*This review contains spoilers.
Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi in the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Dastaans made for a compelling and poignant watch. The film successfully portrayed two complex and multi-dimensional female characters, played by Konkona Sen Sharma as Kavita and Aditi Rao Hydari as Priya. Both the characters are fleshed out with their own inner worlds, which created a very believable and at the same time, unforgettable screen chemistry.
Suffusing both the female characters not only with a layered homo-erotic friendship, but also daring to spell out their caste identities (with Sen Sharma playing a Dalit and Hydari, a conservative Brahmin), indicates both the corporeal and emotional contours of their friendship as well as the boundaries they dare to cross.
Their transgressions around food, spaces and bodies forming a sombre ballad of power and privilege, purity and pollution. Whether it is Priya feeding Kavita her own tiffin, or her tasting the chicken that Kavita cooked (a taboo in the family of her in-laws) with gusto, the wet kisses they share or Kavita’s home that becomes a space for sexual encounters between Priya and her husband: each scenes is latent with the suggestion of these transgression, even until the end scene when Kavita commits the darkest transgression of all.
The caste and sexuality angle of the film postulate some necessary questions for us all, when even as modern members of society, we continue to consume, reproduce and reinterpret old hierarchies and traditional caste distinctions. But beyond how the film portrays the claustrophobia of such oppressive social relations, it is also incredible how the film lays out the meta-narrative of women in the workplace and aspirations of working women. And it is that aspect of the story that I wanted to highlight here.
Women at the Workplace
Aspirations form the leitmotif of both Kavita and Priya’s life. While for the former, her identity as a Dalit and her presentation of an atypical female (as she alleges to her colleague at one point) ends up being her roadblock, the latter wants to escape the constraints of her uber conservation home. The factory becomes the focal point of their aspirations in life, and work: the ultimate liberator. This is where their worlds concur, with Priya seeking out Kavita precisely because she is the only other woman at the factory.
While Kavita seems to fit in seamlessly in her workplace, the workplace is still hostile to her. On the other hand, Priya is portrayed more as a fish out of water, yet the workplace for her is a warm and full of paternal affection from her bosses and reverence from the factory workers.
The intersectionality of women’s oppression
Though Kavita and Priya, being the only two women in their factory seemingly inhabit the same space, it is clear that the way in which these spaces themselves accommodate them, is completely different. This intersectionality in experiences is also multi-layered in the film, where along with caste, there are also strong notes of class distinction and distinction in the gender performances related to their identities: with Priya presenting as a conventionally feminine women while Kavita presenting a more non-binary gender identity.
“All inequality is not created equal,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the terms ‘intersectional feminism’ has re-iterated time and again. We, with our multiple identities are at the receiving end of often overlapping discriminations, which compound the level of inequalities that we experience. This is often true at the workplaces, where oppressed caste women would often go on to suffer more discrimination and systematic oppression than dominant caste women. As the adage goes, we are all in the same storm but we are not in the same boat.
The role of the dominant caste woman in aiding and abetting caste hierarchies is subtly raised in this piece, where the person at the receiving end of privilege because of their caste location, doesn’t even question why. Priya accepts that she got the job because she comes armed with some tricks from her panditain book, like palmistry. She doesn’t pause to question why Kavita, who is so good at accounting, is not even considered for the job. These occurrences are taken at face value: as eventualities to be accepted out of one’s caste location, rather than injustices to be addressed.
There is not enough room at the top?
In the end, the two women are left vying for the same spot. And maybe as audiences, we end up picking sides. But it is this very fight that exposes the grimness of this patriarchal system: where a tiny bit of sky appears to be all women are entitled to. Not just that, we have to fight each other for it.
I had to re-watch the scene where Priya beseeches Kavita to visit her in her office, where they could pretend to have a world of their own, without men. Indeed, in that hypothetical world, they would probably not have to fight each other for the seemingly only spot that could accommodate them. This is after-all the problem with selective tokenism, without any structural changes.
On the surface, Priya’s experience in her workplace is very positive, including the construction of a toilet for women specifically due to her needs, and the boss being very accommodating and understanding when it comes to her pregnancy and maternity leave. But this is just her experience that cannot be generalised for the other woman in the workspace.
The failure of tokenism
Tokenism such as this not only ensures that the token becomes the stand in to represent everyone else in their community, but they also become the target of society’s (in this case, the audience’s) scrutiny and judgement. There is pressure for them to justify being the chosen one by out-performing and ultimately legitimizing themselves as worthy.
Priya is symbolically punished in the end for being a token too. Ultimately, even if she was very good at her job or outperformed everyone at the office, she might have had to leave work anyways due to her family. Though the story has Kavita orchestrating the final blow, it is only a catalyst for realising facts which are already ingrained in the system: that women often have to compromise between career and family.
As Mary Frank Fox and Sharlene Hesse-Biber point out in Women at Work (1984) “Improvement in female occupational status is more than change in the behaviour of individual women—or even of men. It involves instead alterations and adjustments in the behaviour and operation of each of each of society’s basic institutions- its family, schools and colleges, employers and unions, laws and political institutions.”
Ultimately, though Kavita metaphorically pulls the final trigger, she is only a bit player in the larger scheme of things. We might read the final act as an assertion of her power over Priya, but this is after all only illusory in the larger nexus of power and privilege at play.
Women are not women’s worst enemies. We are just left clambering for a very narrow sliver of the cake : fighting for rights and resources which the system convinces us is limited, or very out of reach. Unless we can knock another woman and replace their spot. Having said that, let us all check our privileges anyway.