Ms Representation: New stories about the old

This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Tanuja Chandra’s documentation of her aunts - Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha
Poster of Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha
Poster of Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha

I watched two documentaries recently that centered on the lives of two octogenarian duos respectively. One was Tanuja Chandra’s warm documentation of her aunts, Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha, and the utopian life the sisters have created for themselves living together in their ancestral property in a Uttar Pradesh village. The other was Chris Bolan’s A Secret Love (on Netflix), which revolves around how a lesbian couple kept their relationship under wraps over tumultous decades. Both are different, of course, but there are commonalities: Chief among them is how they present untold, engaging stories of octogenarian protagonists.

When you think of old women in films, a predictable image comes to our minds. It’s of them walking slowly or resting in the background, with hearing aids dangling, as the camera focusses on the younger people in the foreground. Sometimes, they are shown to pamper grandchildren, have a constant sweet-tooth… Mostly, they get relegated to the comical sidelines. This isn’t a gender-specific issue. But rarely do we pause to discover who they are beyond the identity given in such films.

Both these documentaries achieve this. The aunties in Tanuja’s documentary are a delight. The finicky Aunty Sudha, and the more understanding Aunty Radha forming a symbiotic relationship is lovely to watch. We see Sudha’s love for fancy things, and Radha’s good-natured jibes. The 85-year old Sudha would rather that her sarees remain in her closet unused, than lend them to her 93-year old sister. The latter folds them wrong, she complains. Sudha also wakes up for a ‘midnight chocolate’, claiming it helps her sleep. The duo call their walkers ‘chariots’, make fun of each other, bond over ‘crazy husbands’, and chuckle, when asked if they hug each other. They squabble over what flowers their garden should have, about how much ghee their food should have... Their camaraderie feels real, and they are adorable. One truly gets a sense of how they have evolved over the years, and how their relationship has deepened to a place where they can truly live with no facades.

While witnessing their life stories, we also get to see how the world changed. In A Secret Love, Pat and Terry are shown to grow up during the Great Recession. Terry was in the All American Girls Professional Ball League, and we see the ridiculous skirts they were made to wear. “A bruise is better than pants,” she says. The documentary also paints a picture of the struggles they had to undergo, to keep their relationship a secret. We see love letters with signatures torn out, we see the raids and the public shaming that their love has outlived. The personal narrative merges with the global, and here too, presents us with a penetrative glance of the world we are living in.

I wonder why we don’t see more of these stories in mainstream cinema. Both films made for engaging experiences. Not only were they insightful, they were also sensitive. Both films bear an unhurried pace, mimicking the movements of their protagonists. The frames don’t shy from showing their long and laboured movements, their wrinkly and saggy skin, the ignored gleam of their eyes behind the pronounced crow feet. The question is, do we have the patience to bear with these pauses? Documentaries can afford realism, can feature films?

Stories of old-age might have wisdom, but rarely do they have the glamour that is necessary to sell commercial cinema. This could be one of the reasons why the makers of Saand Ki Aankh, a film that centers on two septuagenarian sharp-shooters, chose to have younger actors (Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednakar) play their roles. Unsurprisingly, a controversy erupted around their casting, with senior actors such as Neena Gupta voicing disappointment. Taapsee was quoted saying that while she understood the senior actors’ angst, it was important to note a general dearth of good characters for women, age notwithstanding. The actor further added she is ‘greedy’ for good characters. When there is a general lack of well-written women characters, is it fair to expect our younger actors to let go of such a character?

We need better-written roles for women, across ages. Also, we need to acknowledge the fact that films that have been headlined by women were once considered ‘impossible’, in financial terms. Was a film like Saand ki Aankh possible, even with Bhumi and Taapsee, say, ten years back? This movement needed the likes of Vidya Balan, Nayanthara, Manju Warrier, Jyotika, Anushka and so many others, including Taapsee and Bhumi themselves, to bring us here. It needed creators who were willing to take that challenge. More importantly, it came about as a result of questions raised about the inequality women face in the industry.

To question art is a responsibility, as a serious art aficionado. As I have observed and noted in several earlier columns, art isn’t just entertainment, but also documentation of the society we live in. The more inclusive, the better. And right now, there is a lode of stories from our previous generations that we haven’t mined. It is time we begin.

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