate. (If by ‘privilege’ you understood something else, I apologize. It points to my flaws as a writer than anything else.)
Finally, just as you felt the need to laugh loudly during a public screening of a film, I felt the need to blog about my reaction to it.

2 GG1 { 11.05.11 at 1:16 pm }

i suppose the fundamental point here is that there is (or should be) some distance in an event and a story being told. especially one where the makers are claiming time and again that there film is loosely based on an event and is largely fiction. the moment someone starts prioritizing accuracy and authenticity, as the ultimate goal, they enter the slippery and necessarily multifarious territory of ‘truth’. Privilege aside, it is impossible to know another person’s truth.
Further, there are several reviews that have taken a different, opposing point of view from us and we would be defeating our own cause if we started panning every different point of view. the problem here was, as has been said in the post, that the focus seemed to be not on the film but to any opinion that would differ from yours. Calling people insensitive, unaware was the trigger, especially since it was a film review.
That said, this was really meant to be a response, not just to you but to the film.

3 Pallavi { 11.05.11 at 2:07 pm }

@Aquatic Static – as one of the giggling girls i wish to respond to your comment. I am sure my friends might want to add more with their comments.

First of all thanks for reading and responding.

Now, i think the point of our counter-review is not about whether the girls are ‘believable’ or not.We don’t feel it is a question worth pursuing beyond a point, for its answer can be different for different people. Nowhere have we used the word ‘Unreal’ and certainly don’t have a problem with them singing and dancing and praying. Infact the one productive rupture that we speak of (the queer sequence) happens during a song!

The word that we did use was ‘caricature’, and that in itself has very little to do with believability.So our giggling came not from whether we thought the events or people plausible, but from other things that we have pointed out.

Further, on the question of over-simplification. We have all met women whose only desire is to get married, we are not contesting even for a moment the fact that societies like ours actually bring up women to believe that marriage is all that they must invest in. We would be stupid to be saying that. But in the same way have we not also met xenophobic, racist, misogynist, people? So why do we have a problem with some kinds of narratives that feature them? it is because of the WAY in which such characters are positioned in stories. The problem that we have is not that aspirations towards marriage exist in the film, but with how those aspirations are handled in the universe of this film. It is ultimately a work of fiction and has been constructed with great pains, and even if it has factual references there is nothing wrong in identifying that the stories of characters has been pitched in a way that ultimately limits them and the scope of their resistance.

Again the word ‘Unreal’ has not been used. So i don’t know how to respond to the last few points you have made based on that.

The problem of the film for us lies not only in the treatment but in the entire mode of thought that it uses, we have tried to point at this in our review.

Even though none of us were a part of the questions that you speak of, but just as a way of thinking maybe discussing all kinds of responses people have had to the film- yours, ours, questions from the audience-in an open way, is a more productive project than feeling alienated and alienating those who could be potential political allies.

We appreciate and value what you say about privileges that have been won through struggle, but what we are writing, in no way stands counter to this, especially since you have clarified what you meant by it.

This response at no point questions your need/right to blog about your reactions.It is obviously not a petty getting back. What it merely does is to try and present another view to what seemed as a definite pronouncement of a sentence on us for being ‘disconnected’ from what you understand as ‘reality’.

p.s.-I do recall reading a comment on your page where you said something to the effect of , the academics and people who laughed at the film are human after all.(it was difficult to not construe it as a condescending attack) It is no longer there, so i cant copy-paste it or even tell you the exact words, but i am sure you remember it.

Thanks!
Pallavi

4 Aquatic Static { 11.05.11 at 4:59 pm }

@GG1: I don’t disagree when you say: Privilege aside, it is impossible to know another person’s truth. All my point was” Privilege aside, it is imperative to be *open* to other truths. I think, in the end, we’re all saying the same thing (even though we fundamentally disagree with whether the film succeeded or not, which again: I am not arguing with you about). It was this openness to other truths (for eg: that the desire to marry was too frivolous a reason to ultimately effect a decision to kill oneself. Or even the comment on praying to Gods as ‘romanticising’ the subject…) that I personally felt was lacking in the Q & A session.
I am absolutely NOT implying that what little I have experienced is the whole truth but just that it’s a truth that needs to be respected.

5 Aquatic Static { 11.05.11 at 5:35 pm }

@Pallavi: Again, when you guys giggled I didn’t know why you were giggling and it only gave me pause to wonder how my experience of the film was so different from those who found it funny. That is what I’ve written in the original post as well.
The rest of my post is a direct response to the comments that were raised during the film’s Q&A session (and the discussion I had with Shekhar later).
To me, the question of ‘believability’ is the issue because that’s what my entire post is about. It’s about being open to the idea that there might be women out there who are like those portrayed. It’s NOT a film review (because I’m not qualified to comment on it as a piece of cinema, beyond the fact that it worked for me – which is what I’ve restricted my post to). Nor, is it a comment on the state of feminism as a whole (again, I’m not qualified to make such assessments).
What upset me (about the comments post-screening – not your post) was not the differing points of view but that there was a lack of openness amongst some of us that maybe, just maybe, these characters’ motivations may be accurate.
You say: “Even though none of us were a part of the questions that you speak of, but just as a way of thinking maybe discussing all kinds of responses people have had to the film- yours, ours, questions from the audience-in an open way, is a more productive project than feeling alienated and alienating those who could be potential political allies”
And I say EXACTLY. You have brilliantly articulated the fundamental issue I had with the Q&A session – there were no questions. None. There were these comments lobbed at Shekhar and there seemed to be resistance when he attempted to explain his POV (about how he & his team researched women who belonged to the same milieu as the characters).

And yes, I made that comment (about how I was taken aback at the comments, specially since it was from academics & students at a premier university in Delhi). You’re right, *that* was me making a value judgement. To me the audience at JNU seemed very closed minded & disinterested in a debate in an open way. But it was silly & small of me to express it the way I did in that comment, which is why I deleted it in the morning itself.

I really hope that I’ve made clear my intentions for writing the blogpost. It was not meant as a personal attack on anyone. But yes, it was my personal viewpoint on what I percieved as narrow mindedness in some of whom participated in the Q &A. And yes, I felt upset & frustrated and that is what came out at the end of it all.

6 GG3 { 11.06.11 at 7:20 am }

Okay, so closing comments.

Firstly, I wonder whether what you’re positing as a question of ‘believability’ is really at the heart of the matter here. We have already responded to this particular point, and one would like to reiterate that what was at stake was not the plausibility of these characters or the possibility that people may indeed lead such lives, but that the film presented them in an entirely uncomplicated and rather problematic manner. What you see as the inability to be open to ‘other truths’ is exactly what one would accuse the film of doing–of substituting stereotypes derived from statistical data for character development, of creating robotic dialogues that seem lifted from a government report on the status of gender inequality rather than providing any significant insights on the situation, and of spouting sociological theorems instead of producing a narrative that would rupture conventional wisdom and not reinforce it. I suspect that what the audience may have been responding to (although I do not purport to speak for everyone) is this closing off of possibilities on-screen rather than arguing that no such character templates exist in a real situation. The ‘truth’ showcased in the film is in no sense a marginal one that some academic elites refuse to recognise. Rather, it is the many truths it marginalises that is disturbing –the stories of resistance and subversion that the film refuses to admit.

Secondly, we would like to thank you for sharing stories of your own experiences which clearly exhibit great personal and professional commitment towards gender issues. At no point would we seek to invalidate these encounters. Having engaged in a bit of fieldwork, one is, however, aware of the constraints that such situations function under. Even the most experienced researcher cannot claim to know the entirety of their subjects’ lives, their motivations or the various pressures they respond to at different points of time. This is not to say that a fleeting encounter is immaterial or can yield no significant knowledge –they can indeed be extremely insightful. What would be suspect is using it as irrefutable proof that societies or individuals function a certain way. Again, one cannot be entirely sure whether you are positing this as a “hard fact” (as in your original blog entry) or as a slightly less authoritative vignette of your own experience (in your comments here). For instance, in your story about the women in Kanpur, you express frustration at your inability to elicit an articulate response from the younger women regarding control over their own reproductive capabilities. While at one level this may be interpreted as evidence that these women have relinquished control over their bodies, at another, their silence and evasiveness in the presence of authority might be seen as a strategy to avoid revealing information that could potentially be used against them. The interpretive frame the researcher employs is therefore key to their evaluation of seemingly transparent experiences.

Finally, we would in fact like to reiterate your call for understanding and empathy. An understanding based not on a conception of people as ‘others’ to be studied and examined but as living, breathing human beings with their own aspirations and motivations. Not people who are ‘deeply conditioned’ by their upbringing, but those who continuously negotiate and renegotiate their circumstances. Not as blips on a graph or numbers in a statistic but as people who hold the potential to imagine a different trajectory for their lives. But most of all, the basis of any such empathy and understanding must be built by scrutinising our own selves and the manner in which we are producing knowledge about these so-called ‘others’.

7 nini { 12.02.11 at 6:00 am }

what is suppose to be learn from this movie, i say big benefit. relationship among women will give us inspiration to do what they did.

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