Where curriculum designers fear to tread, film directors take relaxed, bold strides. Few will consider ghosts and witchcraft as suitable topics for a textbook. Killing of women on the suspicion that they are practising witchcraft occasionally figures in the news. Such episodes may be on the decline, but witches and ghosts continue to shape the deeper layers of the collective social mind.
The power of ‘Stree’
The idea that women have secret powers which they are prone to using for evil purposes, including revenge, is common enough to make the recent film Stree successful at the box office. It deals with witchcraft in a comic mode without trivialising it. It frames witchcraft in a modern idiom, using it to throw light on gender disparity and injustice. It is a remarkable achievement in that it entertains without demeaning the subject as a sign of backwardness.
The core theme of Stree is the fear of women. Several men participate in the story, and they all come across as being scared of a woman who happens to be a ghost. This rare portrayal of male behaviour points towards the roots of misogyny. When secretly held fear is mixed with desire, it results in loathing. Fantasy of sexual conquest by brute force is often a logical product of this mixture of emotions.
A new social reality
Stree has come at a time when a sick ethos pervades many parts of India. This ethos is marked by the everydayness of rape. Over five years ago, after the so-named ‘Nirbhaya’ episode, criminal laws and procedures were revised, raising the hope of containing crimes against girls and women. That hope has receded even as rape has become routinised. Every morning, numerous incidents of rape are reported in newspapers. Many of these incidents involve young men getting together to rape a woman. The term ‘gang-rape’ is used for such incidents, the word ‘gang’ suggesting an organised, well-planned crime. This usage conceals the spontaneity and speed with which those who commit the crime came together when they spot a potential victim.
The idea of noticing an opportunity to rape together reflects an awful reality. The police can hardly cope with this kind of commonplace social reality. The new commonplace status of rape, including collective rape, as a crime that can occur anywhere, any time, is what distinguishes the current cultural landscape. Conquest over a woman forms the central theme of this cultural condition. Even if the victim is a child, the sense of conquest over her remains relevant to understanding the new male perspective.
Stree acquires its unique relevance from this larger, sinister milieu. It wraps the roots of misogyny in a ghost story. The story is located in Chanderi, the little town of Madhya Pradesh famous for its silk saris. A female ghost visits the population annually and abducts men, leaving their clothes behind. Inscriptions on doors asking the ghost to come ‘tomorrow’ and wearing women’s dress are among the tricks that the menfolk try for protection from the ghost. They are ultimately rescued when a young ladies’ tailor agrees to serve as a medium to confront the ghost. The woman who persuades and prepares him has studied witchcraft and aspires to gain the powers of the ghost.
The narrative is rich with layers of meaning and possibilities of multiple interpretations. Its theme and message remain paradoxical but the intent is clear: to generate a discourse around the fear of women. That indeed is the heart of misogyny. The psychoanalyst, Sudhir Kakar, had indicated as much in his classic on childhood in India, The Inner World .
The core analysis Mr. Kakar offers in this book focusses on the upbringing of the male child. Psychoanalytic insight combined with an examination of myths and folklore demonstrates how sons end up, by the time they become adults, feeling hopelessly dependent on their mother who, at a deep layer locked in early childhood memories, frightens them. The son’s early experience also impairs his ability to relate to women as equals. Perceptions of women as a danger nourish the mythology of celibacy at one level and cultivate a general distrust of women at another.
Although Stree does not directly deal with violence against women, it gives plenty of clues about its origins. The language and lore of the world of young men come across as entertainment, but it also reveals how distant their constructions are from real girls and women. Belief in women’s evil powers drives the story to a satisfying end where the townsmen put up a statue with the inscription, ‘Protect us, O Stree’. Underneath this message lies the fear that the female ghost might continue if greater respect is not shown to women.
Disconnect in the classroom
Matters that this film manages to talk about cannot be imagined in a classroom at school or college. Educational institutions usually deal with gender issues in a textbook mode, preaching equality and mythologising modernity. In the typical ethos of a social science classroom, no engagement is possible with male attitudes towards women either. Nor can the terror internalised by girls at an early age be acknowledged and discussed. Lessons on gender disparity mention prejudices and stereotypes, but they seldom include the ones embedded in religious practices and festive rituals.
After a typical gender sensitivity workshop, everyone feels content and pleased. No attempt is made to examine why aggression and violence against women are increasing despite the growth of education.
While education has improved the distribution of eligibility and job opportunities for women, it has made little impact on male aggression and self-righteousness. The potential that education has for improving male sanity has been severely hampered by the unprecedented and easy access provided by digital devices to pornography, including child pornography. The situation is quite dire. A helpline was set up by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) as a facility for children who have been abused. It was inundated by callers looking for pornography. Apparently, the state apparatus has no immediate answers to offer for a social phenomenon growing at a wild pace.
Krishna Kumar is a former director of NCERT