Saw “Jai Gangajal”,.It is a typical Prakash Jha film and the structure of the plot is almost the same as the earlier film Gangajal- A brave and honest cop in a small town, taking on the combined might of corrupt feudalistic politicians and economic interests with collusion of the law and order machinery. She moves forward by triggering off forces of vigilante justice and negotiating his/her way through this mess to finally establish that Law must prevail for both the oppressors and the victims. The main difference is that in this case, the protagonist is a woman who is addressed by her subordinates and also many others as “Madam Sir” I do not know whether or not it is a prevalent practice in at least some parts of the country but that is not very important. What stayed with me is the symbolic significance of this oxymoron.
At one level, it is nothing more than a somewhat cute but silly way of the people concerned to come to terms with a situation that they may not be accustomed to. However, it also tells us how strong is the hold of “gender roles” in our psyche and how deep our entrenchments are. The simplest explanation of this oxymoron is that the two words are signifying two completely different things. While ‘Madam’ acknowledges her gender, ‘Sir’ on the other hand is an affirmation of her status and authority. By obvious implication, ‘Sir” is seen as having a strong co-relation with power and authority as compared to “Madam”. If this be so, then it is a strong statement about our difficulty in associating power and authority with the female gender.
There is another factor which makes the issue more complex – the nature of the profession itself. Had the protagonist been a politician or a bureaucrat or a corporate executive perhaps an expression like “Madam Ji” may have sufficed. Here we are talking of a profession which is largely regarded as masculine. There is a strong link between the picture of an “ideal police officer” that we carry in our mind with qualities that we associate with masculinity. Thus, in many languages, words like courage, valour etc are often used interchangeably with manliness. At one time people described Indira Gandhi as the only man in the cabinet, and this was meant as a complement and as a sign of her effectiveness. Similarly expressions like “hathon mein choodiyan pehnan” (wearing bangles in ones wrist) are regarded as symbols of cowardice. The term “Namard”(Impotent) signifies lack of courage in a man and inability to stand up for what is right. In this context, the term “Madam Sir” can be interpreted as a “Woman who is showing all the qualities associated with masculinity”
The term “Madam- Sir” can also be seen as an integration of the feminine and masculine principles. The portrayal of the protagonist does incorporate the qualities normally associated with the two genders. The soft, gracious and dignified way in which she holds her own ground in relating to her “patron” is indicative of her approach in dealing with both explicit and implicit oppression. However the most interesting element in this context was the contrast with one of the other main characters- the Circle Inspector (called Circuit Babu) B.N.Singh-the totally masculine but corrupt police officer who had been helping the Bablu/Dablu duo in their political/economic misdeeds. Singh eventually turns the corner and joins the fight against Bablu/Dablu, but the trigger for this change is the betrayal from them and the disrespect shown towards his uniform. In fact “Wardi Par hath nahi lagana chahiye tha” (Don’t show disrespect to the uniform) is a sentiment which he expresses more than once. I think, Jha missed an opportunity by not contrasting the preoccupation with concern for “Wardi Pe Hath” (disrespect from others) with “Wardi Pe Daag” ( sanctity of the uniform).
Nonetheless, the two different ways one can look at “honour” is of significance. The masculine way where the concern is with extra-spective lens (how one is seen and treated by others) and the feminine way where the concern is with the introspective lens (maintaining one’s sanctity in one’s own eyes) Sadly, like in all other spheres of life, it is only the masculine way which is focused upon by most of us including women.
In its own way “Madam-Sir” says a lot about the times we are living in. On one hand, the traditional bifurcation of socio-economic roles associated with the two genders are fast disappearing and we find women who are playing roles associated with men (e.g.police force) and to a lesser extent men playing roles associated with women (e.g. house-keeping, child-care etc.). Simultaneously the gender roles configured in our minds are still determined by the social arrangements of an earlier era. . The expression “Madam-Sir” is only the tip of the ice-berg. Beneath lies a complex world of power inequities, gender roles and relationship between the masculine/feminine principles which are part of every human being irrespective of his/her gender. While to some extent the issues of inequality are being recognised and dealt with , all other issues are either ignored or treated as “problems” to be taken care off.
The issue of the co-holding of the masculine and feminine aspects is almost totally ignored. Hence while the world is becoming a little less patriarchal (with slightly reduced difference between the relative status and power of the two genders) , it is simultaneously becoming more Patri-centric i.e. governed by masculine principles.Femininity is seen as a weakness with which even women do not want to identify. While, many of them may proclaim as how they value their femininity, scratch the surface and you will find that this “valuing” is of “Women with balls” variety.
The issue of frozen gender roles is relatively easier to see, but it is often denied in oneself and projected on others like we do with all such uncomfortable phenomenon. Thus it is not uncommon to find people who claim that while they themselves are free of all such biases and prejudices, most other people are not and hence they are forced to compromise. On the other hand, there are people who believe that these “frozen gender roles” are how things ought to be and in the name of women’s liberation we are playing havoc with the existing social order. There are also people who own up these frozen roles, feel guilty and ashamed about them and work hard towards getting rid of them. Personally, I have not been able to resonate with any of these and have found them counter-productive. The more I deny them or the more I project them on to others or the more I try to fight them, the more virulent they become.
I am a product of a patriarchal heritage. While the family I grew up in was reasonably liberal and progressive for its time, the basic codings that I received about gender roles were essentially based upon patriarchy e.g. associating the role of a provider/protector with male gender and associating the role of an ambience builder with the female gender. Rationally, I know that these codings are no longer relevant in the present day world, but these codings have an emotive force which I can not deny. In fact, the more I repress/suppress this force, the more I push it into my psychic under-belly and the more lethal it becomes. I would like to say a gentle and gracious good bye to these codings but it is not easy. So far I have only been able to convince them that they have already over-stayed and taken them to the threshold. I do not intend to push them out of the door. Instead, I will patiently wait for them to leave of their own accord.
I would like to hear your experiences with gender roles and dynamics between masculine/feminine principles both within your self and the larger context.