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Modern Love Mumbai: A flyover of feminism – The Leaflet

The episode Raat Rani from the six-part Amazon Prime web series, ‘Modern Love: Mumbai’, an adaptation of the New York Times column, displays the nuances of self-love imbibed by Lalzari, from a feminist lens in Shonali Bose’s handcrafted directorial.

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SET in the enchanting city of Mumbai, Raat Rani depicts the journey of Lalzari (Fatima Sana Shaikh), from suffering the woes of her husband’s desertion to actualizing self-love with the help of nothing but an old bicycle. The story finds its inspiration in the New York Times column of ‘Modern Love’, titled The Bike That Saved My Life.

Lalzari, a Kashmiri native, along with her now-husband, Lutfi (Bhupendra Jadawat), who belongs to a lower caste, had eloped due to familial disapproval. Sheltered in a kholi (one-room cottage) in the slums of Mumbai, the couple is employed as a cook and security guard respectively, at an upscale apartment in the suburbs of the city. However, in the untoward escapade of Lutfi deserting her, Lalzari’s experiences as an individual, a woman, and a minuscule part of the enormous working labour class have been delicately woven into the story written by Nilesh Maniyar, whilst also assigning Mumbai its own character.

Nuanced feminism

Simply put, feminism is an ideology; and visibly not a very simple one to understand and practice. What most people fail to understand is that advocating for gender parity and women empowerment is NOT equal to stepping on or putting the socially advantaged male sex down. Gender has no bearing on the ideology of feminism, contrary to mainstream belief.

Similarly, patriarchy as a notion is not gendered either. A woman could devoutly believe and preach her longstanding patriarchal beliefs despite having remained at the receiving end all along, while a man can carefully curate and adopt a feminist approach to abide by for himself. A textbook example of this is visible in the feminist intricacies of the script for Raat Rani developed by a man.

Advocating for gender parity and women empowerment is not equal to stepping on or putting the socially advantaged male sex down. Gender has no bearing on the ideology of feminism.

Further, using the Bandra-Worli Sea Link as a metaphor, the script epitomizes Lalzari’s longing for being her own person in a world full of mandates which disallow two-wheelers, going to university, stepping out at night, falling in love, especially outside one’s community; and when the male partner leaves, women are strictly not allowed to be happy, conforming to the stereotypical social image of an abla naari (helpless woman).

The beautiful closing shot of the short film ends with Lalzari riding her old bicycle on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link as depicted through an artistic lens, asking a rather mandatory question- “Aur kya kya not allowed hai?” (what else isn’t allowed?). While this comes across as the primary theme, each frame of this mindfully curated cinematographic masterpiece is a benefaction to the multifaceted short film that pronounces the worth of self-love within the broad scope of feminist ideology.

Also read: Gangubai Kathiawadi: from the feminist lens of Katharine Bartlett

A cook first, wife next

An interesting parallel can be drawn between the frenzy in Lalzari’s life to that of her employer Ray’s clients (she is a lawyer). Both marriages are on the brink of divorce. Both couples are individually in distress. However, only one of those couples is allowed to use their failing marriage as an excuse to pause life. As one can rightly guess, Ray’s clients, a wealthy Gujarati couple, who seemingly have a property on the moon as well, are at liberty to devote all their time to the imminent divorce by simply pushing the pause button on other crucial matters of life. But the same isn’t the case for Lalzari.   Her identity is that of a working woman first and the rest later.

The refined depiction of her hysteria upon finding that her husband had deserted her one fine morning, leaving nothing but a note pressed under the carrier of his old bicycle was outshined by her only concern at that moment, which was – how would she get to work? While she kept muttering curses under her breath all along the bicycle ride, which involved her peddling a long distance, including ascending and descending a flyover, her aim to reach her place of work was laser-focused. This harsh reality depicted in the film was not just sad to watch, but also a bitter pill to swallow.

Empathy, deep emotions, collectivism and complacence are affiliated with ‘feminine values’ while individualistic behaviour, practicality and shallow emotions are oriented as ‘masculine values’

This nature of a Marxian nuance in the film fluidly ties into Russian revolutionary, politician, diplomat, and Marxist theoretician Alexandra Kollontai’s writing from 1916- Working Woman and Mother. In the said piece, she unapologetically highlights the stark difference in treatment between the bourgeoisie factory director’s wife, Mashenka, and the proletariat Mashenka, employed in the roles of the maid, laundress, and dye-worker in the former’s household. The narrative revolves around women who are pregnant yet are subjected to differential treatment solely based on the class they belong to. While the factory director’s wife Mashenka is allowed the liberty to rest, eat to her liking,  and be taken utmost care of, under the same roof, Mashenka, the laundress has no option but to work her job till the ninth month, in order to afford the impending expenses. It is only imaginable how wide the chasm of disparity would be upon childbirth. This kind of a hand-to-mouth situation was not uncommon in the life of Lalzari either, as she saved and utilized her rainy-day funds to build the kholi she lived in, while her husband spent the rest on purchasing a scooter, making their financial standing severely grim. 

Being a woman

Emerged from the work of American psychologist and ethicist Carol Gilligan – ‘In a Different Voice’ – the theory of Ethics of Care seems to assign gendered values to the perception of morals. That is, empathy, deep emotions, collectivism, and complacence are affiliated with ‘feminine values’ while individualistic behaviour, practicality, and shallow emotions are oriented as ‘masculine values’; this need not necessarily be watertight. Lalzari’s profound emotions of hopelessness as a dumped wife are loud, yet her concern about Lutfi’s meals emanates from her ‘ethic of care’ towards him, as her intrinsic duty of being a woman; while his only concern is to be the mard (chauvinistic man). The film showcases her despair in one transient frame where she nearly attempts to jump over the flyover but is fatefully restrained when her dress gets stuck on the handlebar of the bicycle.

Although female subjugation might not be synonymous with or an implicit aspect of patriarchy, it is also not completely avoidable. Lutfi, skillfully essayed by Jadawat, is a deeply patriarchal character, which only further enhances the on-screen brilliance of Shaikh as Lalzari, making the audience appreciate the subtle yet impactful nuances of feminism delivered through the film.

Lutfi drops hints of his authoritarian nature when he threatens to abandon Lalzari on the street in return for her request to indulge in a light-hearted puerile dance. However, his inherently patriarchal nature comes to life when he is threatened by the idea that Lalzari is not a complete mess upon his exit, and that she might actually be seeing someone else. When his attempts at keeping the door open for himself are shot down by Lalzari’s displeasure with him desiring to come and go as he pleases, he explores the idea of quitting for good. “Talaq, talaq, talaq (divorce)”, says Lalzari in a mischievous manner, to which Lutfi shrewdly replies, “Saying that won’t make you a man”, firmly indicating that he is the husband here, and not the traditional kind.

A law can be interpreted in a myriad ways – textual, purposive and intentionalist, to name a few; but sticking to one manner of interpretation for convenience is against the essence of a humanitarian ‘rule of law’, since all children are viewed alike in the eyes of the Supreme.

The world in this regard is not alien to the repressive mainstream portrayal of Muslim women. However, Iranian legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini argues for a clear distinction between the law (Sharia) and its interpretation to help support women in Islam today. She stresses a new discourse that separates religion (the law) which is static, from religious thinking (its interpretation), which is subjective. Her aim is to use the same very religious text in a reinterpretation to achieve gender parity in evolving times. A law can be interpreted in a myriad ways – textual, purposive and intentionalist, to name a few; but sticking to one manner of interpretation for convenience is against the essence of a humanitarian ‘rule of law’ since all children are viewed alike in the eyes of the Supreme.

All of Lutfi’s desperate and vile attempts at imposing upon Lalzari in the capacity of her husband seem to crumble against her actualized forward-thinking, as a potential product of the aforementioned feminist belief. In fact, she maturely credits him for deserting her, in turn making her realize the significance of self-love and dignity. Regardless of his phony words, Lalzari’s determination to value herself and her self-respect by cordially ending their relationship is unperturbed. “Lutfi, tu late ho gaya” (Lutfi, you’re too late), are her parting words that set her free from the closed boxes of patriarchal control, allowing her to breathe in the calm air of liberation.

Also read: Women and the forefront: The Leaflet’s attempt to unravel the reality

Flyover of self-love

The simple yet powerful writing of this short film is evident from the portrayal of a flyover bridge as a metaphor for self-actualization. Several days into Lalzari’s struggle of peddling the old and predominantly male bicycle over the bridge after Lutfi’s exit, it seemed to get slightly cumbersome and hectic, until the day she effortlessly ascended the flyover without even realizing it. And her only companion through it all was her rugged bicycle; which is also a testament to her dedication, as she starts off wobbly and helpless but by the end, transforms into an effortless cyclist. The description of the scene does not do justice to the supreme acting prowess displayed by Shaikh, equipped in artistically translating the precise emotions from actor to audience. The way her eyes light up, the way she tightly hugs her bicycle companion, the little juvenile dance she breaks into atop the bridge, leave the audience with a warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment within themselves. Personally, her relentless and untiring pursuit not only inspires but also sheds light on her progression of self-actualization.

Like her failing fate, Lalzari returned home to a caved roof one evening. As quoted by the local contractor, fixing the roof would have burnt a hole worth Rs. 20,000 in her pocket. In the adrenaline of emotions, some part of her wanted to believe that her estranged husband would come back, which made her want to fix the tattered roof. But once her sensibilities regained control, she knew that sparing that kind of money was like her owning a property on the moon, next to the wealthy Gujarati couple; impossible. Unfortunately, she had no option but to make do with stopgap arrangements in the form of a tarpaulin sheet. However, the sheer testament to her progression of self-actualization lies in her earnest and ardent desire to mend the dilapidated roof just for herself, come what may. While finance was certainly a primary concern, it was never an obstacle.

Several judicial precedents and statutes like Section 6 of the Code on Wages, 2019 and Article 43 of the Constitution, emphasise on the significance of a minimum wage, especially with respect to unorganized labour.

In a country like India that employs its workforce largely in the unorganized sector, the labour laws aren’t the best bet to safeguard their interests. Circumstances as such, invoke the requirement for reforms like minimum and fair wages. Minimum wages provide a bare subsistence at the poverty line to cover an individual’s basic necessities for survival, which “must be paid in any event, irrespective of the extent of profits, the financial condition or availability of workmen. [It] is independent of the kind of industry and applies to all alike big or small”.

While a fair wage is an amount higher than the minimum wage, which assures a little more dignity and leisure, it includes a wage, “sufficiently high to provide a standard family with food, shelter, clothing, medical care and education of children appropriate for the workmen but not at a rate exceeding his wage-earning capacity in the class of establishment to which he belongs”. Several judicial precedents and statutes like Section 6 of the Code on Wages, 2019 and Article 43 of the Constitution, emphasise the significance of a minimum wage, especially with respect to unorganized labour.

Also read: The ‘gender wage gap’ | Part II: What the law has to say

Unfortunately, sparing a large sum at once despite the above provisions can often offer a critical blow to the monthly finances of an unorganized labourer as Lalzari. As a result, she took it upon herself to go an extra mile for the extra cash, by selling kahwa (Kashmiri tea) on the streets of Mumbai, post her daily hours of work. “The sun and the moon take turns to shine” is a beautiful articulation by the writer of the film who tactfully designed Lalzari’s character vending kahwa under the brand name of Raat Rani (night-blooming jasmine), which also happens to be the title of the film. The connotation of the title also gives into the legend behind Raat Rani’s unconquerable mystique, which often lures snakes out of their hiding; to curb which, absurdly, people often plant a day-blooming jasmine or Din ka Raja next to it.

Ten Sundays, uncountable Kahwas and unabated struggles later, Lalzari managed to build the Taj Mahal of her dreams, for herself and no one else.

It is rare to come across a film of such simplicity yet coherence that forces the audience to ponder hard and deep. Raat Rani is one such film. The sheer panache presented to the audience through the writing, direction, cinematography, and the stellar performances: this episode of the six-part Amazon Prime web series, ‘Modern Love: Mumbai’ is an absolute delight. All this, coupled with the sagacity of Mumbai through evergreen cinematic shots of the Bandra Worli Sea Link, the Arabian Sea, and the slums of Mumbai, among many, offer, by virtue of this film, a treat to the eyes. Although the nuances of feminism didn’t scream out loud and in-the-face as against other mainstream media, subtlety seemed to work the charm. As they say in more ways than one, less is more. “Maine flyover cross kar liya” (I crossed the flyover), this one metaphorical sentence conveyed more than many books have.

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