It all began with my love for the song
Aji akdo na humse piya (don’t act snooty with me, my love)
Ke hamne bhi ba paas kiya (I too have a BA degree)
I hadn’t ever heard the song in entirety before. But it struck me as cute that a woman was asserting herself and her education in the B&W era of Hindi cinema. It must have meant a big deal in the newly independent India for a woman to be a graduate. I found the song on YouTube and laughed out loud when I heard the second verse.
Jumping, fencing, singing, dancing,
acting, painting, riding, swimming.
Har khel me naam paati rahi (I was making a name for myself in every sport)
College ki shauhrat badhaati rahi (I was adding to the prestige of my college)
It made me wonder, what did mid-twentieth century Hindi filmmakers think women did in college or what did a BA degree entail? Then after a couple of listens, I thought, somewhat charitably, that it was after all a considerable amount of skills that the woman seemed to have acquired while in college and she was right in feeling a certain pride in her achievements.
Hindi filmmakers have always struggled with the concept of an educated, independent, woman. They understood that a woman may need to earn a living under extraordinary situations, like the death of a husband, in which case the widow would need to support her family with acceptable jobs like sewing in dim oil lamps till her eyes fell out or till her son became a man and rescued her from the drudgery.
The other career they understood rather well was the one of a courtesan or cabaret dancer/ singer.
These were often tales of misfortune of the girl being choiceless in the matter, but they couldn’t and still can’t wrap their heads around women choosing to be prostitutes. Such women either got uplifted into marriage to the large-hearted hero or managed to find redemption by dying in the arms of the hero, having just saved him by jumping in front of a speeding bullet. Occasionally they appear as secretaries or typists in tight tank tops to have affairs with the heroes, their bosses.
I recently revisited the 2007 film Life in a…Metro where two women are shown working in nameless, undefined jobs and seem to only be there to have sex with colleagues while the men working into those same offices had job descriptions and titles and ambition. Women also show up as journalists or police officers, these are what euphemistically called ‘women-oriented’ films. Women in these films are combative, aggressive, foul-mouthed, their femininity emphasised in their tight clothes, but otherwise behave exactly like a man in power would be expected to behave. Mardaani (brave, like a man) is the name of the film that Rani Mukherjee played a strong policewoman.
So naturally, I was interested in a film where a woman sang about her BA degree, that too in 1957! When I learnt that the song was from a film called Abhiman (not to be confused with the 1973 Amitabh Bachchan Jaya Bhaduri starrer of the same name), my heart sank. A name like Abhiman (pride) would only entail the pride of a woman and the breaking of it. And boy, was I right. It was all that I feared and much much worse.
It begins on a promising enough note: a Young man, henceforth known as Winsome Cardboard and the heroine BA Pass vend their individual ways to the matchmaker’s where they are introduced to each other. It’s all rather modern and forward. BA Pass is confident and assertive and Winsome Cardboard is charming and enraptured by BA Pass. Her BA degree is mentioned a few times and it turns out Winsome had always wanted a wife exactly like her. Educated, confident, modern. The match is fixed by the Unctuous, the matchmaker who later assures the father of Winsome that while the young woman is a BA, she has good breeding, all her teeth and would make a perfect housewife by taking over the running of the household, doing the chores, turning the house into a home. And so Winsome and BA Pass get married. Simultaneously BA Pass’s older sister is also married off.
It’s all fun and games till BA Pass fires the busybody househelp ( in brown face makeup and wearing a kashta to signify both poor and Maharashtrian). BA Pass refuses to do the housework, ‘I didn’t get a BA to do menial work’, she huffs. Infuriating the FIL then calls Unctuous to accuse him of having defrauded him and his son by sending them uncooperative goods. In every scene, BA Pass is shown up as a bully and morally ambiguous for wanting to go clubbing and to the theatre, eating out. In stark contrast is the Devi like sister, also in possession of a BA degree but never boasting about it. Instead she sings about the divine music that bartans make and how she is the queen of the house while she is going about the household chores beatifically.
She even sacks the househelp and wins over shrewish MIL with her ingratiating ways. Devi Sister’s husband Dubious Character wants his wife to be modern, cut her hair short, and wear Western clothes. Of course Devi Sister plays killjoy. Dubious Character then finds his ideal companion in his modern, short-haired, trendily dressed SIL, BA Pass. Things come to such a pass that old and arbitrarily feeble Infuriating has to wash the bartans while BA Pass is off gallivanting with Dubious. When Infuriating suggests that it isn’t appropriate that she hang around with Dubious, BA Pass, bitch that she is, shoves Infuriating to the ground and storms off. All those jumping, fencing, dancing skills seem to have given her good upper body strength. Here things take a decided turn for the worse. BA Pass first goes to her parents home and later due to some ridiculously contrived misunderstanding goes to stay in a *gasp* hotel. Dubious tries to help BA Pass get a job, but because ‘loose woman’ seems to be etched on her forehead, for BA Pass only gets jobs where her bosses are pervy creepazoids. Meanwhile Devi Sister also takes up a job to make up for Dubious’s poor money management skills. Because of course women would only work outside the home in need-based situations and because they want to. And because Devi is etched on her forehead and no one dares get handsy with her. Of course, even though she works at an office she manages all the housework by her own Devi self. As though its were not enough that BA Pass is practically ostracised, at her wits end and forced to pawn her jewellery to pay the hotel rent, Dubious for no apparent reason decides that his wife Devi is cheating on him with Winsome and decides to teach them a lesson by, wait for it, raping BA Pass. But rapus interruptus happens when Devi reaches there in the nick of time- as she delicately puts it. She saves ‘them’ from being swept away in a tsunami of feelings and sensations. No one cares that BA Pass was sexually assaulted, betrayed by her only friend and utterly traumatised. When everyone is being returned to their respective spouses for a happy ending, Dubious apologises. No, not to BA Pass, you silly. But to her ineffective undeserving husband Winsome Cardboard.
We were always taught that women are women’s worst enemies. So it takes great skill to see how men, the purveyors and beneficiaries of patriarchy, set women up to be each other’s competition. Patriarchy fears independent women. It comes unhinged in the face of women who refuse to abide by its rules. If you stay within the confines of appropriate behaviour, you are rewarded, you are allowed certain freedoms like a BA, a job, the title of the queen of the household. Else you are belittled, chased out of town and punished with violence that crushes your very soul. BA Pass played by the fey and exquisite Ameeta is repeatedly policed for her refusal to conform. Her fiery spirit is constantly and brutally broken, her pride in her education mocked, her character maligned for the sake of entertainment. Every bad thing that happens to her is always, entirely her fault. And the final punishment of terrifying near-rape is the straw that breaks her back and her husband in all his generosity pats her into a place at his feet. Shrew is tamed.
In a way Abhiman is the perfect predecessor to the much feted and equally derided recent web series Indian Matchmaking.
In Abhiman too the central figure is the unctuous matchmaker with his pockets filled with photographs of prospective brides and grooms. Matchmakers are weird liminal creatures, even in the Indian context with our deeply entrenched arranged marriage system. They know too much but they can never be friends, they provide a service, but they aren’t entirely professionals. All the brides and grooms call Sima Taparia, the matchmaker in Indian Matchmaking, ‘Sima Aunty’ with affection. Sima is aware of her importance and never hesitates to call a spade spade. She blurts things that we would not speak off easily. Like when she tells a divorced woman seeking to remarry that her pool of eligible bachelors is very small and so not to be too picky. They don’t make the rules, but they are the keepers of the rules. They are Chitragupt to Yama. They have huge powers for a short amount of time and none of the responsibility. Sima is not remotely apologetic about all the failed matches, she simply asks the women to adjust and move on.
It’s sad that Sima Taparia drew so much ire. She said the exact things we all hesitate to say. We all want tall grooms and fair brides. We want professional, but flexible. Cultured but modern. Well-spoken, but speaks only when spoken to. Grooms have to merely exist, while the brides are customised, tailored to fit the needs of the groom and his family.
Abhiman has the excuse of being dated. A bad film from a bygone era. That there weren’t so many women graduates in 1957 perhaps led them to fear the consequences of women getting educated and emancipated. As women reached the tipping point when it was no longer a novelty for a woman to be highly educated or working in jobs that were traditionally masculine in domain, did the fear recede?
Sima Taparia consistently mouthing regressive statements about the lawyer Aparna Shewakramani, one of the prospective brides in Indian Matchmaking, tells us otherwise. Outspoken, assertive and proud of her Ivy League education, Aparna reminded me of Ameeta’s character in Abhiman. Sima is instantly wary of her, particularly of her legal degree.
Too negative, too demanding, too stubborn she is called. Aparna’s spirit is constantly chipped at.
A persuasive, reasonable astrologer is sent to her, she’s made to wear a gemstone to calm her fire and make her more receptive and ‘positive’. The next time Sima speaks to Aparna, she proclaims that Aparna has changed, has become softer and will now find a partner. And sadly, it does seem that Aparna now thinks that she may have to change.
It’s not surprising that Sima is terrified of Aparna. Sima doesn’t know what to do with her, because she has a template and Aparna and her ilk challenging that template would have a direct effect on the notion of marriage and in turn on the business of matchmaking. Which is why she constantly urges Aparna to change rather than the grooms who, barring Vyasar, seem exceedingly worthless and undeserving of the women they are introduced to.
It’s hard to be an Aparna. The rewards of independence and non-conformity are few and far between. But you do carve the difficult path for the women who follow, who will reject easily what does not fit into their individual narratives, who will then stride confidently without facing the repercussions of Ameeta’s character in Abhiman. Perhaps Sima too will change. Perhaps matchmaking which is clearly not going to die any time soon, will become less toxic, more equitable. And perhaps in that new world, rape will no longer be the final straw to subjugate a woman’s spirit.
As published in Women’s Web magazine.