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Thinking Through Gender And Identity

Simone de Beauvior in her book “The Second Sex” says that “one is not born a woman, but becomes one.”

She explains that gender differences are set in a hierarchical position such that men are superior and women are subordinate. Gender here, is an overarching category – a major social status that has emerged out of the social institutions of the society such as economy, ideology, polity, family and so on.

This concept of gender is very well reflected in the 20th century Indian tragic romantic movie “Devdas” directed by Sanjay Leela Bansali. Devdas is a saga of unrequited love revolving around the doomed inter personal relationships between each of the three pivotal characters – Parvati, Devdas, and Chandramukhi – whose love for each other is never mortally realized. The movie is a vivid description of how the society ascribes gender-specific roles to men and women, under the umbrella of patriarchy by putting women under the control of men, where they are supposed to be the holders of family values The first half represents Devdas as a sadist who resorts to erotic domination over Paro in order to organize his masculinity. Devdas is infantilized in private domain by the authority of his aristocratic father. Similarly, in public realm he is emasculated by the manly ‘Englishman’. Hence, it is only through violence upon the ‘Other’ that the powerless colonial subject can salvage and articulate his sense of masculinity and heroism.

Therefore, the character Devdas seems to be most vulnerably gendered within the factions of colonialism, class, caste, social roles. Devdas was sent to London for higher studies by his father. But even his legal training in law could not prepare him to confront his father. However, he seems ineffectual; unable to express his love in the face of paternal opposition and one who himself seems to be a victim of patriarchy. However, the powerless colonial subject who lacks an ability to stand up for his lover against the societal barriers considers his right and control over Paro through his love.

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Gender not only has dooms in it for women, but for men as well by influencing their attitudes, behaviors and belief systems. On the eve of Paro’s marriage, in an iconic sado-masochistic gesture, Devdas strikes Paro, inflicting a scar on her forehead stating it as remembrance of their love (pyaar ki nishaani) further inflicting the ‘desire for control’ within men where women are subsumed to find comfort within their subordination by men (husbands or elderly males). Unfortunately, it is the woman who is always supposed to bear the scars of love by men, as remembrance of their love. Why not men? The answer lies within the boundaries of patriarchy which regard women as upholders of values and tradition.

A.K. Ramanujam identifies action and quest as male narrative elements but defines female elements in terms of sufferings to protect traditional values (marriage). This is vividly reflected in the movie where the male rejected self-destructive lover unable to have union with her beloved (Paro), gets addicted to alcohol, leaves his family, wanders here and there in search of some solace within himself while, in the meantime also gets habituated by the caring and loving nature of the courtesan Chandramukhi. But, the cinematic expressions of the movie leave the audience to sympathize with the male protagonist (who lacked the heroism to stand up for his lover against paternal opposition, and turns into a violent sadist) while the female lovers are left to fit into the societal definitions of a woman whose sufferings seem to be minimally focused in the movie.

Paro, in the later part of the movie, is seen bounded by her worldly marriage and it’s duties which are sincerely performed by her. But her fate causes her to stay virgin, where she is already told by her husband about his unforgettable love for his first wife (who is no more). But, the husband fails to accept his wife Paro’s first love for Devdas and even punishes her by restricting her to stay in the house and to not step out of it, for her lifetime. Therefore, the marriage puts a societal obligation that Parbati cannot escape; yet she largely avoids its entrapment. It is a reflection of the male dominated cage, where women are supposed to stay, leave all her desires, passions, interests, individual agency, sexual agency-all under the control of men, in order to give her consent to their obedience and subordination.

Chandramukhi, as a tawaif, in the movie emerges as a very strong character possessing great levels of independence and assertiveness by having a control on her personal and sexual consent. As Devdas’ film hero even explains it to Chandramukhi, “a woman is a mother, a sister, a wife or a friend; when she is nothing, she is a tawaif.” The movie tries to project an ideal woman as the silent, self-sacrificing married woman, bound to a lifetime of service to her husband and his family, without meeting with other men or construing her own needs; while the bad and the immoral woman was the prostitute, who remained independent maintaining her individual and sexual agency, which is beyond the control of men.

The song-driven narrations in the movie further, seem to contribute to the relationship between the gender constructions of men and women, within the society. The movie set in a backdrop of colonialism and patriarchy, reflects the vulnerability which ‘gender’ brings to men, women and their relationships with each other by caging them into worldly institutions (i.e. family, marriage, etc.). Hence, the public-private dichotomy is central to such implications of gender constructions that not only restrict the thinking and acting ways but also prioritize some over another. Rest its up to us to decide whether to get caught in this gendered trap or to make every bit of an effort to come out of it and rethink ‘what should our belief systems be?’ and ‘what do I believe in?’.

Amarpreet Kaur

2016 fellow, placed with Samarthan in Panna, MP as part of her fellowship. Working on strengthening the e-governance program in the community via a team of community resource persons.

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