Thursday, November 07, 2013

That Day After Everyday: A Commendable But Flawed Effort

Since December 2012, when the brutal Delhi gang rape (and murder) shook India, discussions of violence against women (VAW) have not only gone mainstream but taken on a new urgency. Television slanging matches, social media debates, miles of newsprint, and of course the generally ridiculous statements from political and religious leaders have shone a not particularly flattering light on the state of women in the country.  It is in the context of this renewed discussion that Anurag Kashyap's short film That Day After Everyday  (see film above) was released earlier this month.

An aside: I wonder if we should count the short, despite its online release, as the director's 'Diwali release' (to use that much hyped term). In purely audience terms, it has certainly garnered the eyeballs necessary to count as a success! 

Kashyap has long made 'realist' cinema his signature (with caveats of course), depicting a gritty, dark reality of India, often ignored by more mainstream 'Bollywood' directors. In many ways, his films are heirs to the 70s 'parallel' cinema, apparently more 'intellectual' as opposed to the 'fluff' produced by the industry. Just to be clear, this is not my classification or description but a distillation of commonly held and aired views by film critics and scholars about Kashyap's oeuvre as well as 'Bollywood' vs 'parallel'/alternative/new/multiplex cinemas. In my own view, over the past century of Indian cinema, the 'fluff' makers have often better, more insistent and regular at engaging with complex social concerns than many self-conscious 'parallel' film-makers, and with the added advantage of reaching a wider audience. However, that is a discussion for another time.

That Day After Everyday, as much of Kashyap's work, has high production values. The camera work is stellar, adding to both the sense of claustrophobia as well as fear of the protagonist. His use of mobile phone cameras to capture digital stalking of the women highlights the sense of micro-violations that is a daily experience for Indian women (and yes, I will not 'caveat' that - it is a rare Indian woman who has not experienced sexual harassment, gender-based intimidation, micro-aggressions and violations. And that rare woman will have to live in rarified socio-economic atmosphere available only to the likes of the country's super-elite such as Priyanka Gandhi). The constant sounds comprising of horrific news reports of VAW, crass comments by various colleagues, casual sexist comments by family members are effectively utilised. The actors are uniformly good with special kudos to Radhika Apte, the protagonist. The costumes, make-up, setting all signal a 'realist' non-glamourised, non-Bollywood world, similar if not the same as the one inhabited by most Indian women. Then there is the script, tightly structured with a couple of sharply etched and readily recognisable lead characters. Written by Nitin Bhardwaj, it works well to create the claustrophic, sinister lives circumscribed by casual sexism and persistent micro-violations.

So far so good. But then come the discomforting moments: the film ends with the harassed women fighting back (after getting trained in self-defense). While this makes for a suitably feel good moment, it also feels cliched and for a Kashyap film, surprisingly 'Bollywood.'  I must also say that I found the fight sequences less than convincing, as Kashyap seems to jettison all rules of self-defense and hand-to-hand combat to grant his 'heroines' their 'feel good' victory. Really? A knuckle duster? Which is seized by the opponent before even the first contact and then thrown away? The 'victory' such as it is feels contrived and unrealistic. Given the gritty realism Kashyap brought to Gangs of Wasseypur, Gulal or Dev D, the fight sequence and its conclusion feels gauche and heavy handed.

Then there is 'Didi' (played by Sandhya Mridul), the woman who apparently teaches the protagonist and her friends self-defense. I suppose there is some comfort to be gained in the non-heteronormative way she has been represented: short hair, 'butch' clothes, cigarettes. In my more sympathetic moment, I thought of her as a hopeful representation of female queerness in Indian cinema. But then I wondered why does a character bending gender-norms have to be represented by simplistic and reductionist masculinization? Why is her body language so gendered and in such cliched ways? Why did she remain in the background during the fight? There is a clever but unexplored cinematic moment as Didi and the husband stand on two ends of the fight, watching the harassers-turn-avengers. That tiny moment could have opened news ways of representing and seeing female characters; instead it re-inforces the masculine gaze that the film fails to subvert. Finally, she left me wondering if even our best 'alternative' filmmakers are open to considering gender and sexuality in ways that are not caricatured and stereotypical.

But the discomfort does not end there. The film ends on a 'humorous' note - of the demanding, sexist husband now cowed by his 'warrior' wife into making her tea on the morning after the fight. And yet this scene is heavy with tragedy as he asks her about the amount of sugar she prefers, indicating yet again that despite his new (temporary?) demeanour, he has made little or no effort towards the marriage. For Kashyap and the film, fear, not affection, and definitely not choice, appears to be the only motivation for men behaving kindly, gently, humanely towards women!

The ending in many ways encapsulates the problems I have with this film: in guise of making an inspirational short, the film peddles age-old victim-blaming narratives, this time from the other end of the spectrum. If the family members in the filmic text tell the women to not fight back as a way of avoiding sexual harassment, the film seems to assert that the only way to not be harassed is to fight back physically. In both cases, the onus is squarely on the women who are the victims of harassment. There is never any mention of the perpetrators, nor is there any real critique of them at any point in the film. The implicit message seems to be 'men are brutes that women must protect against.' That is a bizarrely regressive message from a director lauded for his 'progressive' films!

The film also individualises any fight back against VAW. Yes, by the end, the particular goons who have been beaten up may have learned the lesson against sexual harassment, but as any woman who has navigated public spaces in India can explain, there is no end to men who have not been taught that lesson by a mythical 'warrior' woman. There is no space in the filmic narrative to consider what happens to women who can't fight back, or if the same heroic protagonists are faced in the future by a new set of thugs. There is no understanding that the solution to VAW is not individualised punishment meted out by the state or citizens but rather structural changes in how women are perceived and valued.

Worse still, the film takes the simplistic route of equating class with VAW, and thus the 'fight back' is limited to the drunken thugs on the street, but not the men - both in the women's housing society and in the office - with cameras whose micro-violations are just as terrifying, sickening and unacceptable. Nor is the fight back aimed at the family members who are party to the embedded sexism and discrimination that aids and abets VAW.  As a result, Kashyap's protagonist, having learned self-defense can fight off goons on the street, but will stay in a loveless marriage where her husband can only muster up basic acts of sharing and affection (such as making tea) as a result of fear. There is in fact not the smallest attempt to even reference the structural aspects of gendered violence.

A corollary of this simplification is to set up men and women as irreconcilable antagonists, locked in fear and violence. Furthermore, in presenting a uni-dimensional view of men as predators or cowardly enablers, the film serves Indian men ill. Surely Kashyap can imagine a wider range of masculinities? Worse still, with the sole older woman in the film replicating and repeating misogynist narratives while the younger women battle alone, the film appears to set up VAW as a problem only for young and attractive (even if un-made-up) women. Thus the film repeats the long-held but false corollary of rape and VAW being about sexual desire rather than about power, and as such undermines its own intent, message and effectiveness.

I realise that the points raised here may well be rebutted with "it's only a short film." But even twenty one minutes are ample in hands of a sensitive, thoughtful filmmaker to make a truly revolutionary point. Perhaps if Kashyap had considered his film on the Bechdel test, he would have come up with a different story line, viewpoint and characters. Or perhaps if he had remembered his own varied cinematic examinations of contemporary Indian masculinities, the film would have had a different slant. Given Kashyap's skill and intelligence, I look forward to another film that can fully deploy his directorial skills towards making a truly inspirational film about the topic...of the current filmmakers in the country, he is one of the most capable of doing so.

Till then, I suppose we should be grateful for the scraps that India's artists throw out towards concerns of gender discrimination and VAW.

PS: I really wish this film had been subtitled. It seems a sadly inward looking to release a film with international appeal, and online, without allowing non-Hindi speakers access to it.