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. 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.
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.
 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.