MAMI Films Highlight Women’s Negotiation With Freedom Through Love, Sex and Desire
A teenager in Australia wants to experience intimacy with her boyfriend before she dies of cancer. A morally upright married woman in Assam develops a bond with a younger man while her husband is away. An aged widow in small-town India desperately searches for reasons to stay out of her house. A young woman in Senegal chooses a ghost lover over a human husband.
When was the last time you heard any of these stories? Luckily for cinephiles, the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2019 edition showcased more than 190 films that revealed the human experience in all its multifacetedness. A large number of filmmakers placed a female protagonist at the center of their fictional narrative. But instead of showing female characters as mere objects of desire (as they are mostly reduced to in mainstream cinema), the women in these films were portrayed as fully fleshed-out subjects. In these films, women across age-groups chose to assert agency by expressing themselves through the experience of love, sex, and desire.
Bhaskar Hazarika’s second Assamese feature film, Aamis (Ravening), had its India premiere at MAMI 2019. In it, a student of anthropology pursuing a doctorate in food cultures of the North-East, Sumon (Arghyadeep Baruah), and an older, married, pediatrician, Nirmali (Lima Das), start a platonic relationship that can only end badly. In a series of dates initiated by the younger man, the two protagonists share their love of eating meat, till one day their unfulfilled desires transform into a dangerous hunger and end in a horrific crime. From illicit food to illicit desires and actions, Hazarika cleverly uses meat/flesh as a metaphor in the film.
Nirmali, who is shown to be the perfect doctor, friend, wife, and mother, is suddenly faced with a dilemma as a result of her emerging feelings for Sumon. Initially, she chides her close friend for indulging in an affair with a younger man, but now, in spite of her own better judgment, she continues meeting Sumon on their meat adventures. When her husband suddenly returns after a long tour and has a vegetarian meal with Nirmali, she looks visibly uncomfortable and leaves abruptly. In the very next shot, we see her munching on a chicken piece right out of the refrigerator — as a stunned husband (and audience) looks at her suspiciously. This moment of tiny rebellion marks the beginning of her rupture from the normative expectations of marriage.
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“The idea was to explore taboo love,” explains Hazarika about his intentions behind making the film. “What I believe is that powerful emotions like love and hate do not respect social notions of right and wrong.” Reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover in parts, and of Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love in its slow-burn build-up of desire, Aamis will make you think of how following the diktats of morality can turn perfectly ‘normal’ people unrecognizable. As the film nears its bizarre end, Nirmali has crossed over to the other side of society — from being the ‘perfect’ woman, she is now an accomplice in a gruesome crime. In her own words, she is “losing her mind,” but it is an insanity that sets her free from the taboos of culture as she finally accepts and expresses her desire for Sumon.
In the seminal work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar theorized that Victorian female writers created characters who were either the angel” or the rebellious, unkempt “monster.” This, in turn, is an influence of male writers who wrote female characters to fit into one or the other stereotype. In the films screened at the festival, the stereotype is challenged and subverted many times over: there are no one-note female characters here. The women face their unique situations head-on and use the experience of love or desire as a way to find agency in a world that doesn’t provide too many opportunities to do so. If they are mad women, they are not willing to be locked up in an attic anymore — they will come out and let the world see who they are.
Another screening at MAMI was Kislay’s hard-hitting indictment of patriarchal structures, Aise Hi (Just Like That), which highlights the life of a so-called madwoman whom society wants to lock up. A 72-year-old widow (Mohini Sharma) chooses to stay in her upstairs home and refuses to be forcibly assimilated into her son’s family downstairs after her husband’s death. Mrs. Sharma’s small doses of rebellion — buying roses for herself, learning embroidery from a local Muslim tailor and going for night walks to the river with a young girl as a guide — are seen as acts of madness by her family and conservative colony residents. She uses her loss of love (death of the husband) to negotiate freedom and assert her agency as an older woman whom society doesn’t see as independent.
Her actions, which she is constantly asked to justify, have a two-word answer: “Aise hi” (just like that) – because how else does one justify the fundamental human need for freedom? And when the answer is not satisfactory, she is either a “selfish woman” or a more convenient label — a “madwoman.” In fact, when her acquaintances gather together to discuss her unusual behavior, one of them suggests that she be sent away to a mental institution until she recovers. A woman’s desire for freedom and independence is so out of place, especially in an older woman, that in the end, Mrs. Sharma decides to leave her husband’s home to find peace of mind in a house she rents in another city.
It’s a decisive ending that brings the viewer the closure that many were disappointed not to have in the only other movie that has addressed an older woman’s need for agency, Lipstick Under My Burkha. In Lipstick Under My Burkha, Usha Parman is known as buaji (a 55-year-old widow, played by Ratna Pathak Shah) and is publicly humiliated by her family when they find out about her clandestine relationship with a younger man. The severe backlash doesn’t elicit any action on buaji’s part; instead, director Alankrita Srivastava opts for a more realistic ending that hints that buaji goes back to her family.
It’s a different kind of family in the heartbreaking coming-of-age drama, Babyteeth, screened at MAMI 2019. Debutant Shannon Murphy explores the first flush of teenage love, set in a progressive but protective Australian household. Murphy’s protagonist Milla (Eliza Scanlen of Sharp Objects fame) is a cancer patient, who still has one of her baby teeth (a symbol of inexperience). This changes when she encounters the older, charming, bad boy Moses on her way to school and falls madly in love. He is homeless, a drug-dealer, and broke and asks her for money. She wants to chop off her hair and asks him to cut it in exchange. Over the span of the next few months, Milla experiences the highs and lows of an unrequited romance, while also undergoing treatment for cancer.
It’s through exploring the heady terrain of love and sexual desire, that Milla experiences an adulthood she will never get to actually live. Despite her parents’ disapproval of Moses, she runs away from home one evening just to be with him. This is a risk, considering she’s under treatment and needs no disruption in her life. She puts on a blonde wig (to cover her bald head due to chemotherapy), dresses up like she’s an adult and wants to party with Moses and his friends. By the end of the night, the worried parents find her on the rooftop of a building, sick and abandoned by Moses. When the relationship finally blossoms, it is on her death-bed that it finds consummation. But not before she loses her last remaining baby tooth. Milla’s sexual intimacy is like the completion of a cycle of growth before death.
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It also brings closure to the loop of desire and longing. A similar scene ends the MAMI 2019 film Atlantique, by actress-turned-filmmaker Mati Diop. The film uses the trope of horror/supernatural to talk about the impact of migration and capitalism. But instead of focusing where the obvious drama is (working-class migrant men from Senegal who die at sea on their way to Spain), Diop chooses to turn her lens towards the women who are left behind. What happens to a woman, Ada, whose lover suddenly leaves overnight? What emotional aftermath does she have to face?
Caught between her strong feelings for her missing working-class lover and the pragmatic decision to marry the rich man to whom she is betrothed, Ada chooses to follow her instinct in love. A quietly confident and thoughtful woman, she learns to trust her own feelings and not give in to what her parents and society wants her to do. Ada’s friend acts as the voice of reason in this dilemma: either she can live the good life with her husband or struggle as a single woman without means. In a telling scene, Ada is bailed out from a police station by her husband, but when he asks her to come back with him, Ada, now convinced that her lover is back, refuses. It’s that moment of rebellion in the film, just like Nirmali’s, when we know, the character is decisive and has found the courage to act on her own desires.
This ultimately liberates her from a regressive social structure that demands she take a medical test to prove her virginity – just on the suspicion of a relationship. It is her love for her lover — who died at sea to come back as a ghost in another body — that gives her the strength to resist comfortable and convenient marriage.
In a world that still demands women fall in line or be labeled crazy, it’s the ability to take charge of their own lives which makes these characters stand out. For some characters, like Nirmali, desire can lead to unchartered territory that society condemns; for Milla, love becomes a reason to stay alive and experience a lifetime of emotions in a short time-span; for Ada, it gives her the strength to reject the pressures of society to conform to what is expected of her; and for Mrs. Sharma, by standing up and fighting for what she needs, she finally lives life on her own terms.