In Defense of Mallika

A guest post by CNG

Mallika Sherawat has been in the news for calling India a ‘regressive’ and ‘depressing’ place for women, in an interview with Variety magazine at Cannes. The Bollywood fraternity, predictably, has wasted no time ‘slamming’ her for it , in newsspeak. CNG, a friend of mine and the author of this post, rises to defend her- sort of.

In Defense of Mallika

Well, not really. This article is more a commentary about the state of our nation than it is about the marginally successful actress who has managed to attain a level of fame and importance that is well beyond the merit of her talent or work. Everybody knows the story so far. Mallika labeled our nation and its attitude towards women in general to be so “regressive” that she finds it “depressing”.
Not surprisingly, Bollywood was quick to react with many actresses taking offence and clearly expressing discontent. The blogosphere was less forgiving with many self-proclaimed columnists making no effort at hiding their contempt for the actress, even as they mocked her newly acquired, strange, alien accent. However, such attacks don’t work well in any arguments. It is called ad hominem – arguments that are made personally against an opponent and not against the opponent’s argument. It is a strategy that never fails to betray the inner hollow when employed. But as already confessed, this isn’t about what Mallika said, or the right and wrong of it. Not for me. The reactions that followed Miss Sherawat’s comments call for more outrage than her original statements do; and for a number of reasons.
   First and foremost, India is not just the largest democracy in the world, but also has one of the lengthiest constitutions; written to incorporate all the finest elements from the other great constitutions of the other great democracies. Or so we are taught in school. It is a fundamental right we are told. The freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed to every Indian citizen, they have us believe. The words do look inspiring when you are a teenager staring into his book, complete with the four lions of our national emblem adorning and overlooking those very words; promising words indeed. But then, you grow up eventually, and sooner than later, every other day, very often at times, you have this thought in your head, and then you hold back. That is just about it. The thought gains no voice, sees no ink, reaches no audience, and causes no ripple. It just dies like the other thousand that did before.
This is the narrative for every ordinary citizen in this country. Being one among them myself, I feel comfortable voicing my problems about any number of people as long as they are other ordinary citizens. But that is the beginning and end of it. That is all the freedom my country allows me to exercise. Step across that line, and I wouldn’t be sure anymore. A twitter tweet is all that is required before you get into trouble with the law enforcement. It does happen. Though the incidents are few and sparse, sound logic dictates that there should be none at all. Freedom of speech does not have an asterisk attached over its head. It was meant to be unconditional and absolute. This isn’t about a rich and poor divide where different rules apply to different sections. It doesn’t matter where you stand in the hierarchy, every strata comes ready with its own version of what is deemed acceptable. You could be a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from Bombay, and get away with that scathing article about our Prime Minister; you could probably even get away with attacks on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; even Mother Teresa perhaps. But try Lord Ganesha for a change. I know Salman Rushdie couldn’t. Deepa Mehta will vouch for him.
All of this may force you to arrive at the conclusion that the only real threat to this very basic fundamental right is fuelled by religious extremism, but that isn’t the whole truth. India is a country with a very poor record in law enforcement and human rights. The judicial system does little to inspire confidence in public; while hatred, intolerance, violence can all be easily manufactured and propagated by any person or group with a vested interest of its own, not necessarily religious always.
So, here is the question begging to be asked. Why would anybody in his or her right mind talk? It is better to keep your head low and not rub anybody the wrong way. The situation may not be as bleak as my words suggest, but the danger is real. I am not sure about everybody, but I am constantly editing and censoring myself all the time, even as I write this piece. It is the big players that I fear. It is that fear which curtails my expression. However, are we really going to impose this on one another now? It sure does sound like that. We don’t need politicians helping us land in a hot mess anymore. Apparently, even well educated, well traveled, well off fellow citizens would want Mallika to just shut-up already. And that is just unconstitutional to me, only the first of my problems with these folks.
Secondly,in all honesty, you are better off being a man than a woman, regardless of the country you reside in. That is the simple but sad truth.
While the Nordic countries fare exceptionally well in terms of closing in on the gender gap, the rest of the developed world too is trying hard to make amends and bridge this gap. We see constant discussions about gender inequality and its problems. There is a lot of talk surrounding the under-representation of women in government and the top offices of the corporate world. Hillary Clinton has long acknowledged the glass ceiling which still does exist; and she was talking about the United States, not Nigeria. Sheryl Sandberg has had to come out with an entire book addressing women and work place.  The Fair Pay Act may have failed to pass yet again, but America continues to talk about the income inequality between men and women. Same job, same hours, less pay – that is the harsh reality for women in almost every country. Call it what you will, simple disparity or plain regressive, it is all one and the same.
But there appears to be a silver lining when you realize that the majority of the populace is not in denial about this key issue. Not in the first world at least. And that is where our problems multiply in a country like India. Mallika’s statements forced the patriot out in every celebrity. And they came out chest-thumping, flag-waving, and deriding. They need to understand that debate is good. Meaningful dialogue is essential. Only a fool would risk being dismissive about the appalling state of affairs regarding women in India. In a nut-shell- they are not wanted at birth, but the parents shall tolerate them even as they continue to remain hopeful about a future boy; her education is not a priority; her nutrition is less important than that of her brothers; from an early age, her duties include washing, scrubbing, cleaning, mopping; her responsibilities are not limited to self and family, but extends to the community at large; her employment options are dismal; she has no say in her marriage; her husband gets to verbally/physically/sexually abuse her on a regular basis; if not set on fire over dowry harassment, the husband gets to decide on the number of sons he would prefer; she then gets blamed for bearing a daughter; is depressed and over-worked; neglected and under-appreciated, soon to hit menopause. As dreadful as this may sound, a majority of women in India are subjected to all of the above or some of the above. They live through it only because they don’t know any better. Ignorance helps them. But when a smart, educated woman such as Priyanka Chopra tries to discredit Mallika’s statement, I am not sure if she doing anything other than pandering to the media and public.
Priyanka Chopra may have made one sweeping remark claiming that India is indeed a ‘progressive’ state, but then again, this isn’t about class divide. A girl born in rural India is probably going to be battered and bruised for life. My sisters on the other hand will definitely not be battered and bruised; however, they are not allowed to wear certain clothes, or drink certain beverages. Being male, I am of course free to do all of it and some more, even if condoms be necessary. But a girl engaging in pre-marital sex is a whole different matter, regardless of the girl’s standing in society. Unlike my sisters, Miss Chopra may have all the freedom to dress/drink/party as she pleases, but do you really think that when she turns forty-five she would be paired opposite a twenty-something-year-old new male lead in Bollywood. Not a chance in hell-O!!! Meryl Streep gets to work in Hollywood while Rekha and Jaya get to skip Parliament. Why aren’t these two lovely actresses working in cinema today? If Steve Martin can pair-up with Diane Keaton, why can’t Shah Rukh work opposite Juhi? This is regressive. This is depressing.
India is regressive even by Indian standards. I am not bringing up the topic of pregnancy outside wedlock. I am not even talking about legalizing prostitution. Indian women are simply held to a different standard as opposed to the men. Remember that scandal in Karnataka when unsuspecting politicians were caught watching porn while at work? Now imagine if it were female politicians that were caught watching porn while at work. You get my drift, right? Well, note to all the female actresses in Bollywood, the first rule to solving any problem is- don’t do an ostrich! Get your head out of your hole. And stop with the denial.
   Finally, it is time we spoke of shame. It seems to appear that everybody is up in arms against Mallika mostly because she was talking to VARIETY, being interviewed by a firang, while at Cannes. If it were Kiran Bedi that described India as regressive and depressing during one of those segments on NDTV where you have a plethora of experts on the panel, I doubt we would be seeing this reaction. I am not sure why anybody would grant less respect to the words of a beautiful woman. Beauty does not necessarily mean a missing lobe. But, that is another topic for another day. Heading back to the point I was trying to make, Indians are more apologetic than they need to be.  There is no point in painting a rosy picture for the western media. Had Mallika been addressing these same issues in an African country, she would be hailed for her contribution to the cause. If Angelina Jolie were to visit the slums of Bombay and express her shock and sadness at the state of Indian women, the Indian media would again no doubt applaud her. This is a simple case of how the Indian public is not comfortable with an Indian woman talking to an outsider about problems back home. My folks chide me every time I poke fun at their disputes in the presence of visiting friends. The root cause is shame. You feel it only when you know you are in the wrong. My folks know deep down that they shouldn’t be quarreling like cats and dogs. And the Indian public knows of the massive disservice it does to its daughters. And the public feels this shame. You deal with it by battling the problem, not by shooting the messenger. This is who we are. This is us. There is no harm in calling it as it is, and admitting the need for more intervention. That is the only way out of this shame.
   On a closing note, I would like to point two things. Yes, India is hypocritical as Mallika claims. Of course, more than half our population would pick the sunny sands of Los Angeles over the crowded Chowpattis of Bombay. Mallika was only brave enough to say it out loud. Secondly, she is wrong when she claims that India is a regressive country for women. India is just regressive, period.