Draw the body line

Poulomi Das | Updated on February 15, 2019 Published on February 15, 2019

Flip a coin: In a contrast to Alia Bhatt’s Safeena in Gully Boy, Sanya Malhotra’s (right) Miloni in Photograph offers a beguiling perspective on the Indian woman’s lack of control over her own body   -  REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE; PRASHANT WAYDANDE

What purpose do female bodies serve? Films at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival look for answers

“One of the most challenging misconceptions that thwarts film-makers from being able to portray female desire in a way that is seeped in authenticity is that female bodies are still supposed to be objects.” Swedish erotic film director Erika Lust’s criticism stems from the omnipresence of the female body in cinema of the big screen: The female body is a routine, indispensable — and, at times, altogether passive — fixture. But an intriguing question perennially stems from witnessing the myriad movements of these bodies: What purpose do they really serve?

At the 69th Berlin International Film Festival (February 7-17), a host of films took it upon themselves to answer the question. In Chinese auteur Wang Quan’an’s Öndög, the discovery of a naked female body in a Mongolian steppe opens the film. Even though her nakedness implies assault, the story never gets around to confirming whether she was indeed brutalised. All that is conveyed to the audience is that a spurned lover is responsible for killing her, minutes before her death is relegated to the periphery of the proceedings. The director’s indifferent gaze, which treats her merely as a corpse who doesn’t need a thorough justification, echoes Lust’s critique of the accepted passivity of the female body.

Far-removed from the ambition and visual imagery of Öndög, American indie director Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen shares a similar gaze. In a fleeting scene, Jo (Norma Kuhling), the attractive and dysfunctional lead, sleeps on her bed wearing a worn-out t-shirt and underwear — her behind arched in a sexually suggestive way as the camera observes her. The inclusion of these two scenes aren’t just a coincidence; it’s long been a pattern that is embedded in our visual culture. In the words of scholar and film-maker Laura Mulvey, who posited the concept of “masculine voyeurism” in her 1975 essayVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, these two women are invariably characterised by their “to-be-looked-at-ness”. What is worth noting is the proliferation of this gaze — not only limited to an American film or one genre of film-making — that relegates a female body to a “spectacle”.

Countering these two films is the German filmBefore We Grow Old, in which director Thomas Moritz Helm distils a degree of fluidity and instrumentality in the female body. The story revolves around Maria (Paula Knüpling) and Neils (Maximilian Hildebrandt), a sexually adventurous young German couple who embark on a love affair with Chloe (Tala Gouvei), a British exchange student. In the beginning, Chloe starts off a physically charged relationship only with Maria — before getting assimilated in Maria’s relationship — who, in turn, hides the fact from her boyfriend that she is sleeping around with Chloe.

With Chloe, Maria — otherwise assertive of her needs in bed — rediscovers a part of her desire that isn’t predetermined: Maria persistently courts Chloe and refuses to keep her hands off her even in the proximity of her boyfriend. Later, when her boyfriend discovers Maria passionately kissing Chloe on the boardwalk outside their home and confronts her, Maria chooses to not display guilt for “wanting to have Chloe only for her”. By envisioning her character as someone who is suddenly unable to rationalise the consequences of her desire before acting on it, Helm depicts female desire as both, a choice and a need in Before We Grow Old.

Moreover, when Chloe gets pregnant, Helm uses her condition to highlight how men casually tend to override a woman’s being because their womb possesses one half of their genes. In the film, Neils puts himself in charge for zeroing on the best way for Chloe to abort the child — he decides on an invasive surgery, even though Chloe just wants to take abortion pills. With these scenes, the director doesn’t just use Chloe and Maria’s bodies to detect the cracks in a three-way-love affair that is still too evolved for our insecurities, but also mines it to distil the fundamental symbolism of sexual emancipation.

Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy however, disappoints when it comes to interpreting the language of female desire. Akhtar exploits its lead Safeena’s (Alia Bhatt) desire to drive home a performative brand of resistance that exists without either a revolution or resolution. On the other hand, Ritesh Batra’s Photograph offers a strikingly beguiling and contrasting perspective of an Indian woman’s lack of control over her body. Through Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a meek girl raised in a secluded cocoon of upper-class privilege in a Gujarati household, Batra exploits the female body to critique the country’s societal ills.

At their affluent home, Miloni’s parents wear chappals to distinguish their superiority from their full-time maid, who runs around the house barefoot but Miloni chooses not to. Even then, there exists a social distance between both of them. Around Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the lower-class photographer she strikes up a friendship with, Miloni is at her most alive and yet she’s handicapped to express herself physically because she has never had to cross that bridge. The one time she touches Rafi’s hand, it’s laced with awkwardness and hesitation — emotions that are a product of the social stratification that is a reality of a country like India.

At the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, the female body gets to go its own way to tease the templates of its existence.

Poulomi Das is a film and pop culture writer based in Mumbai

Published on February 15, 2019
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