Ms. Representation: Terminator: Judgment Day
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses the portrayal of pregnancy and abortion in recent films
Abortion is the Voldemort of Indian cinema: it must not be named. For years, unplanned pregnancies have been used as miracles that fix pretty much every problem. Relationship troubles? Extra-marital affair? Toxic partner? Problems with parents or in-laws? “Oru kuzhandhai porandha ellam seri aagidum.” Sure, it may not be everyone’s preference, but why is it never shown to be an option? Even worse, this perfectly legal procedure is often equated to ‘murder’ or ‘sin’, like films like Puppy, or AL Vijay’s short in Kutty Story. The latter even dubs abortion illegal, while the former guilt-shames a woman into being a mother.
It has been 50 years since the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, legalised a woman's right to terminate pregnancy within 20 weeks (24 in special cases with legal and medical permission). And yet, there is SO much misinformation around the subject and the procedure. So, when a character in the recently released Netrikann claims that she didn't know that abortions were legal, it’s perfectly understandable.
Even in the recently released Mimi starring Kriti Sanon, the lead character goes on a long monologue espousing anti-abortion values. The film wishes to normalise adoption, which is great, but it cannot throw a woman's reproductive rights under the bus for it. It is impossible to believe that a doctor would casually suggest termination to a woman experiencing Braxton Hicks (false labour pains). And it is even more infuriating that this situation is used to flatten the nuances on a sensitive issue like reproductive rights.
This is why I was pleasantly surprised by two recent Malayalam films, Sara’s and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, which both discuss reproductive rights. The former, especially, actively bats for a woman’s autonomy over her body. It follows the life of Sara (a sprightly Anna Ben), an aspiring film director, and a self-assured, independent girl, in control of her sexuality. For Sara, the ultimate aim is to contribute something to the world that survives beyond her own life. And this doesn’t need to be just children. She marries a like-minded partner, and gets pregnant, and her husband begins to have second thoughts. Though I am not a fan of the candyfloss cinematic tone the film adopts, Sara’s clear pro-choice stand is important. It sets out nuances clearly, and without demeaning both options. More importantly, it states the law clearly. People who aren’t ready, shouldn’t be parents. And it is okay if everyone doesn’t want to be.
Another Malayalam film, Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (SOR), brings a different facet of the conundrum to the fore: the dynamics of a live-in relationship. The entire film, taken in a single shot, happens over a car ride they take to the hospital to confirm her pregnancy. While termination is a complicated decision even for married women, it becomes messier for single women. The stigma, the judgement, the anxiety… SOR really digs into the emotions involved. Maria (a terrific Rima Kalligal) is on tenterhooks the entire film—anxious, scared, irritable, and even mean to her fairly nice boyfriend (an equally good Jithin Puthenchery). But her irritability comes from the burden of being the sole target of change and criticism. She realises she might seem aggressive. But is she really?
I liked the fact that Director Don Palathara doesn’t try to make her likeable, and instead, focusses on making her anxiety feel real. The pressure of facing patriarchy is exhausting. And it becomes even more difficult to bear this judgement without support. (It is also hilarious how he takes a refreshing dig at himself in the film for being a man helming this feminist film.)
What both films capture is how complex this decision of termination is, though both women are independent, financially and emotionally. And yet, it’s a decision that will alter their existence. Films may glorify women forced to become mothers, but reality is different. Women who carry unplanned pregnancies to term face a higher risk of suffering from an often-overlooked condition called postpartum depression.
Even having the most supportive partner, doesn’t help with the physical demands of pregnancy and termination. This is why only a woman should be in charge of her body. While not everyone might be an advocate for the cause, it is crucial that at least the judgment and misinformation is stopped. The law enshrines this right, but somehow, our films still do not.