Bombay HC's Comment On Grandmothers In Udta Punjab Verdict Is Part Of A Bigger Problem

14/06/2016 8:46 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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In a smackdown that was hailed on social media as epic, sassy and very rockstar-like, the Bombay High Court pretty much asked the Central Board of Film Certification to behave like adults. Adults, but perhaps not too old.

"Do not act like a grandmother. Change as per the times now,” a bench comprising judges SC Dharmadhikari and Shalini Phansalkar-Joshi, told the CBFC.

Peals of laughter rang through social media. For many, it must have felt like a deservedly delicious conclusion to a ridiculous drama. We have called the board regressive, foolish, stupid, intoxicated, illogical, irrational, stuck-up and idiotic, but the Bombay HC came up with seemingly the most satisfactory word to tell off the board. "Grandmother!! Lol, granny! Bringing cool back to the court," we chortled.

Amidst the euphoria of Pahlaj Nihalani being cut to size, we glazed over the court using 'grandmother' as representative of an unyielding, blinkered, regressive world view.

The court, therefore, used the word 'grandmother' as representative of an unyielding, blinkered, regressive world view. Hmmm.

When that line surfaced on my Twitter timeline, I grumbled a bit, spontaneously. I was immediately reminded of my maternal grandmother, a big movie buff, who came back very impressed with one of Rituparno Ghosh's earliest films--Unishe April. The film explored the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter and was far from the usual, vanilla rom-coms that grandparents are usually subjected to. However, she had one grouse. "Arey, why did we need to see Prosenjit (the film's hero) peeing for so long? Then zipping up? No, as in, how is Prosenjit's urine relevant to the story? Or just because it's Prosenjit's urine, we are supposed to gawk at it?" she wondered aloud, her voice alive with mellow irritation.

Prosenjit, a big commercial name in Bengali cinema, was routinely fawned over at home, on television screens and in the tabloids she read. The man didn't impress her Uttam Kumar-Soumitro Chatterjee aesthetics of the 60s, so watching him pee was never high on her wish list. "Aha, art film toh (aha, it's an art film no)," my grandfather offered in consolation, apparently explaining the unfamiliar props of storytelling to her. We--my grandparents, parents, brother and I--laughed hysterically over the exchange. This was 1994. Sonama (that's what I called her), had she been alive, would have rolled her eyes over the news of Shahid Kapur's peeing scene in Udta Punjab, and smirked, "Oh please, Uttam Kumar never had to pee to make his films hit." We would have both laughed.

That was the grandmother I knew--old fashioned, yes, but wise, funny and not reluctant to understand the times she had moved into. She knew it was as much her time as mine, and as long as she lived, she spoke about her past with glowing fondness, but never pined for it. Yes, she may have squawked, 'dhyar baba (oh goodness)' if Kapur peed for longer than she would have liked on screen, but no, she wouldn't be horrified that a film on drug abuse in a state existed. Or that it was named after the state. Or wouldn't suspect that if I watched a film on drug abuse, I would rush to the nearest store to score cocaine to snort. She was not extraordinary, she just had enough common sense to see her through without too many embarrassments for 76 years of her life.

It makes me wonder what kind of grandmothers the lordships have known.

Chances are nobody will be very upset with the court here. After all, they asked Pahlaj Nihalani to take a hike, sanskaar in tow. The hero-worship of the court also, somewhat, is rooted in the language of 'bravado' that it has used. What could be more insulting for the self-proclaimed upholders of patriarchal morality than to be called an old woman, right? Oh, you could almost hear the shards of their alpha masculinity dropping on the ground with a loud, clanking noise. That's the kind of sound that's music to a lot of ears right now.

For some of the liberal voices in the media and social media too, the Bombay HC making grandmothers seem dubious is a tiny inconvenience, which should be largely ignored because of the slap it gave on the face of a virulently conservative, illogical, right wing entity. The Bombay HC's politics roughly mirrors their own at the moment and that's a big deal. Sorry, grannies!

The court's statement is also sort of in line with the routinely used language of criticism in India and across the world. Where to cut someone to size--be it a man or a woman--you accuse him/her of being a prototype of a woman, who is believed to be completely irrelevant and undesirable.

So a melodramatic and supercilious Smriti Irani becomes an 'aunty' in a newspaper front-page, a hungry and pissed off boy in a Snickers advertisement becomes a 'heroine' and a regressive film certification board becomes a 'grandmother'.

So a melodramatic and supercilious Smriti Irani becomes an 'aunty' in a newspaper front-page, a hungry and pissed off boy in a Snickers advertisement becomes a 'heroine' and a regressive film certification board becomes a 'grandmother'.

An aunty, a grandmother, a heroine, a diva, or a bitch aren't repulsive by themselves. So when we use the words as an insult or a reprimand, we do two things--we establish, actually reiterate the fact, that despite all the cultural evolution we pride ourselves in, our language still subconsciously associates vice with women. And when we use the words as insults--we stereotype the demographic that comes under the original implications of the word, as unworthy and undesirable. And who, ever-so-gently, leads us down this path? Yes, our dear familiar friend patriarchy.

'Oh, it's just a joke.' 'Oh, but the person saying it is not a bad person, he is perhaps even a feminist.' 'But that word was used to insult some really vile people!' The language of misogyny has many defenders. Jokes, good people and their odd moments of indiscretion, insults, critique--patriarchy can feed on all of these to survive.

In a brilliant post dating back to 2007, Mellisa McEwan, explained what has perpetuated the use of misogynistic language. One, the overtly patriarchal prejudices of the society we are brought up in and continue to live in. And two, our refusal to repeatedly examine if we are slipping up--those 'oh he/she's just a non-misogynist cracking a harmless joke' moments.

"And the ultimate result of resisting being deemed a misogynist for the use of misogynistic language is that it’s yet another way of giving oneself permission to resist self-examination. As I’ve said no fewer than a nonillion times before, all of us, failing extraordinary effort to examine the narratives of bias—with which we’re all indoctrinated by our culture—in an attempt to extricate ourselves from their divisive grip, will hold prejudices. The only question is whether you allow your own to be unexamined prejudices," she writes.

Our grandmothers deserve better than to be compared to Pahlaj Nihalani.

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