Doubting the woman: Paoli Dam in Chatrak
French auteur Jean Luc Godard once quipped, “Cinema doesn’t query the beauty of the woman, it only doubts her heart”. Can we replace ‘Cinema’ with ‘Society’ here? Molly Haskell argued in her ground-breaking From Reverence to Rape: The treatment of women in the Movies (1974)–”Film reflects the ideological and social construction of women who are either revered as the virgin or reviled (as the whore).”
From time immemorial, the patriarchal society marks the meaning and the importance of the female in her association with the male. This lack of identification has been central in the prevalent phallo-centric society which perceives ‘male’ as physically and symbolically dominant over ‘female’. So it never comes as a surprise that a woman who is beautiful, confident and desiring will be trampled aside by an unprepared society.
The entire preamble is with respect to a small video clip which was on youtube for sometime, ripped off the site pretty hastily but ensuring that flocks of people got the chance to treasure it in their personal chest. The clip in question here is from the film Chatrak (Mushroom, 2011) by the Sri-Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara. The clip depicts oral sex between Paoli and her co-star where she as the character is the pleasure seeker instead of being the giver.
There had been a flurry of debates – in the newspapers, on the web, to the extent that at least 5 of my friends who happened to be middle-class educated Bengalis whispered over phone or in real – “Paoli Dam er porno ta dekhechho? Na thakle debo, ache amar kachhe” (in English it means “Have you seen the porno of Paoli Dam? If you don’t have I can give, I have it”). Interestingly the advertent friend-list included members of both the genders. It was rather interesting as to how inexplicably worried they are about the actress, Paoli Dam in this case – “what is she upto? Ruining her image for some Sri-Lankan director?” Few suggested that they are fine if it is in a ‘foren’ movie with ‘gora’ actors in it!
So where does it all fall through? I happened to read one of the crudest interviews of Paoli last week in a leading Bengali daily on this where she was repeatedly asked by the dumb-ass reporter if she considers this as a porno act or not. This is quite funny, if cinema is to entertain and if pornography does entertain a big section of the ‘normal’ populace then who cares?
It is probably the nostalgia-overdosed Bengali psyche which is still trying to find comfort in its sepia slumber – so much so that the realities of life hits hard. Paoli is an intelligent actress, Bengal’s face to world cinema – her range of portrayals is unparallel and beyond question. She is sensible enough to realize that had it been a rape scene of equal or even more exposition of the female body, then also it could have been logically justified (though the physical representation would have still raised issues – remember Seema Biswas in Sekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen); but the Bengali middle-class just cannot digest a naked woman almost demanding sexual pleasure and favour from her partner on screen.
The controversy and explicit nature of the particular scene will ensure that the film will be heavily censored in India – probably the festival circuit will get to see it in full. Hence, the film is successful in creating the necessary hoopla to sail it across – whether this publicity was intended or not still remain doubtful though.
Paoli Dam as an actress will be having the Bengali middle-class eating out of her palms now. She threw them a challenge – ‘you have been fantasizing for so long for my mute body and now I shed off the last thread for you, your fantasies are dampened by the specificity of the bare physical torso’.
The clumsy mind of the society at large should retreat and bow to Paoli, the soul of the ‘woman’ remains as ever – untouched.