Having attended the SamaBhav film festival held in Christ University, Bangalore and then at Bhavan’s College, Mumbai during November and December 2019, I can honestly say that I’ve gained significant insights into the issues of masculinity, sexuality, patriarchy, gender-based violence and abuse, and how these intersect with factors such as caste, religion and class within the Indian context. Further, it has facilitated my own personal journey in understanding what masculinity and gender equality looks like, and how I can best promote equality across sexes, genders and sexualities on my personal and professional life and studies. Samabhav is unique and crucial in its role of providing an open forum and safe space to discuss these important topics, which are too often considered taboo in Indian society. By providing this space and encouraging discussions, Samabhav and MAVA facilitate the first pivotal element of positive social change, which is having healthy, constructive conversations about such important topics.
Multiple Expressions of Masculinity and Femininity
The films have deepened my understanding that there is a plurality of ways to express masculinity, and even femininity, and that we need to recognise, accept and celebrate these different expressions. Films which showcase these different expressions help break the hegemonic notions of masculinity and femininity within society, which is often toxic, constricting our identities to fit within certain constructed gender roles. This harms not only women, but also men. Where women are expected to be submissive and emotional, likewise men are not given an accepted space to be vulnerable and sensitive, furthering the disconnect between all sexes and genders, and restraining our acceptance and love for one another as humans.
Protection or Oppression?
I’ve learned that oppression of women by men can often come under the guise of protectionism, where men believe they are doing the ‘right’ thing by dictating spaces they are allowed in, when and with whom. However, this negates the agency of the women themselves, and is a manifestation of control and often moral policing, usually to protect ‘honour’, which seems to usually mean the male ego; as exemplified in the film Bachelor Girls.
Several of the films made me realise how gendered spaces are within the Indian context. Broadly speaking, women’s place is in the private spaces - primarily at home – whilst men dominate public spaces. These gendered spaces are reinforced by constructed gender roles, of women as housewives and caregivers, and men as breadwinners, which reinforces the prevalent patriarchal ideology within Indian society. Further, these spaces don’t accommodate for those who don’t identify as either male or female, causing ostracization.
Pathways for a more Gender-just Future
Through these films I’ve learnt the importance of media - especially alternative film - in challenging these problematic social constructs of sexuality, gender and masculinity. Film makers, journalists and other storytellers provide these platforms for discussion, in engaging and accessible forms. These discussions are the sort we need to have with each other, and ourselves, which is the start of breaking these toxic social constructions. These discussions need to go together with greater gender and sex education and stricter gender-justice laws.
I observed that in both Christ and Bhavans College, there was admirable audience participation and discussion amongst the student body, which resulted in healthy and constructive dialogues between each other and the panellists and directors. This was really enlightening to observe, as often participants would share personal anecdotes, or even share how their views and perceptions were challenged and changing. Hearing such healthy discussions around topics of sexuality, gender, gendered violence and masculinity was really heartening, and it was clear that the film festival was providing a safe space where these discussions and questions could take place.
Notable Films Seen
Kaaye Kaaye Sexual –
A crowd favourite, this film mixes insightful interviews of young gay, bisexual and asexual individuals along with hilarious comedic skits. I really like the film as it clearly highlights the issues that come when we try and explain someone else’s sexuality. There is this notion that we are compelled to fit everyone into certain categories and boxes, to be able to give people labels, and this film shows how problematic this is for those who do not fit within such boxes. Kaaye Kaaye Sexual demonstrates that there is more than one way of connecting with and loving someone, and that we need to be more accepting of these differences.
Please Mind the Gap –
Please Mind the Gap explores the daily challenges a young transsexual man faces, because of heavily gendered spaces such as public transport, public toilets and mall security screenings. This is a really important film to see, as it gives clear first-hand accounts of how society excludes trans people in day-to-day life.
Bachelor Girls –
Hearing the accounts of the young women in Bachelor Girls, and their struggle to find accommodation in Mumbai was very insightful. This film is a must-see, as it demonstrates how women are discriminated within the housing sector, under the guise of protectionism. It shows how landlords and men justify this discrimination by saying they are protecting the women and the reputation of both them and the housing; but essentially it is a form of social control and moral policing. This film is sure to resonate with many young women especially in Mumbai, but also with anyone who faces discrimination in finding housing on account of their caste, class, and/or religion as well.
I believe Mohini is such a powerful film, as through the interviews with the Lavni dancers, you are challenged that masculinity and femininity can be expressed in so many different and beautiful ways, and that you can embody aspects of both, regardless of sex and gender. The men who wear sarees are brave, strong and beautiful, and are an inspiration to men and women alike.
Untying the Knot –
Untying the Knot is a confronting but necessary viewing. The acts of violence and abuse suffered by the women in the movie are stark reminders that this kind of violence still occurs every day, both inside and outside marriage, and can have devastating effects. It’s an important film as it also showcases the social pressures and stigmas surrounding divorce, and how problematic marriage can be when it becomes the ultimate goal within society.
Turup (Checkmate) –
Turup (Checkmate ) is probably my favourite film of the festival. It’s so well directed and covers so many of the intersectionalities of gender inequality within the Indian context, all to the background of an intense and entertaining local chess tournament. The film seamlessly covers issues of caste, religion, politics, class and media, and in a way where you can really see how these issues affect people in real every day life. Although covering these heavy topics, the film remains inspirational and uplifting.
For me personally, participating in the SamaBhav film festival has been a great personal journey, and very insightful. I enjoyed every film, and I can clearly see how the film fest, the panellists and discussants facilitate a safe and inclusive environment for everyone to question and discuss perceptions of issues like gender, sexuality and masculinity. I believe the importance of these discussions can not be understated, as it is exactly these dialogues with young people that we need to open up, to begin a generational shift where women and men are viewed and respected as equals. I would love to see MAVA continue its work through SamaBhav, and to bring the film festival to more rural regions as well. Additionally, I believe it’s so important that there is a mixture of languages used in the films, increasing the accessibility to as wide an audience as possible. SamaBhav and all the young people who participated in the discussion truly inspire and motivate me challenge myself and my own masculinity, and to promote gender equality both in Australia and wherever I may travel. Hearing the views of the students and panellists, I have faith that the emerging generations of India will fight for and progress a more gender inclusive and just India.
David English, Graduate Student at Curtin University, Australia