‘Honour of the tribe’
Would you watch a film primarily about the ‘honour of the tribe’ and ostensibly about a thirteenth century queen whose response to her husband losing a battle is to commit suicide? To commit ritual suicide as her culture expects and demands of her by leaping into a fire. A queen who sets a flaming example forcing her followers to throw to the winds their reservations about such an act. And why are only the women attempting escape through an act that promises no escape? Not because they’re more fearless, but because they have something men don’t have. They possess the ‘honour of the tribe’ and it nestles in their vaginas and is best safe guarded from marauding conquerors by the suicide of the person possessing it. Or perhaps the person possessed by it.
Would you watch a film about a woman made by a man who makes visually stunning films without any commentary on what they portray? A legendary queen legendarily beautiful dressed up in her Sunday best, jewels sparkling, eyes defiant but moist, dramatically leading all her women into the fire – what a picturesque opportunity. So pretty! Why ruin it by commenting about Sati?
The film maker is a man whose understanding of women’s empowerment echoes that of the average Indian man – it’s unnecessary. Women are decorative incubators of male heirs. They may cook (or if you’re a queen ready to jump into fires at the drop of a sword – supervise the cooking) sumptuous, labour-intensive feasts. If the need arises and they want to commit jauhar (mass woman suicide by burning) they need permission from their husbands. Who apparently grant these permissions thinking – “Let’s all save the vaginas from other men by permitting the owners of these vaginas to die.” Which begs an answer to – what’s more important, the woman or the vagina?
The ridiculous film shot into the limelight with the brouhaha around scenes being cut by the equally enlightened censor board. It might even have begun when they set out to shoot the medieval tale of non-valor. The censor board, in all its wisdom, clamped down on the film for showing a flirtation between the queen (the one with the honourable vagina) and the conqueror. Not because it glorified a banned and abhorrent practice –sati (live widows burnt on their husband’s funeral pyres) and jauhar (all the women leaping into fire). It seems there were also certain measurements with regard to how much of the queen’s midriff should show. Of course, a bare midriff can have a much stronger impact on impressionable minds than the portrayal of sati and jauhar as acceptable practices.
The guardians of the ‘honour of the tribe’ (and well-being supposedly) decided to take the slur to heart. They show more concern about a story (fictional – the film is entertainment, not a documentary) than assaults on actual vaginas, real murder or a shortage of schools for the honourable vaginas they ‘protect’ with such gusto. Taking their drama to stratospheric heights they demanded someone, anyone behead the actor who plays the fictional queen for daring to flirt, even fictionally, with a Muslim conqueror. I guess their prime purpose of vagina protection couldn’t have been served by demanding the head of the male director, whose idea it was to begin with.
Those who support freedom of expression rallied around the director and actor, shaming the ‘head hunters’. After many (boring) twists and turns the film was released (with fewer inches of midriff). Mobs materialized to protect an imaginary queen’s vagina by burning real motorcycles and attacking a school bus.
Meanwhile the women of this picturesque tribe declared that they would burn themselves en masse if the film was released. Why? Perhaps knowing which side their bread is buttered they accept their cultural indoctrination that “honour equals vagina and loss of honour (sex with anyone other than sanctioned tribe members) equals ‘let’s jump into the fire’”. If your life has so little agency perhaps death by jauhar, protecting the ‘honour of the tribe’ is a better alternative than living. Recognising that they could very well carry out their threat (or promise) many a posse of amused police women guarded cinemas expecting decorative gangs of affronted women to immolate themselves.
Do you admire the passion? For what we’re not quite sure. It isn’t about protecting the queen’s honour – she did that herself in the poem written about her in the 15th century. And here we are, embracing all this ‘tradition’ in the 21st century.