Our body, our space


FIGHTING MINDSETS Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar's film is inspired by women who refuse to be reined in

FIGHTING MINDSETS Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar's film is inspired by women who refuse to be reined in  

Can you name the one "object" that has been tirelessly described down the ages in creative writings of all genres — from ancient epics to the latest film song? Of course, anyone can. After all you need nothing more than plain commonsense to know that it's a woman's body.

Used as they may be to this kind of endless "exposure", why do women themselves feel ashamed and even "dirty" about standing in front of a mirror and facing their own bodies? And when a rare woman dares to shed inhibitions and speaks openly about her body and asserts that it is her "own space", why is she instantly dubbed shameless, bad and even a blot on our "pure" culture?

These were, quite predictably, the charges hurled when a few Tamil women writers wrote about things forbidden — their own bodies, their own spaces. Brickbats, interestingly, came from male writers who were famous for their double entendre-loaded lyrics in Tamil films. One of them went to the extent of urging people: "If you see them on the road, slap them."

But these women were in no mood to show the other cheek. Those who were directly under attack and others who believed women have the right to speak about themselves came together to form a forum called Anangu (meaning "women") which has since then fought patriarchal mindsets and their ugly manifestations.

It was a report in Tehelka on this controversy that got documentary filmmaker couple Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar interested in the issue. Their film SheWrite brings together vignettes from the lives and works of four women writers involved in the controversy — Salma, Kuttirevathi, Malathy Maitri and Sukirtharani S. "This was particularly interesting because we, as documentary filmmakers, are constantly addressing questions of censorship. The way these women have fought for their precarious spaces is inspiring," said Jayasankar at the recent screening of the film at Centre for Education and Documentation.

Salma, the first woman featured in the film, lives in the small town of Thuvarankurichi. An avid reader as a young girl, her schooling is cut short when she and her friends dare to go to a film, which turns out to be an adult film. Then begins the search for a husband and some suitors reject her because she does "disgraceful" things such as writing poetry and reading Lenin and Marx. Post-marriage, she writes under a pen name and pretends sick and tells people at home that she is going to the hospital and sneaks off to the launch of her book! She is now a Panchayat President, which gives her a new sense of power, though within a circumscribed space.

Kuttirevathi, on the other hand, believes that the most important and creative space for a woman is her solitude. It is here that she questions all established notions and rethinks her own self and what surrounds her. Her bold and remarkable poem "Breasts", for instance, looks at the "politics of breasts", rejects its representation as a "plastic, quantifiable object". It then moves to the level of owning up one's body on one's own terms.

The space that Malathy talks about is marked by her awareness of Dalit, Leftist and Feminist thoughts. Her articulations have an activist edge and she talks in the film about a period of lull in her writing, when she couldn't decide if she should write romantic stuff like all others or should write in the Marxist mould. She finally decides to write about "herself and those like her".

Our body, our space

Sukirtharani, a school teacher in Lalapet, writes boldly on body and sexuality and the empowerment that comes with this articulation. In a remarkable conversation at the end of the film, she tries to patiently convince her aged mother why we should reject male-centric discourses on the female body. This unselfconscious mother-daughter banter reflects two worldviews and the manner in which they can touch each other, if not come to a consensus all the time.

SheWrite shows that the four women writers have their own diverse ways of carving out their space — ranging from finding a space within the traditional community, marriage and so on to rejecting it and wanting to breathe free beyond it all. But the space, for all of them, is precious and what brings them together is the aspiration to doggedly preserve it. Through an interesting play of images, the film visually explores the spaces within and without.

The film moves between straightforward documentation style and a more metaphoric representation as the narrative itself moves between specific details of the women's lives and their creative works. Some images — for instance, of two puppets churning in a washing machine as Salma reads her poem on matrimony and of several rounded objects and their reflection in two mirrors as Kuttirevathi reads her poem, Breasts — manage to find visual reflections for the written word and lend it a new dimension.

For details on the film write to the filmmakers on