“Live for yourself.”
A startling rallying cry. We are told to live for our families, children, lovers, to dedicate our lives to finding a man, to having it all, where all refers to serving the forces of capitalism, the patriarchy, society. Live for yourself. You are valuable, you are enough.
The movie opens with a dedication, to all the women fighting, “whose stories are waiting to be told.” And women are front and center in this movie, women of all types, backgrounds, positions. This is a women’s movie not because it’s a “rom com” or the women wear pink, but because it looks at their lives, struggles, hopes, dreams. The women are the default characters, the POV characters. They live for themselves.
The first scenes show women being victimized, a girl who wants to study, a woman abused by her husband and in-laws. But other women are the saviors, too. The abused women prepares to jump off a bridge, when two women call to her from a vote. “Why should I live?” she asks. “Live for yourself,” they reply.
And the movie doesn’t shy away from showing those forces: the male characters are generally unappealing, violent, cruel, interchangeable. The women more likely to have actual personalities and characteristics, they build and accomplish.
Men, as a whole, are an enemy of sort, but the true antagonist of the film is another woman, one who represents the systems of oppression: a politician.
Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit), the leader of the Gulaab Gang, runs a community of women and children (and some men). All of the children receive education. Everyone participates in some way, such as weaving cloth to sell. The community is idealistic, but realistic, using violence to solve problems. Sumitra (Juhi Chawla) is the politician. Her skill and ambition are admiral, but she works within a masculine system, using masculine tactics such as bribery.
Sumitra wants to work together with Rajjo, since the community respects her. But Rajjo will not compromise. Sumitra’s promises are empty.
Yet Rajjo uses masculine tactics, too: she is violent, dressing in army and using sickles and axes to hurt and kill. I found it distasteful and I had to ask myself: Is it because Rajjo is female? Because I, subconsciously, think women should be peaceful, finding ways to compromise and use non-violence? Yes.
Can non-violence answer and change violence? Maybe. Sometimes. Occasionally. Gandhi preached non-violence. Rajjo’s community mimics Gandhi’s ideals, being self-sufficient and simple. However, one could argue that most of woman’s life is spent in non-violence, in being silent, obedient, and passive. This doesn’t win her freedom or equality. And in the film, at least, Rajjo and her followers do try to talk and work things out before taking action. How many movies show men doing the same? Rajjo’s complexity as a character is in her actions. One must wrestle with the ethics and morality of her violence; there is always a counterargument to be made.
Likewise, it feels hypocritical to condemn Sumitra but praise Rajjo. However, a central conflict in many Bollywood movies is the search justice, that one cannot find justice through the official channels. Rajjo lives in violent world and so responds with violence. Yet she tries to change the system too, such as by offering education to girls. Sumitra also responds to a corrupt system with corruption, but doesn’t seem to take action to really change anything. And she uses violence too, not for justice, but to cause fear and cower her enemies.
Regardless, both women face the same consequences of the system: both are ultimately imprisoned. But Rajjo continues her work, teaching other women in prison, while other women continue teaching and leading her community.
As a bookend to the beginning of the film, a series of portraits and biographies of women who have suffered, and a call for change run over the credits.
The movie is violent, including rape and murder. One woman is murdered by her boyfriend, after proposing to him. I was genuinely upset. Mahie was an amazing character, and her boyfriend seemed to be, as we say these days, “woke.” For a moment, my breath caught. Was the movie suggesting no man could be trusted, putting me in mind of radical 1970s feminism — essentially suggesting to rebuke men and only love women. We can’t trust them, no matter what.
Rather, we are all caught within systems of oppression. The consequences of those systems are brutal, violence, deadly. We can build communities, but we cannot necessarily trust someone just because they are. . . a woman, a lover, a friend, a politician, a person. But we can live for ourselves.
Note: The Gulabi Gang is an actual activist group in India, founded by Data Satbodh Sain. The group was created in response to abuse and violence against women in northern India. The movie uses the name and pink saris, but is not otherwise about the “real” Gulabi Gang.