India is a country which is vast, has diverse cultures and is ultimately a potpourri of everything good and bad. Despite the differences, there is one particular subject matter which unites the Indian men- the abject disregard for the women, their health and progress. India is amongst the worst countries when it comes all kinds of gender indices, including trafficking of women. But, within that boiling cauldron of neglect, there is a tiny state called Kerala which tops every gender index, with its seemingly high sensitivity towards gender parity. I have to stress on the word ‘seemingly’ because, Kerala tops in many other fields as well, including the number of obscene posts and cyber crime in India. It also hosts covert sexism and misogyny, starting with the utter inability of women to peacefully use public transportation without their posteriors being groped or brushed against, to slut-shaming, moral policing and dowry.
It is in this scenario that the actress Swetha Menon let her birth of her daughter be filmed by film director Blessy. I am not going to analyze what their motivation might have been or what incentive might have been instrumental in Swetha Menon deciding that she will. However, it is extremely necessary that the intense ramifications of this act be thought of. From the looks of it, from one blogger overtly suggesting it is the same as porn, to others characterizing her as a prostitute who did it just for the money, SM is now the target for a lot of people’s repressed sense of morality.
I call this the Aishwarya Rai Syndrome, where the celebrity, especially the woman, is supposed to play the perfect Indian woman and be the perfect mother. In this Syndrome, the celebrity conforms to the majoritarian (read Hindu) belief system. On screen she is supposed entice the male folk but off screen she has to belong to one man who sets the trajectory of her actions. Anyone who deviates is bad.
Here comes the question of agency and personal liberty. Swetha Menon obviously had no problem in letting someone else see what is only extremely natural and which she felt is something so emotionally beautiful that it shouldn’t be deemed to be something one has to be ashamed of. That is her personal choice. Whether or not to allow it to be shown to the world is also extremely personal. Here, I must actually say kudos to SM’s husband as well. He rose above a typical Keralite man. He also did not hamper her resolve by crying, ‘my woman, hence the womb and vagina are by contract, mine’. Some have called it the new generation of ‘reality TV’. They must really spend more time watching Discovery Channel, NatGeo and The Animal Planet if they feel this is the first time child birth has been recorded alive. Do you think that it is any easier for any other mammal to push a progeny through the birth canal? We don’t see it as reality TV because they can’t scream or shout that they are in pain.
For those of who think that sex does not take place outside the bedroom or away from porn sets and have been crying out for ‘pay her enough to let someone film her having sex’, the studies of Masters and Johnson or the recent MRI of humans during copulation would be a requisite to put their doubts to rest. There are people willing to have sex, not for money, but merely to abet the human curiosity surrounding it. But of course, it is hard to think outside the moral rigidity when you don’t even have enough courage or conviction to question the archaic notions of morality present in our educated society, which is constantly shifting its baseline consistent with the dynamics of the population. The problem is that the dynamics is changing pretty slowly and whoever creates a counter current in that flow is punished. Create enough counter currents and slowly the pattern of the flow changes.
Coming to the allegation that filming of SM’s labour is tantamount to pornography, one has to wonder in which universe the dictionary contains the meaning of pornography as ‘contractions of uterine muscles which result in expansion of the vaginal wall and the pushing out of a full grown foetus’. Pornography is the commercial manifestation of human sexuality, where the primary objective is the vicarious pleasure of the consumer. Unless the consumer has a sadistic fetish for blood, fecal matter, placenta and the tiny genitalia of the newborn, I fail to see how any sane person can equate this with overtly or covertly with pornography. Any person who goes to watch the movie ‘Kalimannu’ just for the sake of watching her give birth is just representing the repressed sexuality and constantly perverted psyche of the archetypal Malayalee man. Those who write and speak against her, assassinating her character and intentions, are those who pose to be progressive but whose conformity is ‘disgusted’ with the transgression of their moral scheme and has to sublimate their disgust. Similarly about SM being a ‘slut’, a ‘whore’ who sold the sanctity of childbirth to the highest bidder; here, the basic issue is that of the V-word. Keralites try to skip that word, hide everything connected to it. Vagina is bad. So, the issue here is that SM was ready to bare her most ‘sacred’ parts of the body to the people filming ‘it’ and the process (that too men) part of which is ultimately meant for the public. Adding to it is the objective of the act; a grey area for the public, which is not educational or purely commercial in its goal. SM’s intention was not simply professional and from the look of it, she also wanted to record her journey. She just had the good fortune of having a professional behind the camera.
In a nation where motherhood is celebrated culturally, socially and religiously while the only effort to make sure the Maternity Mortality Ratio goes down is done through political reforms, programmes and policies, it is understandable that such stigma exists when it comes to childbirth. The ‘down below’ is a sight only for the husband and the doctor. If so, then why are men still pacing about the hospital corridor and not in the labour room in our society? What are they so terrified of? There are cultures all over the world where the husband’s/partner’s presence is a necessity. It provides support and much needed encouragement, not to mention that it is a part of emotional bonding between the parents and the child. In our society, the father is clinically detached from the mother. As an educated society, isn’t it high time Malayalee men gave up the pacing and became pro-active when it came to child birth?
I am grateful that Swetha Menon took this step. Like Khusboo commenting on and supporting pre-marital sex, through her act, SM broke a taboo. A taboo which begins from the day a girl gets her menarche – that one dareth not mention or discuss anything connected to her ‘sacred’ parts. This narrative is rife with hypocrisy since a woman is valued most in a patriarchal society for those parts. This has to be broken. To break it, we need more and more women who come forward and break small, small barriers, whichever way they can. It is quite a personal journey, but personal is always political.