Ms Representation: Miss India-A tea dipped in patriarchy
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Keerthy Suresh's Miss India
In an earlier column, I had written about women onscreen characters who had jobs, but never seemed to work. I had argued that this made all these women, despite the different professions, the same person. Considering that we rarely get to see women doggedly pursue a career interest on screen, you can imagine my excitement when Miss India came out… yes, despite the tepid trailer. The last dynamic businesswoman I can recall is Shanti Devi from Mannan, and we all know how that went. There’s also Meghna from Dev last year, and we also know how that went. The hope was that Miss India would show a businesswoman with some realism. Hope truly is a dangerous thing.
Several people have written about the colossal disaster the film is, about its excruciating clumsiness. But what’s truly bothersome is the film’s painfully superficial understanding of sexism and patriarchy. It shows in the ridiculous writing of the film. Watching Manasa Samyuktha reminded me of a famous Kamal Haasan dialogue from Tenali: Naan vaayai kuvikayila, yaaro enaku dubbing kudukarango. The words she utters make no sense, in tandem with the person she is supposed to be.
Here’s an example. Manasa is supposed to be a progressive person with clarity, creativity, positivity, green tea... and what not. And yet, when a man asks her out, she says, “Let me think about it.” She explains that when women say they will think about something, it means assent; when they say no, it means they will think about it. And apparently, if they say yes, it means they aren’t women. I had to pause the film for a few seconds to take this in. I can imagine no woman saying this, let alone a progressive one, not even as a joke… not when we have endured centuries of our nos being unheard. But then again, what nuance can you expect from a film that uses an automated voice for one of its women characters?
Later, Manasa attends an interview. Let’s set aside the fact that the interviewer is her boyfriend. When he asks, ‘Why should I hire a woman over three guys who have applied for the same post’, Manasa launches on a ramble that ends in motherhood. ‘No man can bear the pain, a woman goes through when delivering a child,’ she says, and the interviewer is ‘electrified’. Had this been an actual interview, she would have been asked about her marital and family plans, and her answers been directly linked to her career prospects. Cos, maternity leave bruh.
Fortunately, there is another Netflix show on patriarchy and sexism which exhibits great understanding and sensitivity: The Queen’s Gambit. A mini-series about a child chess prodigy, the writing brims with emotional intelligence. After an interview, Beth observes, “It is mostly about how I am a girl; it shouldn’t be so important. It doesn’t talk about how I play the Sicilian.” In an increasingly gendered world, that’s the kind of nuance that makes for good representation. And remember that ‘joke’ I mentioned earlier from Miss India? If women think a lot before deciding, it is because they aren’t allowed to make mistakes. It is a manifestation of patriarchy that the Marathi film, Welcome Home, touches upon beautifully. Good writing comes from good observation, no matter the gender. It is about acknowledging the fact that a woman’s world is different, not morph it to fit the powerful man’s template.
Miss India’s absolute lack of understanding about how sexism manifests on the ground, or sensitivity to how women grapple with it is horrifying. And it reaches a peak when Manasa goes to meet the coffee baron KSK to seek investment. After a ludicrous intro, he tells Manasa he agreed to meet her, even though she didn’t have an appointment, because she is beautiful. He later uses the word ‘hot’. It is a scary, uncomfortable moment that most working women unfortunately know all too well. How does Manasa react to it though? “Thanks for the compliment.” No, dummy. That’s an insult.