'Chromosome: Gender Under the Lens', the two-day film festival organized in the Capital last month by the women's rights organization, Jagori, focused on two specific issues under the over-arching theme of gender - that of masculinity/femininity and societal norms of beauty.
The Jagori film festival release put it succinctly, "Gender may be understood as the watertight boxes that women, men and those who do not identify themselves as either, are forced into as a result of an accident of birth, in order to fulfill society's notions of what is "feminine" and "masculine". Two sexes is the norm; there is no place for women who feel trapped in men's bodies, or vice versa. People who do not identify themselves as either woman or man are the butt of jokes, ridicule, pity and violence of all kinds. This festival hopes to bring out these and other issues, through the films themselves and the discussions that follow."
In order to do this, audiences were treated to an eclectic mix of films from commercial cinema - both from Hollywood and Bollywood - in addition to documentaries and advertisements.
Explaining the thinking behind the selection of the films, Nandini Rao, Coordinator, Jagori, a women's organization based in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, said, "It's an attempt to re-evaluate, to carefully re-look at blockbusters and place them alongside with documentaries." Stating that ad films are extremely influential agents of mass communication, which need to be carefully analyzed. Rao referred to a widely-aired advertisement of a fairness cream as an example. The woman here is compelled to acquire a fair complexion to secure the job of a cricket commentator. She is then shown seated next to cricketer Kris Srikkanth, who appears extremely comfortable with his dark skin.
Over the years, Jagori had attempted to capture the attention of the "aam janta", or general public, through street plays and music. This festival, interestingly, was its first attempt at raising awareness through films. But despite the relatively untried medium, the festival was well in tune with its regular practice of communicating with people from all sections of society through a combination of cultural intervention and discussion. Each screening in the festival this time ended in a lively discussion.
The festival opened with the Clint Eastwood-directed 'Million Dollar Baby' - which narrated the tale of Maggie Fitzgerald, a 32-year-old woman who aspires to prove herself by becoming a successful boxer despite extremely discouraging circumstances. The film explores the limits of socially-constructed notions of masculinity and feminity. In similar vein, there was the Indian box-office hit, 'Chak De India', and documentaries such as 'Navarasa' and 'Ye Hui Na Mardon Waali Baat!' - the last from Pakistan.
Festival-goers soon realized that the protagonists of Day One were breaking gender stereotypes and challenging the notions of "normalcy". Be it Hillary Swank in her Oscar-winning role as the female boxer in 'Million Dollar Baby' or the vivacious group of female hockey players in 'Chak De India'; or Gautham in 'Navarasa' (Nine Emotions), who finally decides to become an 'Aravani' (a transsexual) and live without fear. For Gautham joining the group means marrying Lord Aravan, only to get widowed the next day - symbolizing the rites of passage into womanhood and maturity.
In the Pakistani documentary 'Ye Hui Na Mardon Waali baat!' women from all walks of life reply to questions about everything related to men - their habits, their assumed superior status and their likes and dislikes. The documentary captures subtly how women tend to base their notions of their 'ideal man' on actors or famous personalities. Presenting a very different aspect of masculinity and femininity was the Indian documentary, 'Moustaches Unlimited', that concerns itself with what moustaches mean to men and women and the ideological differences they represent. The attempt in every film was to question the rigidity of societal norms with regard to gender.
The second and concluding day focused on the issue of stereotypes and notions of beauty. Although both men and women are equally imprisoned by social stereotypes, it is women who end up as victims of such stereotyping. The first movie of the day was the Marathi film, 'Nital' (Crystal Clear), directed by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar. It told the story of a bright young doctor, Neerja, who has vitiligo - lack of pigmentation. The film explores how her 'problem' negatively impacts her personality and affects her ability to interact socially. The film reveals how even brilliant and professional women end up trapped by conventional constructions of beauty. Released in 2007, this path breaking Marathi film has been conferred with several prestigious state awards.
Independent film maker Divya Sachar's documentary, 'A Short Story About...' was an exploration of how urban Indian women view their breasts. Premiered at 'Chromosome...', the Public Service Broadcasting Trust-produced film delineates the societal impact of the male gaze on the female body. Sachar had more than her share of problems while making this film. "It was extremely hard to get urban women to talk about their own breasts on camera. Some wouldn't even say 'breasts'," she recalls.
Closing the festival was the incredibly popular and much-loved Oscar award winner, 'Little Miss Sunshine', by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. A dysfunctional family from New Mexico hops on to a beat-up Volkswagen bus and heads for California, where seven-year-old Olive is to enter the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. She does that, of course, and ends up teaching the grown-ups around her some lessons on the essentials of life. The film is a celebration of a child's (and by extension a woman's) inner beauty and character, and its ultimate triumph over societal norms and the pressures imposed by the ubiquitous beauty industry.
The antics of the zany little heroine of 'Little Miss Sunshine', which brought many a smile to the viewer, was a great way to end a festival that had striven to break stereotypes and celebrate differences.