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Of Traditional Tyranny and Feminine Revolt

February 9, 2017 | By

Two gut-wrenching films with strong feminist undertone, that stood out in their attempt to uphold spirited fight of women, against traditional hegemony and striving for her empowerment made IFFI 2016, meaningful social platform to engage audiences, writes S Viswanath, in his critique of Sanskrit film Ishti and Ghanian film Like Cotton Twines which spotlighted on practices that suppressed woman’s right to freedom and choice through physical, psychological and emotional subjugation.

Poster of the Sanskrit film Ishti directed by G Prabha

Poster of the Sanskrit film Ishti directed by G Prabha

Today’s woman may have broken glass ceiling and shattered societal taboos impeding her right for independence. She may have come into her own etching identity for self, braved odds in her struggle to be accepted as individual in her own right, in a male driven society. That woman’s struggle does not confine to a single geography or single country to achieve social equality, and is universal, all pervasive, is succinctly brought out by two of eye – opening films screened at the last International Film Festival of India 2016, at Goa. The two, disparate in their cultural specifics, strangely melded in commonality of cause and concern, showcased how, languages may be different, geographies distant, peoples diverse, but registrars that run their social lives, are universally same and practices prejudicial and inimical to women, so prevalent and punishing. If one took historical path to put in perspective how women were trying to empower themselves to emerge from confines of precepts and practices of dominant caste, they are enslaved in, the other, showed how it could be no different even in tribal set up despite modernity of education that has made incursions into its pastoral society.

The first film in discussion is Sanskrit film Ishti by Sanskrit Scholar G Prabha, the other Like Cotton Twines, from Ghana, by woman director Leila Djansi. The films have a commonality of theme and thread of traditional practices inimical and indifferent to women which knits them together. If in Ishti, a young woman is made to surrender to prevalent custom of the times, in Like Cotton Twines, another young woman, aspiring for education to lift her from poverty of her existence, unwillingly bowing to dictates of societal customs and mores ruling her tribal commune. In both, it is the respective religious heads of their societies who cite age old customs, beliefs and faiths. The prerogative of the heads as elder, as spiritual head and societal sanction is to guide their exploitative actions. Surprising in both, despite forceful external interventions seeking to prevent, prohibit and proscribe the process, young girls, become sacrificial victims at the altar, with men as old as their grandfathers, taking advantage of pubescent victims with social justification.

Like Cotton Twines

Poster of the Ghana film Like Cotton Twines directed by Leila Djansi

In Ishti it is Namboodiri Brahmin, who, in order to run his household, with large family comprising two wives and demanding adults, decides to remarry. In this case, it is a young woman on threshold of adulthood who brings jewels and money with her marriage to sustain his family. In Like Cotton Twines, you have the village priest exploiting a family’s nubile daughter paying for inadvertent misadventure of her father. What is disturbing is the mother instead of circumventing it, never tries to help her distraught daughter, but cajoles her to accept the fateful situation, so that the accursed family will be saved. If, in Ishti, director G Prabha makes searing indictment of age old practice through rebellion of Namboodiri’s own illiterate son and more confident and world wise young Sreedevi, his reluctant childlike third wife, in Like Cotton Twines, Leila Djansi’s protagonist, is however, not so fortunate despite outside intervention of an educated teacher from US, trying to save the young girl from her fate. For here, the Church, which should be progressive in its conduct, tacitly supports the continuance of evil practice, lest it pastor loses his faithful intervening in religious practices of another culture. In Ishti the patriarchal Namoodiri Brahmin scorns at rebellion building stating that women are better off without education, in Like Cotton Twines, both the NGO and change agent, the educated insider, stand helpless bystanders as the girl suffers the ignominy of early marriage, the motherhood, resulting in her ultimate death.

Sanskrit film Ishti

A still from the Sanskrit film Ishti

Director G Prabha spotlighting on deeply conservative Namboodiri family and regressive social milieu, through mechanisation of 70-year-old Ramavikraman Namboodiri, Vedic scholar who preserves the fire from Somayagam to light his funeral pyre, and Sreedevi, young, third consort, brilliantly brings to fore proverbial clash of modernity and orthodoxy. Sreedevi, almost same age as Namboodiri’s own daughter, Lakshmi, is a literate and progressive woman. Her arrival at Namboodiri household only stirs things up in the conservative set up. How young Sreedevi ignites fire of rebellion in Namboodiri’s illiterate son, kindling in him yen to read and write, sowing seed of courage in him, and wills herself to defy the custom, is indeed engaging watch for discerning viewer. Prabha succinctly and subtly makes caustic comment on traditionalists attempt to balance worldly desires and keep alive rigidity of caste and tradition, despite being detrimental and demeaning to their women folk. What makes Ishti poignant and powerful is pitch perfect acting of thespian Nedumudi Venu and newcomer Athira Patel plays a perfect foil as young Sreedevi. The film’s closing sequences where in family heir walks out of confines of his suffocating homestead by burning the sacred thread, and young Sreedevi too following suit, like Henrik Ibsen’s Nora, casting away her sacred thaali that bound her to the septuagenarian and acted as noose on her freedom, speaks of film’s remarkable effort to showcase the prevalence of dreaded practice of polygamy, and, how, more often, than not, women 40-50 years younger than the man, became willing prey to this evil, much against their wishes. Ishti, which means search for self, like its Ghana counterpart Like Cotton Wines, Ishti, holds mirror to how women, despite progress down ages, in pursuit of that “search for self” seek to rise above constrictive cocoon of existence they are driven into and seek deliverance from it all.

Like Cotton Twines

Tuigi with her tutor Micah Brown in Like Cotton Twines

Similarly, Like Cotton Twines, which speaks of an American volunteer tutor making futile efforts to save one of his students, a 14 year old girl from religious slavery, makes Leila Djansi’s film a forceful indictment of society which enslaves women to selfish ends of religious practices. Djansi, in the process, like Prabha, explores harsh realities of what it means to be a young African girl coming into womanhood, where ancient religious traditions and human will clash with the self-realisation of 14-year-old Tuigi, who herself is yet to fully assimilate the demands of the rituals herself. “In this world, not every woman gets to have a choice,” counsels her mother with anguish and palpable hurt. “Your father did a bad thing and you are the only one who can save us,” she tells a frightened Tuigi who learns she must pay for sins of her father through religious practice called Trokosi. In order to atone for his crime, Tuigi must quit school and “serve at the shrine” a covert form of religious sex slavery. The schoolteacher Micah Brown who makes it his missionary goal to save Tuigi from her fate, however, quickly finds, that his passionate sensibilities of right and wrong have no place in a remote Ghanaian village, steeped in superstition, tradition, and sexual injustice, where the local Catholic head conveniently turns a blind eye citing one should not intervene in another’s customs.

Trailer of Like Cotton Twines

With issues of women in the forefront of every conversation, be it in America, Africa, or the film industry, both Ishti and Like Cotton Twines are grim reminders that not all honky dory for woman of then and today, despite progressive strides world over. How jaundiced cultural and societal prejudices still look at women as second citizens with literally no rights of their own but serve the larger interests of the men and society they find themselves in.

However, the two films are a celebration of feminine spirit, which when chiseled in right fashion has a power to knock down powerful pillars of patriarchy, despite constituting a microcosm of society. If she seeks to exit from constrictive confines these man-made superstructures would crumble blowing the oppressive system asunder. The façade of morality and religion can’t save such institutions from falling into dungeons of despair, destitution and darkness. Both films, which turn celluloid beacon on unjust social structures perpetuating atrocities on its women, seek to warn societies and communities, wanting to keep their women wrapped in the veil of tyranny and oppression, that banner of revolt will ensure women’s aspirations are assimilated as well lest such institutions themselves fall apart.

More to read

Cinema & Sexuality: On the Death of the Desiring Woman

Visible Voice And Imaginary Appearance: Let Her Absence Speak For Herself

Critiquing Sexuality: Tracing the Changing Sensuality of the Popular Hindi Film Heroine (1950s-2000s)

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S Vishwanath is a Senior Film Critic and journalist with over 30 years in the field and is a regular jury in several film festivals in India and abroad. A Post Graduate in English Literature & MS in Communication with Film Studies as Special Subject, he is associated with the Bengaluru International Film Festival as Deputy Artistic Director curating the World Cinema Section since its eight edition. He is also the curator for the Bengaluru International Short Film Festival and Rolling Frames Short, Animation & Documentary Film Festival. An active film society member, he extensively writes on the film sector covering various aspects of the film industry both at National and State level and covers South Indian films reviewing and critiquing — Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, as also Hindi (Bollywood) and English language cinema.
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