Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teen Behenein: A Review of the Reviewers

Last evening I attended a film screening at the School of Arts & Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The film was Kundan Shah's 'Teen Behenein' (completed in 2005, not seen in theatres till date) travelling the country in its DVD avatar with Chief Associate Director Shekhar Hattangadi. It is thematically rooted in the dowry-related triple suicides in 1988 Kanpur, when three sisters decided to end their lives to save their parents the burden of getting them married off. (The filmmakers are at pains to clarify that this is not a biographical representation of the tragedy. The incident only serves as a take-off point for what is most certainly fiction.)
Cinematically, it's a simply treated film with its share of flaws that other reviewers have described better than I could. As for me, I found it extremely well researched and nuanced in terms of the characters' dilemma, their inner workings and the societal pressures they eventually succumb to.

It wasn't an easy film to watch. I'm one of two sisters fortunate to have been born to people who were excited to have us. (My doctor mother would tell us stories of her patients asking, "Only two daughters? No sons?" Then she'd proudly re-enact the feminist lectures she'd give them.) Growing up, my parents were focused on us getting degrees, building a profession and being financially independent. At no point was marriage the sole purpose of our existence, at no point was getting us married, theirs. Still, the film made me uncomfortable - but for a twist of fate, my sister & I could just as well been the siblings in Teen Behenein.

I was riveted. It brought back memories from when I was 9 yrs old and saw the front-page photograph of three hanging girls - such young girls too - and thinking: what would make you so miserable that you'd want to do that? The film laid it all bare in stunning and painful detail.

Then someone in the audience giggled. Her laughter caught on and soon her friends were giggling too. I can't claim to know what they found so funny but was taken aback by how different our viewing experiences were. Once the screening was over, the floor opened up to questions & comments. No one was curious about the characters or the story (or even the process of arriving at that particular cinematic treatment) but there were plenty of comments - some felt the film had a 'narrow' perspective because the girls had no aspirations besides marriage & that dowry was too trivial a matter to elicit suicidal decisions.  Some commented on how showing the sisters deriving strength from praying to Krishna was too 'romantic' and 'took away from the seriousness of the issue'. Other commenters, Shekhar told me later, took offense at the portrayal of educated young women, who 'gave in so easily'. 'Feminists', Shekhar said, were amongst the least impressed with Teen Behenein's story.

To me, their comments indicated a fundamental disconnect with the reality that countless Indian women live out every single day. It is a hard fact that, like in the film, many women are brought up to think they are mistakes, that they are the sole cause of their parents' unhappiness. (Like in the film, it is also hard fact that these women are often highly educated.) It's fact that these women derive their sense of belonging from their marriage-worthiness. Fact that they don't see education as a stepping stone to emancipation. Fact that they do not define emancipation the way I do. Fact that some of them subvert their identities to such an extent that, like the eldest sister in the film, they believe even their dreams don't belong to them.

Earlier this year, while researching reproductive health issues I interviewed a bunch of young married girls, ironically, in Kanpur. Many were college graduates yet couldn't speak to me directly. Every time they tried, their mothers in law would answer on their behalf.
They were all aware of the contraception options available (even the newly introduced 'injection' method that I'd been blissfully unaware of until I took on the project), the risks involved and the procedures they could get done. Most of them had no desire for more children, yet were unwilling to practice anything besides the most traditional (and largely ineffective) methods.
"Why?" I asked incredulously.
"Because." They answered. Just that - because.
Their mothers-in-law glared at me for asking such questions. I knew then that these girls had handed over complete control of their bodies to someone else. When I asked one 21 yr old girl with 3 children, what she was hoping would prevent another conception, she said: "Krishan bhagwan hai na."

Of course, I'm fortunate to have this perspective largely thanks to where my job takes me and I can't speak for the experiences viewers in yesterday's audience have had. But it upsets me that they refused to validate the Teen Behenein sisters' story as plausible (or that they accused the filmmakers of projecting an inaccurate picture of reality). It upsets me that some of the most privileged members of the audience thought the story was either so unreal that it was funny, or told so badly told that it misrepresented Indian women. Most of all, it scares me how blind our privileges have made us to how close we've all come to being one of the Teen Behenein.

But for a twist of fate it could have all been so different.


  1. Thanks Poornima.I find a lot of resonances too, esp on the "two girls! no sons aa?!"line. It is pathetic how common that experience is. In my view until we destabilise the notion (meaning, enough legitimate alternatives need to be accessible) of family and the centrality of marriage+monogamy in this country, things will not change. Problem is, the "plight" of women like the ones in the film and in Kanpur, that anyone could be sympathetic to, is often not seen as connected to the bare, naked power structures that keep us, the audience, warm and straitjacketed in our seats. Yeah, Karva Chauthers, I'm looking at you.

  2. I had trouble reading this piece in one go. I remember the photo of the sisters hanging...in our newspaper. The lack of outrage, the casual acceptance of the family situation was as shocking then as it is now.
    We love to hate women, that is the godawful truth. Across cultures, class and religions. Each one of us is hurt and damaged by this. Let our anger also unleash an inner power to re-write the story. I know I feel that power in my fingers as I type.
    Love, N

  3. Maya & Natasha, thank you so much for reading & commenting. I was a bit conflicted writing this post because I feel that if a film fails to communicate, it is most likely the film's fault...but in this case, I really felt the narrative was honest and we in the viewing audience (in a premier Delhi university) just didn't have an open mind to accept what it was saying. That, more than anything else, was the shocker.

  4. ..my late father in law raised 5 girls.that too in Bihar.what a guy.

  5. That's wonderful! You know Rajiv, this film is made entirely by men. Apparently Zee Telefilms approached Kundun Shah with a budget & carte blanche to do what they wanted. And they chose this subject & portrayed it so well. Goes to show, no feminist movement is complete without men like your father in law :)

  6. Wonderful post. How quickly and conveniently we forget the blessings life gives us when we are far removed from those that dont have it.

    Will try finding this movie online.

  7. Thanks for writing! I relate to what you are saying here and it is pretty frustrating (and a bit incredible) that people lack the imagination/empathy to think outside their own immediate circumstances. I feel like I fight that a lot. I want to tell them, yes it happens and all you need to be is a bit more open and empathic.

  8. @aquatic: i am a bit amazed at how off-base your point of view is. i can see why people would like a film like this even if it is badly made, but what truly threw me off was your RESPONSE TO RAJIV. you seem to be suggesting that no women's movement would have been possbile without the blessing/permission of men. this is so inaccurate and actually quite offensive as you are undermining the struggle and personal sacrifices of a generation of women who had no such blessing of their menfolk in starting a movement.

  9. @Anonymous:
    1) I didn't think this film was badly made. Personally, I enjoyed & appreciated it. I felt that the subject was handled with rare sensitivity by the filmmakers and was consistent with the ground realities I've seen myself.

    2) By appreciating the efforts of the men who made this film or even Rajiv's father-in-law, I am not implying that feminist movements require the blessings/ permission of men. Nor did I at any point imply that the contribution to women in the feminist movement so far has been insignificant.
    What i AM saying is that I cannot imagine a truly equal society where the feminist movement remains restricted to women changemakers alone. It must (and it has & continues to) include men in it as well, or else we're no better than those who we term as 'oppressers'.
    My fear in writing this piece was that it would be misunderstood as an attack on feminists in India. FAR FROM IT. I just wanted to address a certain section of society that belittles or is blind to the very real issues that women around this country face.
    As a feminist myself, I find it difficult to imagine that we are incapable of introspection without feeling personally attacked.

    I thank you for sharing your thoughts and I hope my response has helped.

  10. Also @Anonymous: I'm curious: Have you seen the film?

  11. @riffraaf: Thanks for reading! I agree - empathy & openness is key.

  12. Dear Aquatic Static, we were present at the same screening as you, and we guiltily confess to being the people who laughed at this film. We felt that we should respond to your critique of our insensitivity. So we wrote a counter-review. If you have the time, please do go through it: http://blogs.widescreenjournal.org/?p=2236#