There’s a story my mother has narrated countless times, sometimes with a hint of amusement, at other times with flashes of irritation: nearly all the women in my family had fervently hoped she would go into labour only after Holi when she was expecting me. The nurses in the two-storey nursing home she was admitted in joined the chorus of the family’s women elders that if my mother managed to pull through the full moon night of Holi, there was a strong chance that she’d give birth to a son. “I really wanted two daughters. I even thought of rhyming pet names for them,” she tells me, while sternly forbidding me to name my favourite lipstick the leftover sister name which never got used after my younger brother was born.
As the day of the festival progressed, with her stuck in a narrow single bed in a room she shared with another woman in the hospital, my mother felt a deepening sense of dread. Most of the women came and congratulated her on the fact that she had, “bravely”, managed to not go into labour on Holi. “What if I did not have a boy? It was strange because no one seemed to have been bothered by any of this before,” she says. The day after Holi, I was born, a girl. My mother mostly remembers being happy that her pet name artistry was not going to be wasted. “But you should have seen the nurses’ faces. And of some of your folks,” she laughs.
It seemed a strange story to hear at 7, or at 13, or 17, at 20, because there weren’t other instances of me feeling blatantly discriminated against for being a girl in the family.
As a child, my next question would always be, “But why did they love me afterwards?” As I grew older, I would name every person I knew and ask Maa how they reacted, as an epilogue to the story. “Was dadai also sad?” “Did Sonama feel sad?” “Who came to see me? Kaka? Baba?” and the list would extend to my mother’s distant aunts and their children. My mother distractedly answered, and by the time I was 15 years old, I was convinced that except for one uncle, nobody seemed devastated by my birth. Many years later, I realised that my mother often told me the story when I was feeling troubled, or had a hard time with studies or doubted myself. It was supposed to be her underdog story, a happy ending where everyone loves the child they were momentarily not thrilled about having. Now, the only thing that amuses me about the story is how the women — most of them who loved me fiercely and some who laboriously cared for me — even if for a fleeting moment, indicated that they’d rather have a male child.
Ask around, most women — even ones ensconced in all sorts of caste, class privileges and inhabiting a comparatively ‘liberal’ world — will have a tiny story they laugh about, a story about being unwanted, a story they brush off because they want to believe that the love they have experienced from women was unfaltering.
Most women will have a tiny story they laugh about, a story about being unwanted.
Watching Terrie Samundra’s Kaali Khuhi (The Black Well) on Netflix made me think, once again, about some of these questions. Samundra’s film uses the horror genre to talk about women perpetuating patriarchy. The story revolves around a 10-year-old girl called Shivangi who travels to her father’s village with her family after her grandmother is reportedly paralysed by a strange stroke. Once they arrive in the cold, dusty village, there are rumours that a spirit has been killing people in the village and it is under a siege. As the story progresses, it is revealed that the village frequently murdered female infants by throwing them into a well and the ceremonial murder was facilitated by women.
The premise of the film is simple, holding women accountable for perpetuating violent patriarchy. However, instead of delving into the complicated social negotiations that condition some women to fall in line with patriarchy and others to pine for freedom quietly without standing up to it, the film follows a fairly simplistic narrative where the ghost of a girl child is shown avenging her death and attacking the people who did nothing to stop it. The film’s conclusion seems to signal that if women stand up for each other, a lot of lives will be saved.
Kaali Khuhi presents four women as prisms through which one can view patriarchy. The first is Shivangi’s grandmother, referred to as ‘Dadi’, played by Leela Samson. Dadi’s character stands for women who we’d like to think are willing participants in patriarchal violence — she looked away while her baby daughter was taken away to be murdered, she constantly harasses her daughter-in-law about not taking the pills that she believes guarantees a boy child. The second is Satya, played by Shabana Azmi.
Satya belongs to Dadi’s generation, but the storyline indicates that she seemed to have been troubled by the rampant female infanticide in her village and loathed it, though she was made a part of it. The third is Priya, played by Sanjeeda Shaikh, from a generation after Satya’s, who was married to a man from the village and fought against her mother-in-law’s insistence on a grandson. The fourth is Shivangi, a girl child, a result of her mother’s rebellion against patriarchal sanctions on her life, who is unaware of the politics around her existence. The characters, even with their somewhat sketchy backstories, set up the ground for a rewarding exploration of why women perpetrate violence against other women. But the makers of the film prefer to get distracted by some super unbelievable ghost tropes — even by ghost story standards — rather than delve into the conflicts of these women’s lives.
For example, the film opens with the ghost child arriving at Dadi’s doorstep, dripping wet. Dadi tenderly asks the child to take shelter in the house, gently chiding her for being out and about at night, saying her parents must be worried sick that she is out in the rain at night this way. It is later revealed that her own girl child was taken away to be killed shortly after her birth. The film at no point stops to take us through her story, her inner life and the violence simmering under her seemingly gentle appearance.
Azmi, who plays Satya, Samson’s neighbour and relative, is shown to be devastated at the killing of the former’s baby, though she is stoically loyal to Samson’s character, caring for her when she is sick. The story barely dwells on Satya’s character, her backstory and her anxious belief that the dead baby girls will avenge their death.
Priya is shown to be bristling continuously at her mother-in-law and is probably the only character whose motivations seem understandable. Unfortunately, Priya seems like a satellite character with very little bearing on the story of the child. Several times, the film goes back to a single visual of a group of old women passing around a baby, the glow of a lantern lighting up their wrinkled faces, till one of them scoops up a black, possibly poisonous paste to feed the bawling baby. The faces of these older women are stoic, except that of one who demands the child be handed over to them to be killed. While she keeps reappearing in the film, there is no explanation about who she is or why she holds such sway over other women in the village. It is as if the film is begging you to assume the worst about her from the prosthetic make-up, her one damaged eye ball and her dramatic distended-eye stare.
The absence of men — a majority of who perhaps benefit the most from patriarchal social structures — indicates that the film never intended to pick the threads of patriarchal conditioning, intimidation or brainwashing among women.
The loopholes in the plot occasionally makes you feel like the writers gave up on the script midway. One example: all the children are killed as infants. But the ghosts haunting the town for years are young girls around 8-10 years old. Unless the black well was bubbling with some sort of ghost Olay which made the dead babies grow into dainty little ghost girls, it’s really confusing for the viewer to join the scattered dots in the film.
There aren’t many men in the movie. Besides one man who gives the ghost child a ride on his bicycle, the only other prominent male character is that of Darshan, Shivangi’s father played by Satyadeep Mishra. Mishra is implicated as a perpetrator of violence in the film’s plot though it is indicated that he was only five when his sister was murdered. Again, Mishra’s character is lazily written, making it impossible to understand what he stands for. The absence of men — a majority of who perhaps benefit the most from patriarchal social structures — indicates that the film never intended to pick the threads of patriarchal conditioning, intimidation or brainwashing among women.
Kali Khuhi’s almost ambiguous stand on misogynistic women reminded me of how male villains in Bollywood have traditionally been attributed a plethora of evil talents — they are gangsters, thieves, murderers, terrorists and likewise. However, through the 70s, especially, and the 80s and 90s, female ‘villains’ were mostly conniving women who were out to destroy the lives and happiness of other women. Be it mothers-in-law trying to suppress spunky daughters-in-law (roles often played by Shasikala and Lalita Pawar), or ‘vamps’ trying to seduce and ‘steal’ the virtuous woman’s lover, or sisters-in-law trying to wreak havoc in their brothers’ families, or mothers coldly defending rapist sons (Damini), a woman’s villainy has mostly been directed at another woman in Bollywood films. While such cut-and-dry portrayals perhaps worked in potboilers of that time, in a film with the tone and styling of Kaali Khuhi, one expected its makers to try unravelling the complicated processes that turn so many women into agents of patriarchy. Instead, it seems to be satisfied with a women-can-be-women’s-worst-enemy sort of fantasy.