She finally died this week — the woman whom some of us love, and many of us loathe. Swathed in a billowing sari, her forehead a flaming red, she was India’s most dutiful and selfless daughter-in-law. Even her name was suitably sanctimonious.
The exit of Tulsi from our television screens made me wonder about the dichotomies that define the gender debate today.
Think about it. Here was someone who was indisputably a doormat from the Dinosaur Age and yet she was a national rage. In a country where we are now asking the military to explain why women aren’t let into combat, television’s most iconic female character inhabited an entirely self-referential world. External realities had absolutely no place for the women in Tulsi’s universe. She and her housemates were entirely driven by petty machinations and domestic one-upmanship. Rising prices, career conflicts, politics, the war in Iraq, nursery admissions, books, cinema, music — the stuff of our everyday conversations was never ever part of their discourse. It was almost like stepping back into an ancient world where women were circumscribed by the four walls of domesticity.
And yet, in the creation of the archaic K serials, a modern-day businesswoman has been born, who is nothing like the characters she inflicts upon us. Ekta Kapoor is outspoken, unapologetic, unmarried, ruthless and rich, and forget the sindoor, I don’t think I have ever seen her in a sari. Though the ratings are finally beginning to slip, Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms is still valued at Rs 230 crore; it trades on the stock market and remains entertainment television’s most wooed content house.
Tulsi’s alter ego, Smriti Irani, hasn’t done so badly for herself either. The pious persona gave her an easy and natural entry into the boys’ club world of politics. And for someone who never failed to tell you anecdotes of her early hardship (she served burgers at a McDonald’s outlet as a struggling actor), money is no longer an issue. Tulsi/Smriti now runs her own successful production company.
The story of these two women is a peculiar poser for the ideology of feminism. A retrograde role model (albeit fictional) has made their personal empowerment possible. Should we be appalled or should we admire their pragmatism and utter lack of self-doubt?
If you think about it, you may notice that the Tulsi phenomenon of freedom applies even to women who seek their ‘liberation’ through personalities that are the exact opposite of her sari-clad conservatism.
In fact, it seems only frightening extremes define all the women in our popular culture. When was the last time you were able to see shades of yourself (or any woman you know) on television or in the movies? Our screen heroines are either asexual, angelic, self-sacrificing and stoic. Or they slither across our screens with their in-your-face sexuality and are often crass, loud and unabashedly ambitious. Our notions of gender equality and modernity are so confused that we treat both Tulsi and Rakhi Sawant with overawed fascination.
We secretly approve of the cloying morality and prudish restraint that we see in the K serials. But we also applaud the hyper-sexuality of poster girls and super models because we think that’s what being ‘progressive’ is all about.
Perhaps it’s because the over-sexed item girl sees as much social and economic mobility in playing that part as Tulsi did in enacting orthodoxy. In either case, it’s all about getting ahead — the gender debate and its accompanying anguish be damned.
Today middle-class parents and small town folk proudly escort their daughters to ramp walks and beauty pageants. Even the swimsuit round doesn’t make them flinch. After all they know that Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant were once hick and now are completely hip, all because they were willing to strut their stuff and not say sorry for it. Mallika Sherawat was able to successfully leave behind her conservative Jat roots, a stern father and a disapproving husband in Haryana once she embraced the unapologetic sexuality of tinsel town. And Rakhi Sawant has not just made potfuls of money, she has also become an unlikely darling of the elite, right down to a much-hyped appearance on Koffee with Karan.
So, whether you live in Meerut, Kanpur or Guwahati, today your families will not just allow you to strip to your skin, they may even encourage it. Often these are people who don’t get particularly worked up over dowry or female foeticide. They don’t especially care if women get equal pay at work or reservation in Parliament. But they genuinely believe they are modern products of the age they live in because they allow their daughters to put sexuality on sale.
After all, we live in a time, when a 60-plus man gets to win our hearts as ‘Sexy Sam’ (KANK) and a seven -year old child plays a protagonist who also goes by the name ‘Sexy’(Cheeni Kum). When the director of the film R. Balakrishnan was asked to comment on why a little child could not have got a different name, he said he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. “It's like any little girl dressing up in her mother's sari and lipstick, posing before a mirror and trying to be sexy without knowing what the word means,” he argued.
And so, at least in our cinema and television depictions, we embrace puritanical virtue and manufactured sensuality with the same confused enthusiasm. In America, a fascinating new book called Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy explores exactly this paradox. The author chronicles how the anti-pornography wing of the women’s movement had to concede early defeat. But Levy goes on to bust the myth of ‘raunch culture’ being synonymous with empowerment. She quotes Erica Jong, an early advocate of free sex, to say, “Sexuality has become a smokescreen for how far women have NOT come.” And possibly, for how far they have left to go.
Here in India, this debate hasn’t even begun.
Most of us, neither fat nor anorexic, neither prude nor playgirl, neither virgin nor vamp, hang squarely in the middle of the extremes, colouring our lives with shades of grey. We wait for television or cinema to hold a mirror up to us. We wait for the day we can see ourselves on the screen.
And in the meantime, some of us will not mourn Tulsi’s death at all.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7