A New Wish for the New Year: #MeToo Must Reach Small Town India, And How Bollywood Can Help


A New Wish for the New Year: #MeToo Must Reach Small Town India, And How Bollywood Can Help

Illustration: Akshita Monga

This morning, during my early trawl through Twitter, I found a poetry page sharing a poem by someone who was named by at least three women when #MeToo was taking India by storm. I took screenshot and sent it to friends. Patriarchy renders public memory short, they remarked.  

Now that it has been a few months since the movement reached its peak, I can already see some of the men who were named and who faced the consequences roaming around with a chip on their shoulders the size of Brazil. One such man thinks he is the victim because what he had done wasn’t big enough. Another well-respected Indian-English novelist, who is sure to be named for all the big awards this year, had resorted to cracking rape jokes publicly during one of our discussions and feels no remorse for that, and continues to be popular.

The movement though, is still taking shape and has managed to scare men, I am not sure how many are introspecting, but that anyway might take a while. Which is why I think it’s time to talk about places the movement couldn’t reach, but needs to – the invisible, small-town India.

I was in Jabalpur, my hometown, when #MeToo was happening. Growing up, I lived in a bubble of my own. Surrounded by colony members who behaved like family, I had a loving and oppressive unit working all around me.

When you grow up in an environment where everyone is constantly watching you, you want to rebel. And rebel badly. In our small towns, hanging out with boys makes for a bad character. Smoking and drinking are out of question. And we don’t ever utter the word sex. The good girl image is peddled like propaganda. Bad girls are the talk of the town. This is confusing and scarring. You tend to judge other girls who rebel and then it is your turn to do the same.

It is why when Bollywood shifted its focus to small towns we lapped it up. We accepted the rebellious girls of Hindi cinema because they were showing us ways of being modern, they were telling us we can be good people and do all the drinking, smoking, sexing we want to do. And soon enough, that became a problem.

I have an old friend who, whenever we meet, starts talking about how “cool” her life is. By that, she means she goes to night clubs. Talks dirty. Cusses. Flirts with random men with much bravado. Is part of WhatsApp groups with other women where porn is openly discussed. It’s been a decade since her “liberation”, and a decade of non-stop talking about it.

There is nothing wrong with all the things my friend does. But it bothers me that she thinks this earns her the cool tag. She is the very embodiment of the small-town prototype modern cinema has created. She has been pressured, by her peers and cinematic role models into thinking that she has to be wild in a very specific way. Or else, she won’t be accepted. And I know several such women from back home who have fallen prey to this image.

I was once made to join an all-women WhatsApp group filled with people I knew as a kid. It had women who acted exactly like the aforementioned friend. They all obsessively talked about how they smoke and drink, and how active their sex lives are. And the kind of “odd” places where they have done it. Some of them too eager to prove their worth ended up lying and getting caught in the process.

A woman mentioned having sex in a train, somewhere in Europe. As she went about telling us the story, someone pointed out that the said train only had chair cars, and unless they lucked out and found the entire train to themselves, the story does not seem plausible. This, most definitely, embarrassed her, and led to a week-long silence from her.

This again, isn’t this woman’s fault. This is the fault of a culture, led by Bollywood, that is telling these women that they aren’t adequate enough, unless they do something only wild girls do.

Why is empowerment only achieved by emulating men?

The sexual liberation of women in cinema today is almost a gimmick. It started with Kangana Ranaut. In Tanu Weds Manu she was a feisty girl who left Kanpur to study in the big city of Delhi, changed boyfriends more than clothes, smoked and drank with abandon, and cussed like there was no tomorrow. It was a great start. It was fun watching her do all of that. She was a novelty.

Tanu, however, spread like an infection in Bollywood. So now we have Kriti Sanon as Bareilly ki Barfi, Alia Bhatt as Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania, and Tapsee Pannu’s Rumi from Manmarziyaan. What these girls have in common are their rebellions against their small-town parents who want them to marry the safe, good boy. However, their “modernity” doesn’t extend beyond these limited rebellions. These girls hardly ever have any career aspirations. They have no idea how their life will turn out to be. In fact, that is a thought they don’t trouble themselves with.

While there are major differences between these girls and say Kajol’s Muskan from Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, they still serve the same purpose. If Muskan was Madonna-esque, it was so that Salman Khan could fall in love with her. She is different, incorruptible, has principles. Which, in a world full of big-city bigdi hui ladkiyan, is alluring. She is very much defined by the male gaze.

The drinking-smoking-cussing girls aren’t different in that regard. They are also for male pleasure. Men were earlier protecting female honour, are now taking care of the drunken girls. They enjoy this fantasy girl because she is exactly like them, only prettier. And, in the end, she will be domesticated. So, let her have her rebellions. They are cute.

In the small-town imagination, the idea of modernity is also borrowed from a hollow idea of how women in big cities behave. They are freer and therefore better. It lacks perspective and reeks of insecurity. This is my major grouse with the drinking-smoking-cussing girls. Where are all the well-rounded girls who have lives that are social and political, who have an aspiration outside the bottle of tequila? The women who have careers, are serious about them, take care of families in times of need, are compassionate and caregiving, but fierce and independent? Can flirt with men, have casual sex, drink, and smoke? And in the end, are self-reliant, even when in love.

This is why I think it is hard for us to have small-town #MeToo. The limitations of this imagined modernity will always come in the way. The man who “lets” his wife drink knows he can take that bottle away. We aren’t teaching girls to live their lives; we are teaching them to live the supposed lives of big city girls. Having sex at will is different from the performance of a sexual life, and no one is having this conversation. And that is a potential cause for worry, because to say #MeToo you need agency; something you don’t have.

With the creation of these characters, Bollywood is setting small-town girls up for major failures. When girls in films were sanskari, it was also the small-town imagination. Now that they aren’t that, the imagination is shifting. And I don’t blame them for that. Cinema is a major window to the outside world for us. How is a small-town girl going to tell us how she was drunk and how a man molested her? The minute it is discovered that she drinks and smokes, she will become an “easy” woman, always up for grabs. In an absence of a much-needed conversation we aren’t seeing how vulnerable we are. We don’t know how to deal with toxic men or what constitutes a toxic nature.

It is also easy to replicate these cinematic beauties because all we know about them is how they act out, but not what they think, what they have been through, or why they are the way they are. When cinema tells us this is cool, we become that. At the end of the day, we are all trying to fit in, preparing for the day we leave our small towns, and be accepted when we cross its borders and enter the big city.

Cinema is giving us a hollow model to aspire to, but not telling us why we should be this way, nor are we questioning it. Why is empowerment only achieved by emulating men? Cinema’s not teaching our women to demand more, and not teaching our men to do better. But now that the conversation has started, can we please talk about these women who remain absent in our imagination, unless caught smoking, drinking, and cussing? They are not for our entertainment. They aren’t there to feed into our false sense of empowerment. Let’s talk to them, shall we?