A reticent painter and a young woman from a sheltered and privileged background meet, symbolically, at the temples of Khajuraho, amidst the graphic representations of love-making from 10th century India. The two young people are attracted to each other. What follows is the formula Indian-film love story - opposition from rich parents whose only daughter wants to marry a struggling artist, and the girl leaving her family to marry him.
But, on the first night of their marriage, the story of the recently released Bengali film 'Shunya o Buke' (Empty Canvas) takes an unconventional turn. The artist, who is fascinated by the human form, is shocked to find his bride "flat chested". (Flat chested is a typical male description of a woman with small breasts.) He rejects her, calls her a cheat, and openly regrets that he did not check her out prior to the wedding. So, without consummating the marriage, the couple separates. It is another matter that the woman in the film marries a common friend later, and leads a happy life with her husband and a daughter.
Aesthetics apart, writer-director Kaushik Ganguly's second feature film, 'Shunya o Buke', which is based on his own story, 'Abaksha', is unusual indeed. It dwells on an aspect that is seldom, if at all, explored in the visual media in the country. "I wanted to focus on this hypocrisy of so-called urbane men who talk about intellectual compatibility with women partners, but in reality they only look at the body of the woman, not her mind," says Ganguly.
In the film, the wife, Tista, (played by Ganguly's wife, Churni) implores before the break-up, "But I am still the woman you said was your soul-mate. I can't help it if I don't have well-developed breasts. God has made me like this. I wanted to tell you, but...I thought you'd understand." But the husband shoots back - "Then why do you wear a padded bra yourself?"
Here lies another dichotomy, Ganguly appears to point out. The idea of a woman with full breasts - as a symbol of feminine beauty - has been ingrained in the male psyche for so long that it is difficult for most men to look beyond. But this cultural indoctrination has influenced women no less. Being full breasted is important for many women - to fit into the socially accepted image, and to be self-confident.
Members of an organization that supports women with breast cancer, Hitaishini in Kolkata, often come across women patients for whom the trauma of mastectomy is more psychological than physical. "They ask: will my husband still care for me after the operation? Will he go to another woman?" reveals Vijoya Mukherjee, the NGO's founder-president. While doctors and counsellors routinely advise prosthesis - artificial breasts - Hitaishini also provides these to women who cannot afford the cost, to help boost their confidence levels.
Perhaps the emphasis on big breasts can be traced, and attributed, to the ancient fertility cult, or the belief that infants can be adequately breast-fed only by full-breasted women. But through the ages, as also today, a woman's breasts have become tools of sexual fantasy for men, to the detriment of women.
Ganguly agrees that the image of the woman's beauty vis-'-vis her breasts is not easy to shake off, but he wants to challenge the perception that treats a woman's body as a sex object. "The commodification of the woman's body has made them (breasts) instruments of enticement. The symbol of motherhood has become a sex object."
Says exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, "Men set the rules. They decide in which part of a woman flesh is desirable and in which part it is not. Flesh in the breasts is desirable but not in the thigh. To a man, a woman is not so much a person as a body, a lump of flesh."
Women with small breasts are as natural and numerous - throughout the world - as women and men are tall or short, or like scores of other differences in physical make-up. Yet, it is the commodity- or market-driven forces that influence and determine male (and female) perception of what is desirable in a woman's body. And in a world that has shrunk, the scale of such influence is considerably heightened. For instance, the figure of a woman with full breasts, a tiny waist and long legs - projected through the Barbie doll - influences millions of young minds throughout the world today.
In the 2004 Canadian film, 'Flatly Stacked', director Michael McNamara documents the socially engineered stereotypes of women with small breasts through the personal journeys of two women. One young, and the other middle-aged, both women in the film are considering breast augmentation. The film also suggests how a woman with small breasts can find happiness and fulfillment in a world obsessed with big breasts.
Although the film uses humor to present its theme, it takes a serious look at why small-breasted women are socially marginalized. While some women move beyond the emotional trauma and confusion of adolescent pressures, there are others who live with a feeling of inadequacy throughout life. One woman interviewed in the docu-drama says:
"Every girl develops breasts as part of the rite of passage to become a normal woman. But not all girls grow breasts the same way, at the same time. And that can cause problems."
Industry also feeds on and drives the male obsession with full or big breasts, promoting the full-breasted Barbie doll image, and the inadequate feelings experienced by women and girls with small breasts. And so the thriving sale of breast-augmentation devices, surgical implants, cosmetics, special gels, and so on. According to plastic surgeons, silicon implant plastic surgery is the most popular among women, even in India, where a woman would pay Rs.50,000 or above (1US$=Rs 44) for it.
Does Ganguly think it is possible for men to come out of the typical image of the female body they carry in their minds? "Even if one or two change their attitude after seeing my film, it'll be a reward for me," declares the director. The film, having been screened at festivals in London and San Francisco recently, is now expected to go to Japan. With a huge influence of Hollywood films, which has its own standards of female beauty, Japan's women, many of them small-breasted, have to fight their own battle, he says. "And hence perhaps, the interest in the 'Empty Canvas'."
Says Nasreen, "This film at least tries to attack stereotypical beliefs. If the film can make at least one among the audience think and protest, then it has served its purpose. This is more important than winning prizes in festivals."