“Maaf kijiyega, mujhe hamesha se aisa lagta aya hai ki aap ek jung ke maidan me khadi hain. Hamesha ladne ko tayar. Phir samne chahe dushman ho ya na ho.”
(Pardon my saying, but I have always felt like you were standing in a battlefield. Ever ready to fight. Whether or not there was an enemy facing you).
The words of the male protagonist in the serial Radha ki betiyan kuch kar dikhayengi hold within them a regime of truth where the difference between compliment and criticism gets obscured. He is right. The female protagonist does seem to be fighting an unknown battle. She is in a new city and needs to find a job soon. She has a family of four to support and younger sisters to take care of. As an Indian woman with professional aspirations and responsibility of earning her family’s bread, the screenplay has already subsumed a battlefield in the background for her. Lets add to this her intelligence and high regard for self respect. That’s not a battle. That’s war! In any other mode of description, the attributes might have paved the way for a strong responsible protagonist with the power to make it big. But not on the Indian television. Where weakness is the considered default, strength is strenuous. A pain. A battle.
Every aspiration, every endeavour brings with it its own professional and personal challenges. Society meticulously keeps throwing its share of hurdles. We all fight battles throughout our life, some real and some imagined. However our small screen seems to presume a battle within every female protagonist who dares to display strength. It is as if she wants to be weak, she wants to be dependent but circumstances need her to be the male of the house. Left to herself, she would rather wallow in the dreams of others. Following her own dreams is a strain for her, a battle she fights with herself, to be someone she isn’t comfortable being. A journey borne out of compulsion, not by choice. It’s not a matter of pride to see her strive. The audience instead feels a certain pity welling for her, one that stays irrespective of what she achieves.
Here’s a snapshot from the serial which I find representative of the generic portrayal I am referring to. The bangles get replaced by a watch. She holds her own head rather than bury it in the hero’s chest. She uses her own shoulders rather than his. She is independent. But how she would love not to be so.
Contrast this with the other snapshot from the serial JAG. The character of Lieutenant Colonel Sarah MacKenzie (Mac) is one of my personal favourites. Incidentally the serial too struggled to arrive at an appropriate female characterisation in a male dominated profession set against a navy backdrop. Their journey of landing on Mac’s portrait nails the fundamental handicap in our outlook. Unfortunately what they learnt in a single season, the Indian television still seems wanting. Judge Advocate General (JAG) deals with military legal cases, specifically Navy in this series. They started with Commander Kate Pike as the female lead. She was mentally strong, knew her job and was physically fit. She commanded respect and appreciation. She however was always on red alert and acutely aware of the fact that she was the only one wearing a skirt. She successfully retained the feminine warmth and care in her, not letting the military atmosphere dig into her sensitivity. Despite the confidence, she somehow always seemed furtive. It appeared as if her being a woman came first, and being a JAG officer came second. She had to protect herself and only then think about her work. And a major component of her confidence and dignity came from her success in the former area, not the latter.
With her exit, the series saw the entry of Commander Meg Austin. She wasn’t on high alert. Rather she had an unabashed body language at work. There was no emphasis on ladylike reluctance or safeguarding a flimsily postulated dignity. She was just like the guys. In fact, she seemed to try really hard to make that point. She did fit perfectly in the role, possibly because of the all too familiar picture of women in male dominated professions trying to be ‘one among the guys’. She fought with her physical limitations, fought with her emotional instincts and fought hard to be considered ‘able’ in the sense of the word which the men had defined. In her flailing was the appreciation of her male counterparts, with an underlying cushion of its futility. She had created a sphere of reality where even the compliments sounded condescending.
Harm: (referring to the Ensign) I’m going to have a psychological evaluation done.
Mac: Since when does a woman have to be crazy to shoot a man?
The series finally saw the creation of Lieutenant Colonel Sarah MacKenzie (Mac). Mac was neither the lady on board nor one of the men. She was neither fighting nor giving in. She just was. She wanted to give her best to the job and that’s all you can see her do. That is not to say that she didn’t face discrimination, domination or alienation. But she rode her emotions and her limitations with a panache that can only come from being a human – not a man, a woman or even an officer. All men aren’t alike. Short men work differently from the tall ones, the muscular ones display strength differently from the flexible ones. We all have different emotional weaknesses. Where then does the need crop for a woman to try to do things differently? Why is it so difficult to visualise characters who intuitively think about their work and focus on it without first consciously reminding themselves of the distinction of being a woman. How does a societal demarcative line come between a woman and her thoughts? Are women like this for real or is this a common imaginative thread among creative directors?
I have never found myself relating to any of the ‘strong’ female characters portrayed on Indian television (even cinema for that matter) like I do with Mac or Beckett (from the series Castle). When I am working, my thoughts do go only where the work leads me, wherever that might be. Being a woman is part of the subconscious. The same way you know you don’t have eleven fingers. That doesn’t mean you need to remind yourself of that every time you use your hands. You try to do your best with the ten you have got. Neither presuming the advantageous nature of having eleven, nor denying the limitation of having ten. Aspiring is not a pain. Nor is fighting for it. What is a pain is letting a foreign fig creep into your rationale and influence the deduction. That is when independence gets bound by its definition. That is when identification needs the crutches of comparison. And that is when no success brings with it closure.
“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” – J.M. Barrie