Over the past decade and a half, feminist postcolonial studies has given us a number of voices that engage the theoretical and disciplinary issues surrounding patriarchy in the postcolonial world. Particularly important to these discussions is the work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty 1 and Uma Narayan.2 In discussing two films that engage in feminist interventions in India, Nupur Basu's No Country for Young Girls? and Kim Longinotto's Pink Saris, I suggest a pedagogical approach to these films that uses the work of Mohanty and Narayan in combination with other movements in postcolonial studies to interrogate the arguments and affective power of these media texts.
In No Country for Young Girls?, Vyjanthi, a twenty-seven-year-old woman living in Agra (the home of the Taj Mahal), is forced by her husband and her in-laws to have an abortion following the announcement that her second child was another girl. To avoid the abortion, Vyjanthi flees to her parents and births her second daughter. Later plucked from her parents' home, the filmmakers take Vyjanthi on a tour of India in which she encounters various people--avatars of the effects of globalization and of tradition--in order to interrogate the country's implication in the trend of female foeticides. Her journey covers a conversation with a group of young women meeting in a shopping mall, a trip to a disco, and discussions with medical professionals during which one professional guarantees a medication said to ensure with 100 percent accuracy that a male child will be born.
Produced for BBC World's Life On the Edge series, No Country for Young Girls? was also funded by a series of multinational governmental organizations and European television companies. It is available in the United States from a distributor of educational films. Framed in a television news magazine style (e.g. 20/20, Dateline, 60 Minutes), with voice over and on-screen introductions made by a white British male, the film also replaces all language spoken in Indian languages (including the Hindi/English hybrid spoken in the city) with an English-dubbed voiceover, instead of subtitling. Premised on the concept that globalization leads to global inequity, the film's thesis lies on shaky ground. While the film blames globalization for making the rich richer and the poor poorer, especially in a sit-down with the film's director Nupur Basu and the Minister for Women and Child Development, the exact manifestations of globalization in everyday life is never properly addressed (and Vyjanthi is not given the space to reflect on camera to many of her encounters). The film does little to delve into the effects of globalization and forces its conclusions on its subject. The film can be seen as symptomatic of the genre of television news magazines looking at patriarchy in the postcolonial world. For a critical look at other such Eurocentric media, the work of Robert Stam and Ella Shohat3 is particularly helpful, and John Tomlinson's work4 is useful in giving an easily understood introduction to the perspectives scholars (including feminists) may take in identifying the role of globalization in everyday life and culture. Students can gain access to the nuances of the film by reading Mohanty and Narayan alongside, as the Western feminist intentions of the film clash with the film's Orientalism.
Kim Longinotto's work (Sisters in Law, Divorce Iranian Style, Rough Aunties) is well-situated in a rubric of third-world feminism, and in fact may epitomize it so much that the critiques by Mohanty and Narayan seem tailor-made for grounding student discussion of the theses of her films. In Pink Saris, Longinotto's camera follows the work of Sampat Pal Devi, who is the leader of the Gulabi Gang (which translates as 'the Pink Gang'). Decked in pink saris, Sampat Pal and her disciple/allies serve as counsel (judge and jury) for young women whose families or in-laws disapprove of their desired romantic arrangements. In the film, we see her confront the situations of Rekha--a member of the Untouchable/Dalit class who is pregnant and unable by community standards to marry the father of her children. Another young woman, Renu, comes to Sampat Pal to escape the grips of her father-in-law, who has taken to raping her following his son's abandonment of her.
While Longinotto gives a more particular, localized thesis on patriarchy in India than that of No Country, her film starts with a subtitle that introduces the caste system but does not fully contextualize the political economic situation of its subjects. It reads, "In Hindu culture, people are divided into castes, the lowest are so despised they are called 'Untouchable.'" We know from scholars like Anupama Rao that the Dalit class has led a series of political campaigns to fight for political power, which have led to new genres of political participation for the Dalit class, but have also changed the face of class relations in contemporary India. Considering the work of the Pink Gang in this larger context is essential to understanding how the classed nature of this social movement is truly felt in contemporary India.5 As much of the film is concerned with the politics of relationships in a modern India, Purnima Mankekar's work on transnational kinship6 and (though contextualized differently) Ruth Vanita's study of same-sex relationships in India7 are particularly enlightening to read alongside of the film, to complicate the issues facing contemporary kinship in India and its diaspora. Sampat Pal's valorization of a matriarchal world (especially one in which she is the Messiah) can provide a talking point (perhaps, as an example, paired with someone like Adrienne Rich) for discussions about the power dynamics implicit in advocating for an (inegalitarian) matriarchal community.
Both films make clear the cultural attitudes that drove Mohanty and Narayan to provide such brilliant critiques of and proposals for third-world feminisms and can provoke complicated discussions on the roles and ethics of media in documenting, impacting, and fortifying social movements.
1 Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
2 Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997).
3 Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994).
4 John Tomlinson, Globalization and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
5 Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (Berkeley: UC Press, 2009).
6 Purnima Mankekar, "Brides Who Travel: Gender, Transnationalism, and Nationalism in Hindi Film" positions 7.3 (1999): 731-62.
7 Ruth Vanita, Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Bryce J. Renninger is a PhD candidate in the Media Studies program at Rutgers University's School of Communication & Information. He also writes extensively about independent and world cinema, serving as a contributing writer for the film website Indiewire.