Shyam Benegal's Shanti Devi act: Deplorable morality of 'Adult with Caution' rating
Shyam Benegal’s recent statement is unbecoming of a film maker who is known for directing films that deal with burning social issues.
Shyam Benegal’s recent statement that films that are accorded with the proposed adult with caution (A/C) certificate cannot be shown in multiplexes but only in places like red light areas is unbecoming of a film maker who is known for directing films that deal with burning social issues.
More importantly, by making such a statement, the veteran — who in 1970s pioneered a new genre of socially relevant and realistic movies such as Manthan and Junoon — is taking a moral high ground that is many times away from the reality. It also amounts to disowning one of his own critically acclaimed movies.
Before explaining the rationale behind saying this, here is what has happened. The Benegal committee was set up to revamp the Censor Board, whose role in the Indian film industry has always been a matter of debate concerning freedom of expression. The panel submitted its report in April, according to media reports and has recommended certification and classification instead of cutting scenes out.
A/C is a new certificate proposed by the panel. Such certificates are to be issued to movies that have excessive adult content. In an interview to The Indian Express on Friday, Benegal said: “Films with ‘A/C’ will have restricted viewing as they can’t be screened at cinema halls located near residential areas. We do not want to deny the filmmakers the right to screen their movies. When you do that, the movies go underground… An A/C movie can be shown in red light districts or other non-residential areas.”
He also said such films are not to be shown in multiplexes because they are thronged by families.
In an interview to the Business Standard, he repeated this though not in as many words. “There are certain kinds of films that may not be suitable for family viewing and they probably have to be shown elsewhere, where there is no chance of a family viewing it,” he told the newspaper purportedly about those movies that are to be certified A/C.
It is to be noted that he made these statements after watching Udta Punjab, the unreleased movie that has kicked off a political storm after the Censor Board suggested 89 cuts and is now in the court.
With the fate of Udta Punjab, one thing is very clear given the recommendations made by the Benegal panel. Regardless of the verdict, there will still be somebody who will decide whether a film is ‘suitable’ for family viewing or not.
More appalling is the moral high ground Benegal takes by stating certain movies are fit to be shown only in places such as red light areas. For Benegal, multiplexes are for families. He also presumes sex workers are family-less and thinks that they are to be kept out of such structures. They are not eligible to enjoy wide choices that consumerism offers. Multiplexes are exclusive.
Ironically, Benegal’s moral high-handedness goes against one of his own movies, Mandi, a social satire released in 1983.
The film deals with the issues faced by a brothel situated inside Hyderabad city. Rukmini Bai, the brothel keeper, is forced to move her business to the fringes of the city as politicians and real estate mafia eye the land it is situated on. Just when Rukmini Bai and her women settling down in the new place overcoming the multifarious difficulties they face, the politicians and the land sharks return to drive them out again.
For the sex workers, the problems never end. Each time they painstakingly piece together their lives, the society is after them, pushing them further into the margins.
Central to the plot is a social worker and feminist Shanti Devi, who views sex work as a moral degradation and joins hands with the politicians and the builder to drive Rukmini Bai out.
Interestingly, unlike today’s Benegal, the film takes a rather compassionate look at sex workers’ issues.
In one sequence Shanti Devi leads a rally to the kotha. Delivering her speech in front of the brothel, she vows that she will not allow it to function inside the city. “Do we destroy 5000 years of civilization?” she asks. “Women should be worshipped. Would you allow them to be sold in the market? I will go into the kotha today and will tell my sisters to stop doing this dirty work,” she says. One of the sex workers retorts asking her how do we have food then.
The sequence ends with the photographer, a regular at the brothel, and one of the sex workers trapping an accomplice of Shanti Devi. The activist and her friends are unceremoniously escorted out in ignominy.
“Hum hain toh samaj hain. Itni fikar hain toh apni mardon ko band karke rakh do gharpe. Mard kahreedta tabhi toh aurat bechti hain apne aapko (The society exists because women exist. If they are so worried about us, they should shut their men up at home as they are the one who make women into prostitutes),” says Rukmini Bai.
While Shanti Devi’s portrayal is caricaturish in the film, the director’s own views on sex work seem to be expressed through the servant in the kotha, Tungrus, who has a love-hate relationship with Rukmini Bai. Tungrus quietly serves the inmates throughout the day and in the night, after getting drunk, he starts cursing Rimini Bai and her business. Tungrus in the night is the Shanti Devi of the day.
By pitting family against the so-called red light areas now, Benegal is revealing the drunk Tungrus inside him. Or rather, the morally high handed Shanti Devi. And it is not at all okay when it comes from an acclaimed film maker like Benegal.
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