By Kartikey Tripathi
The governments of India and Pakistan, in 1947, initiated the ‘Central Recovery Operation’, which set out to recover women who had been abducted or forcibly converted during the post-partition carnage. The bodies of women as sites of honour and bearers of tradition become apparent in this cross-border exchange of women. Not only were women abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered because they were seen as the collective property of a certain community, but they were also exchanged between two countries to stake a claim to nationhood that now marked the bodies of women. The borders weren’t just drawn between India and Pakistan, but they were drawn onto women too. Women, then, represent sites of contesting claims of ownership, which in turn justifies and sanctions gendered violence. This article intends to explore some of these competing notions violence and womanhood that become evident in the movie Jab We Met.
In a particularly memorable act of Jab We Met, Geet (played by Kareena Kapoor) finds herself stranded at Ratlam station after she fails to re-board her train for the second time. This is followed by a confrontation with strange men, who start chasing her around. Geet sees it fit to approach the station master for help, who in turn takes it upon himself to remind her of the dangers of being alone at night for a single woman. This interaction reveals a strained relationship between the state and its feminine citizens.
Films, when reading against the grain as cinematic texts, can reveal vehicles of a particular ideological dispensation. Film texts are embedded in a socio-political milieu, that informs their production and audience reception. This is especially true for mainstream Bombay cinema productions that are made for uncritical/unproblematic consumption as they rigidly adhere to cinematic conventions. This can be gauged by how some shows and movies are an ‘easy’ watch: this happens precisely because the makers of that cinematic text have been successful in making us identify or naturalize what is being presented to us.
While we self-identify with certain characters or tropes that are presented to us, a considerable effort is put in from the filmmaker's end to make us believe that what we see on-screen is the ‘natural’ scheme of things. For example, repeatedly presenting us narratives in which there are visibly underpaid, overworked domestic helpers only solidifies their class position in our imaginations. A similar case can be made against the depiction of violence against women/queer folx and caste violence in films: they might make us aware of the said problems that infest our society, but their repeated depiction doesn’t address structural violence or calls for a radical overhaul. The distance between the audience and the subject remains intact, the violence presented to us remains distant and inaccessible. As if we aren't perpetrators or victims in the hierarchical violence that structures our everyday. One can argue that a certain reproduction of hierarchical violence happens in many movies as most mainstream cinema is consumed uncritically.
If we apply this understanding of cinema to the scene where Geet is being chased around by working-class men at the Ratlam Railway station, we can dissect into some assumptions in motion. There remains a clear dichotomy between the creeps who roam the streets at night, belong to the working class and work odd hours, and the likes of Aditya (played by Shahid Kapoor), who are cultured, educated, ‘feminist’ gentlemen. While Geet expresses her immediate frustration of being policed by the station master, she still doesn’t find any means of protection or safety at the railway station. The station master’s role can be read as a mediator between the state and Geet. When he says that a woman alone at night is a khuli tijori (open treasure vault), the veneer of protectionism is disrupted and an individualised model of self-preservation and self-protection is unveiled. If women alone at night are open treasure chests, then they are meant to be looted and violated. The state would not intervene until something terrible has happened: you’re on your own and you better protect that tijori. This also flagrantly accepts that women are someone’s property, which is not unheard of in India where girls from a young age are referred to as ‘paraya dhan’ (the property of her future in-laws). But a woman alone is a khuli tijori as opposed to what? A chained up rag doll? Why does the tijori open for business after it’s dark?
The sequence that follows in the movie might answer this. Geet decides to run away from the lecherous presence of these men that frequent Ratlam junction at night. She steps out of the railway station and sees a group of women standing across the road. This is where we encounter a narrative disjuncture. The witty and, otherwise, street-smart Geet fails to recognise that these women were sex workers who were waiting for clients to show up. When a potential client shows up and strikes a conversation with Geet, she quickly realises that she has been mistaken for a sex worker. Geet decided to stand with this group of women in the hopes of being saved from the men who were chasing her. But she is quick to dissociate herself from them when a man on a bike propositions her by saying that “main woh nahi hoon” (I am not like that). The preservation of her respectability as a middle-class woman takes precedence and she decides to foreclose any possibility of a potentially radical alliance with these women. Her only escape from this grave misunderstanding is to run into the arms of Aditya (played by Shahid Kapoor). She isn’t a khuli tijori anymore and the man following her on a bike seems to respect that.
Ruth Vanita in her work on the history of Urdu Rekhti poetry traces the etymological origins of the word ‘randi’. This word is, now, predominantly used in the Northern part of the subcontinent to refer to women engaged in sex work. It is also used as a derogatory slur for just about any woman. But Vanita in her work establishes that ‘randi’ was initially used to refer to single women. ‘Rann’ still means woman in certain parts of Punjab and ‘randua’ is used for widowers. The slippage of meaning from referring to a single woman to a coarse word used for prostitutes tells a tale of how living a life without a man at your disposal was considered a fate similar to that of a sex worker. The word is never used in the film, but the connection between Geet and sex work is obliquely drawn multiple times. In an early encounter with Aditya in the train when he loses his temper after Geet keeps trying to make conversation with him, he rebukes her and says that he doesn’t care whether she is from a ‘hostel or a brothel’: an unconscious admission of the connection between a single woman and the inconsequential existence of sex workers in his mind. Here we see that a single woman who navigates the public sphere alone is always under the threat of being called a randi.
In 1957, Guru Dutt’s movie Pyaasa had a strikingly similar scene. Gulaabo (played by Waheeda Rahman) is a sex worker, who is chased by a havildar after she gets into argument with a client who refused to pay her for her services. The only escape from carceral violence for Gulaabo is in the arms of Vijay, whom she grabs on to. The havildar leaves her alone after he realises that Gulaabo might be Vijay’s partner, similar to how personal property is viewed. Drawing parallels with Geet, we see that a disciplining force tries to tuck away some women inside the confines of their homes or in the arms of men. This disciplining force works by shaming women who roam around late at night or punishing them for doing the same through gendered violence. Whether it is the strange men who are chasing single women or the cops harassing sex workers, the construction of public space in narrative cinema holds out a placard of NO ENTRY for single women. But if you are with a man, you are at his mercy as no one, not even the state, will willingly interfere in his domain.
This disciplinary force comes into a full circle when we see that Geet wants nothing to do with sex workers. In a later scene, when she checks into a hotel with Aditya, Geet emphatically states that she can defend herself, thanks to her Karate training if Aditya tries to force himself onto her. The idea of self-defence not only individualises concerns regarding sexual violence, but it also deflects questions that address power imbalance in constructions of masculinist public spaces. When a befuddled Aditya wants to know why she thinks that he might attempt to rape her, Geet quips that she isn’t like ‘one of those girls’ (uss type ki ladki) and is old fashioned. This immediately implies that women who get raped are at fault, or perhaps she means that some women deserve it. Placing herself as old-fashioned, she is distancing herself from the cosmopolitan fantasy of a sexually liberated woman, who consents to pre-marital sex. This cosmopolitan imaginary of womanhood also disrupts Geet’s claims to middle-class respectability. A certain internalisation of self-regulation takes place in the vehement disavowal of certain kinds of women that challenge caste-patriarchy: the randi, the uss type ki ladki etc. Geet’s outwardly liberatory politics operates in the liminal space between feminism and neoliberalism, where her freedom is an atomised and insular experience as opposed to something that radically challenges the gendered power imbalance.
The argument regarding access to public space can also be extended to the presence of Dalitbahujan-Adivasi women in public space. The participation of upper-caste women in the feudal structure of India has been historically restricted to the confines of their homes. While many Dalitbhaujan-Adivasi women have engaged in professions that require them to access a world beyond their homes. The linguistic tethering of prostitution with single women accessing public space also carries a casteist subtext. As most women who were seen accessing the public space largely belonged to marginalised caste groups. The upper-caste woman’s absence in the public eye maintains her chastity, while Dalitbahujan-Adivasi women are sexualised for their visibility. This is especially true for trans women and genders non-conforming queer folx who are regularly assumed to be sex workers and are harassed/fetishised by the law enforcement for their mere presence in the public space. It is perhaps this association between the sexualised lower-caste woman and the sex workers waiting for clients outside the Ratlam junction that threatens the privileged space of womanhood that Geet occupies.
Intersectional politics tells us that the category of ‘woman’ is compounded by social locations such as caste, class, race etc. The identification with a certain construction of womanhood or gendered position stems from a lived experience. While Geet has established that she is a Sikh woman from Bhatinda (Sikhni hoon main Bhatinda ki) loaded with the subtext that Sikh women from Bhatinda are tough, this sentence locates her within a historical moment. While we don’t know whether she’s tough, her establishment of Sikh heritage is informed by a certain utopian construction of the past. Bhatinda becomes a homeland where her spirit roams free in the mustard fields of Punjab. But it is also an imagined homeland under the constant threat of violent displacement. Punjab and its people have been a part of a gruesome trajectory of communal and state-ist violence since the creation of the Indian nation-state in 1947. From Partition in 1947 to the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, Sikhs shared a tense relationship with the Indian nation-state. From stereotypes that served as the punch lines of jokes to when Sikhs were labelled as terrorists during the peak of the Khalistani nationalist movement, the burden of proving their loyalty towards the Indian state has fallen upon them. Or as Gyanendra Pandey would say it: the only unhyphenated identity in the Indian state is that of Hindus. Upper-caste cis-gendered Hindu men to be precise. The rest are hyphenated identities: Indian-Muslim, Indian-Sikh etc. You are assumed to be Hindu or working within a framework of a Hindu majoritarian matrix unless you present or state otherwise.
Geet’s identity as a Sikh woman on a cross country railway journey bears a hint of her troubled relationship with the state. It is as if she has to invoke her Sikh identity to make evident that she is an enthusiastic subject of the state, which is otherwise structured around her exclusion as a woman belonging to a religious minority. The ‘Widow Colony’ established for the victims of the 1984 pogrom in New Delhi’s Tilak Nagar stands testament to the palpable undercurrent of injustice that still informs the lives of many Sikhs in India.
Returning to Geet’s recurrent nostalgia around Punjab that only exists on the silver screen, we find that when she reaches Bhatinda her paternal grandfather, the family patriarch, admonishes and humiliates her for wearing short/revealing clothes (a sleeveless t-shirt, seriously dadaji?). Interestingly, he remarks that Geet must roam around naked on the streets of Mumbai if she dresses like this in Bhatinda. A grim reminder of the past shows up: a time when in many parts of Punjab and North India women were captured by men during communal conflicts of 1947. They were stripped naked and paraded on the streets, an act that was to bring shame onto the community whose women were being targeted. Regardless of the utopian existence of Bhatinda in Geet’s imagination, the texture of her experience in Bhatinda is marked by the looming presence of patriarchal authority and subjugation. Another reminder of how this authority can turn deadly for the protection of honour can be found in the stories of scores of women who were killed by their fathers, brothers, husbands or sons to prevent the possibility of an abduction or rape during partition.
Turning a critical gaze onto Jab We Met opens up a complicated prism of history that informs the creation of its narrative. From the reactions expected of the audience to the unsaid other-ing of sex workers, the film is unconsciously operating within the frameworks of cis-heteronormative patriarchy. But it also leaves for us the opportunity to reconstitute and reconfigure our understanding of the public space. It gives us a chance to delve deeper into the troubling past that is laid out unproblematically in front of us to produce cinematic pleasure. There is an enticing pleasure in identifying with Geet, but that pleasure only reproduces a certain status quo in our subconscious mind. Instead, we can move towards a politics of watching cinema that is deeply suspicious of the normative assumptions that make films legible. This can start by testing the dominant narrative presented in the movie against the historical continuum of violence that constitutes the skeletal structure of the present moment.