where trouble was needed

June 17, 2008

Can a Woman Say No?

Filed under: Provocations — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm
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నువ్వొస్తానంటే నేనొద్దంటానా?
Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana?
Telugu, 136 minutes, 2005.  Directed by Prabhu Deva.

నువ్వొస్తానంటే నేనొద్దంటానా? (Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana?)  means “If you want to come, would I say no?” or “If you want to come, would I refuse?”

This is the title of a popular 2005 Telugu movie that was remade in Tamil, Kannada, Oriya and Bengali.  Setting out to champion the dignity of labour, particularly agricultural work, its pits the rural farmer Srihari (Sivarama Krishna) against the NRI business magnate Prakash (Prakash Raj) and his son and heir Santosh (Siddharth).  At stake is Indian culture, rooted in the farm, and embodied by Siri (Trisha), the farmer Srihari’s sister.   When Siri and Santosh pair off, Santosh’s family trashes the idea of their possible marriage.  When Santosh persists, Srihari challenges him to farm an acre of land as a condition of his consent.

As Santosh sweats and toils through the farming season, Siri watches and prays for his success.

This is the plot.  As the story unfolds however, another message is hammered home, concerning a question implicitly dismissed by the title (“would I say no?”), taken as a rhetorical question.

While the dignity of physical work and the integrity of the (relatively) poor farming family are called into question and predictably settled firmly in favour of the farmer, the question of women’s agency is repeatedly settled in the negative.

What if a woman asked the question, నువ్వోస్తానన్న, నేనోద్దనచ్చునా? which means: “Though you want to come, can I say no?” or “can I refuse?”

The answer we get in this movie is: no.

 * * *

Siri, a young girl raised by her brother after both are orphaned as young children has just finished her exams and is quickly snatched up by a classmate, Lalitha (Veda Sastry), to come visit her before her wedding.

In the course of the movie, there are two boys who try to get Siri.  Santosh, initially rejected first by Siri and then by her father, manages to win over both of them.  The other one ___ is thus left in the cold.  He does not take rejection well.  He kidnaps Siri and the way out offered by the movie is for Santosh to kill him.   Siri’s father takes the blame and goes to jail for this murder committed by Santosh.

Thus neither the hero nor the villain shows the ability to understand that no means no.   The only difference between the two is that one manages to convert it to a yes, while the other dies trying.  If lesson one is that no does not necessarily mean no, lesson two is that when a woman says no, the matter is not closed – she must pay a price for her refusal.

She may say sorry and eventually comply with the man’s wishes, realizing the error of her ways.  Or she may suffer in any of several ways, such as being blackmailed, or seeing her father go to jail.  All are depicted in this movie.

Unwanted Advances

Can there even be an unwanted advance, from a man to a woman?  No.  In the case of the hero, even his unwanted advances apparently deserve to be accepted, since it would be wrong to hurt his feelings.

From a woman to a man, “unwanted advance” is redundant.  An advance from a woman, as we see in the case of the “other woman” who is after our hero, renders her ridiculous and unattractive.

Apart from being, just like the rest of their family, concerned with luxury and status, Santhosh’s cousin, who wants to marry him, is depicted as a laughingstock.   So unfeminine is a woman who pursues a man that she cannot even find her way around the kitchen and uses salt instead of sugar when making halva in her effort to find the way to her man’s heart.

Clearly there is no role for such a woman other than comic relief.   Back to our hero.

Does no mean no?

In the movie we find that, to the hero’s advances, if the object of his affections says nothing, she is saying yes.  If she says no, she is saying yes.  And if she acts to prevent unwanted advances, then it is she who will be (and say) sorry.

Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 3.12.46 PM

Lalitha tells Santosh that Siri does not like his behaviour. He dismisses her, “that is all right.”

Santosh and Siri meet at a wedding.  The bride, Lalitha, is Siri’s friend and Santosh’s cousin.  Thinking Siri to be Lalitha, Santosh puts his arms around her and hugs her.  After being corrected, he proceeds to demonstrate to Lalitha how he (mistakenly) hugged Siri, thereby hugging her again.  Siri dislodges herself and Lalitha tells him firmly, “she does not like all that!”  To which Santosh replies, “that is all right,” meaning that her likes are irrelevant.  (23:25)

As he turns to leave the room, Santosh catches Siri making a snide remark about him.  To put her in her place, he marches back, corners her, and lectures her as follows:

Santosh corners Siri and warns her that being from London, he may behave "freely" with her.

Santosh corners Siri and warns her that being from London, he may behave “freely” with her.

“By the way …

I have come from London.
“You would have heard warnings about Indian men from abroad – accustomed to the free life there and coming and sweet-talking girls here and after enjoying x, y, z, leaving them to fly back.
Haven’t you?
Well you heard right.   I am like that only.  Be careful with me.”
Siri begs Santosh to return her horse, a gift from her brother. She refrains from fighting for it, lest the horse be harmed.

Siri begs Santosh to return her horse, a gift from her brother. She refrains from fighting for it, lest the horse be harmed.

Later at 28:48, after taking, dropping, catching and then returning her model horse, Santosh again barges in her face and says, “I have a small doubt.  I have been teasing you every day.  Another girl would have slapped me by now.  But since you haven’t done anything, I guess there is something – something.”  Thus he concludes that her failure to stop him is as good as welcoming him.

As he predicts, she soon starts liking him and the two spend time together.  At 1:02:30, he then sets out to make his next move, i.e. to kiss her.
“I feel like kissing you.” he says, moving closer.
Moving back, Siri says, “Not now, there is still time for that,” and gives him a slap on the cheek.
Grabbing the hand from his cheek, he persists, “Please …”
Firmly she says, “Santosh, let go!” and tries to dislodge herself from his hold.  He continues moving forward.  She repeats, “Please Santosh, let go!  Santosh, don’t touch … Santosh, please … “
Santosh glares at Siri after she hits/pushes him away.

Santosh glares at Siri after she hits/pushes him away.

He continues advancing until she hits and perhaps pushes him away to free herself.

The camera gives us a clear view of his reaction.  His lip jutting forward and eyes glaring with anger say, “how dare you?” though it is she who should be asking him this question.   Instead, completing the reversal of aggressor and injured party, it is Siri who apologizes, blames herself and justifies his action of advancing in spite of her refusal.    But first, he sulks and reassures himself that he is not guilty of any wrongdoing, by questioning two expert character witnesses.

At 1:03:13 Santosh asks his mother, “Amma, have you ever hit me?”  Then calls his father in London with the same question.  Both answer that obviously they have never hit him, why would they ever do that?  Could they even dream of it?  He sees that Siri hears their answers.

Armed with this certificate and rising indignation that Siri has dared to do what even his own mother and father have never done, he sulks, refuses to eat and leaves the dining table.  Siri follows him and says “Sorry” (1:04:14).  She continues, “I didn’t hit you on purpose, it happened accidentally.”  Looking down and at the point of tears, she adds, “If you want you can kiss me now… not only kiss, do whatever you want.”

Siri says sorry for hitting Santosh when he tried to kiss her though she said no.

Siri says sorry for hitting Santosh when he tried to kiss her though she said no.

Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 4.29.58 PM

In case we did not get the point she clearly states, with tears flowing, “It is I who made the mistake.  Sorry.”  (1:04:53)

At this, our hero’s smile returns and he chivalrously tries to cheer her up by offering, “No Siri, I made the mistake.  I’m sorry.” (1:04:57)  She then heaps more blame on herself, “No, I should not have done that,” while contritely slapping herself on the cheek.  Not to be outdone he offers, “No, I went a bit too far.”  She settles the matter by declaring sharply, “Is it wrong to want to be close to a girl whom you like?” (1:05:03) and adds that being from abroad, he has no way of knowing right from wrong behavior, “How would you know?  You didn’t grow up here.”

The Character of the NRI

In the context of a steady stream of movies concerning the (male) NRI’s compatibility with India, such as Dilwale Dulhania Lejayenge (1995) or Swades (2004), the question, “If you want to come, would I refuse?” is a rhetorical one implying that Mother India is always ready to welcome back her sons, provided they show themselves worthy and able to rein in the loose morals they would have absorbed while abroad.

Take this scene from Dilwale Dulhania Lejayenge

After Raj and Simran, who have met in Europe, gotten drunk, fallen asleep, wake up the next day, Raj temporarily lets her believe that they have slept together.  She cries and hides her face.   It is then that Raj affirms his Indian character, which would apparently rule out such a transgression.

At the same time, Raj characterizes Indian womanly honour based on firm patriarchal foundations:

मैं जानता हूँ की तुम मेरे बारे  में क्या सोचती हो तुम समझती हो की मैं बहुत घटिया किस्म का आवारा लड़का हूँ।  पर मैं इतना भी गिर हुआ नहीं हूँ सिमरन।   मैं एक हिंदुस्तानी हूँ और मैं जानता हूँ की एक हिंदुस्तानी लड़की की इज्ज़त क्या होती है  मैं सपने में भी तुम्हारा साथ ऐसी हरकत नहीं कर सकता

I know what you are thinking about me.  You think that I am a good-for-nothing boy but I am not that low, Simran.  I am an Indian and I know what an Indian girl’s honour is. Not even in my dreams could I do something like that to you.

His insinuation that he has slept with her, his amusement in her distress followed by his reassurance to her is analogous to Santosh’s snatching and returning of Siri’s horse.  In each case, the man makes sure the woman knows that he could have violated her trust, but has refrained.

In this vein, once Santosh demonstrates his ability to till the soil, and adapt to the standard of living of an agricultural labourer, he will be accepted.  Tilling the soil represents not only the physical work, which after all needs to be done in any country, but also a cultural transformation to appreciating country living, honest values, and thus being worthy of the Indian woman.

Because it is his wish to marry Siri that prompted him to leave his life of luxury and presumed depravity in London for the hard work and simple living in the village, Siri is credited with teaching Santosh to appreciate Indian culture.

Kiss and Tell?

A woman’s advances also place her reputation at risk in the future, as we see in the scene, that serves to cement the bond between Santosh and Siri.

They collaborate to rescue Lalitha, who is Siri’s friend and Santosh’s cousin, from one of the most dramatic fates that can befall a bride-to-be … the walkout of the groom.  Why does she fear that the groom may pull the plug?  It seems that an old flame has appeared with love letters she had written to him earlier, threatening to show these to the groom-to-be.

So what?  No one ever asks this question.  No one wants to risk finding out.  And so follows a scene with no pretense of credibility, in which Siri and Santosh enter a small house where the letters are kept, have plenty of time to show concern for each others’ safety, and together evade attack by a dog and by a thug and emerge triumphantly with the letters.

Would the groom actually have called off the marriage if he found out about the letters?

Should Lalitha marry a man who would walkout if he knew that she had written letters to another man before?

These two questions are not asked.  To both questions, the answer is presumed to be YES.  To question this presumption is to fail the test of “Indian culture” that the movie is at pains to teach the hero.

Evidence of Lalitha’s prior affair is never shown to us – it is contained in a set of secret letters, hidden in a secret drawer of a separate house, to be retrieved and destroyed.  In contrast, Santosh’s prior affairs are carried out in broad daylight, atop a cruise liner in full swing, and full knowledge of his father, who talks to him on the phone during such a party and complains only of his son’s selective hearing over the din of the crowd.

Santosh partying

Santosh’s partying with the ladies does not impact his future marital prospects.

His earlier activities with women, clearly not confined to writing letters, not only never raise a question or put his future relationship in jeapordy, but are part of his foreign character which he will now overcome.

Leaving the Altar

Fear of cancellation of marriage after it has been fixed and announced forms a typical plot of Indian cinema – implied is that the jilted bride will then forever be ineligible for marriage, and the taint will spread to other women of her family.   To challenge the notion that one must not, at any cost, risk cancellation, a movie must take feminism and social reform as its theme – for example a movie like Lajja (2001), in which a bride, Maithili (Mahima Chaudhary) walks out of her wedding due to dowry demands; or the “Gandhian” Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), in which the bride, Simran (Diya Mirza) informs her prospective in-laws that her horoscope was falsified.

Sometimes even in the absence of such lofty causes as truth, Gandhi, or anti-dowry, an ordinary rom-com movie like Nuvve Kavali (2000) or Ashta Chamma (2008) accepts the idea that a woman can herself change her mind and call off her engagement.  In Ashta Chamma, although her reason is considered frivolous, when Lavanya (Colors Swathi) calls off her engagement with a “No!” no one questions that the right to decide rests with her.   In Nuvve Kavali, Madhu (Richa Pallod) backs out of her engagement not because of any problem with the groom but simply because she has changed her mind, or perhaps was not really sure in the first place.  Notably, although she decides not to go ahead with the wedding, she does not have an alternate groom settled.  The audience fully expects her to marry the boy next door, but that is not declared either at the time her father agrees to let the groom’s family know the wedding is off, nor by the end of the movie.

(edited January 2013 to add stills from movie)


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