Thursday, March 02, 2006


Alice, who often wondered how useful a book is, without pictures, wasn't born in the age of cinema. If a picture IS a thousand words, a frame of footage IS a thousand pictures. And so how could bookduniya survive without talking of a movie or two? Enter Matrubhoomi and Osama: movies that show what "doing away" with women does to the social fabric.

Matrubhoomi, a film on female infanticide, is set against a rural backdrop in India, where killing the girl child is routine. So routine that one gender has almost been wiped off from the map. Well almost. Except for one member, director Manish Jha's filmi village has an all male cast. The stage is set in the opening scene where a woman is going through labor and the midwife's announcement of the birth of a girl is met with silence. In the next scene reminiscent of a sacrificial altar, the father is shown drowning the baby in a pot of milk. (In reality the methods used range from feeding newborn girls unhulled rice to poisonous powdered fertilizers, to strangling and sandbagging their tiny mouths.

Cut to a few years later. The village has no women. Frustation abounds and villagers seek release by watching porn and indulging in bestiality. In the midst of this constant craving and huge demand for women, a patriarch spots a girl. Since finding a girl is an unbelievable piece of luck and he may not be lucky five times in a row, he instantly buys the girls off from her father (for an enormous unheard of sum, of course) to be married to his five sons. No sooner is the marriage solemnised that the sons and their father start asserting their conjugal rights. The girl's life is now reduced to a nightmare of sexual and physical abuse and assaults. When she attempts to flee with a lower caste servant she is caught and chained. And subjected to unspeakable sexual violence. She becomes the center of controversy once she is pregnant with everyone claiming paternity of the child. This starts a round of village caste wars that destroys the entire village while the bride gives birth to a girl child.

If you thought the link between the current trend of female infanticide and the complete decimation of girls seems a bit of an extrapolation read this. Trafficking of young women for marriage is also on the increase.

While Matrubhoomi is a state sans women, Siddiq Barmak's Osama is a society where they are made invisible. This is Taliban's Afghanistan and they are not permitted to read or study much less take up jobs and earn; indeed they are forbidden to do anything outside the home and must never leave home except with a male relative. So what is the option left for women when war claims the menfolk in their family. Answer: disguise (prostitution, by the way, is very dangerous and punishable by death. It is also ruled out by middle class ethos.)

In Osama, a young girl is forced to take on the role of the breadwinner of the family. With her father and uncle killed, there are no men left at home. So she dons a man's disguise, calls herself "Osama" and takes up odds jobs to earn a living. She also lives with intense and constant fear of the Taliban discovering her secret. The menfolk around her are invariably so harsh and cruel that their transformation into animals seem complete.

In every religious scripture the leitmotif is that women lead men astray. Yet how ironic it was that the absence and invisibility of women didnt make these societies any "purer". Instead there was increased forced prostitution, rape, sodomy and bestiality. The chador and chardiwari could hardly force society to be more pious.
The common thread that runs through the two movies is the complete desensitization of the men.
The message, of course, is very simple: when women are prevented from interacting with men and with the society at large by making them non existent or invisible, the state of affairs ends up as harsh, violent and cruel.

And yet there is hope. The small boy who is Osama's friend is also her strongest ally, protecting her and hiding her secret at all costs. As is the low caste servant and the youngest husband of Matrubhoomi, both of whom try to help the girl with disastrous consequences.


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