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Violence and misogyny: patriarchal rhetoric in Devdas.

Initial reactions to Devdas usually focus on the spectacle of the recent film--the lavish sets, the stunning costumes. While the spectacle is certainly exhilarating, I found myself disturbed by the attitudes toward and treatment of women in the film. I believe the rhetoric of Devdas with respect to the women in the movie is characterized by misogyny and violence. The patriarchal rhetoric condones verbal and physical violence against women and defines them strictly by their relationships with men.

In his relationship with Paro, Dev constantly asserts his control and ownership over her. In their first scene together, Dev kills a fly that has been pestering Paro. He says jealously, "thumbe aur koi chuye, mujhe achha nahi lagta" (I don't like it if someone else touches you). While his vehemence is absurd in relation to the insect, it clearly illustrates his sense of ownership over her: Paro belongs to him, and no one else is allowed access to her. Rather than identifying Dev's sentiment as obsessive and overly-controlling, the films asks us to accept it as appropriate to their romantic relationship.

Dev's subsequent expressions of control and violence toward Paro are similarly condoned, and even eroticized, in the film. One song sequence in particular contains several examples of the violence inherent in Dev's and Paro's relationship. At one point, Dev forcefully flings a deck of cards ,in Paro's face in a mock slap. At another moment, he grabs her by the hair and pulls her towards him. Later, with the pretext of putting a bangle on her wrist, he seizes Paro's arm and twists it behind her back. Such actions--grabbing the woman's hair, gripping her wrist tightly so that her glass bangle breaks and pierces her skin, twisting her arm behind her back--are common in Hindi films, in which sexual desire becomes coded as physical domination by the man. Thus, Dev's actions are not recognized as inappropriately violent, but instead eroticized and normalized.

I found another disturbing example of Dev's violence in his meeting with Paro just before her wedding. Hurt by her intention to proceed with the wedding, he comments, "itna ghuroor to chand ko bhi nahi" (Even the moon does not possess such pride). "Kaisa rehta," Paro responds, "us chand par daag jo hai" (How can it, since it actually has scars?) With an eerily blank expression, Dev takes a heavy necklace that Paro has been holding in her hand and casually strikes her on the head with it. She bleeds profusely from the wound, and Dev smears the blood into her hair as "sindhoor."

Thus the mark of his violence becomes the emblem of his possession of her. Rather than rejecting Dev for his inexplicable violence, Paro takes pride in being marked as "his." She sings, "Jo daag tumne diya, usse mera chebra khila. Sajaake rakhoongi, yeh nishaani pyaar ka" (My face has blossomed with the scar you have given. I will adorn this mark of love). The scar is visible on her forehead for the remainder of the film, a visual reminder of Dev's ownership of Paro. Thus the film leads us to believe that such violence is an acceptable expression of erotic love.

If Dev's relationship with Paro is characterized by physical violence, his relationship with Chandramukhi is dominated by his verbal assaults on her. The film's misogyny finds full expression in the insults Dev directs toward Chandramukhi. Within seconds of meeting her, Dev says he finds it amusing that "bazaar ki aurat nazar na lagna ki tika lagaati hai, jab wo chahti hai ki sabki nazar us pe tikki rahe" (a prostitute puts on a beauty spot to ward off the evil eye, when in fact she wants everyone's eyes on her). He constantly chastises her for being "besharm" (shameless).

He never misses an opportunity to remind her that he considers her cheapened, that she is a woman who is paid for sex. Even when she rescues him after he has passed out on the street, he cannot deign to thank her. Instead, he remarks with scornful irony, "ek tawaif ne mujhe raaste se uttha kar le aayi" (a prostitute has picked me up off the street). He insults her kindness and affection by offering her money for her "services." Because Chandramukhi is a courtesan, Dev does not believe her to be capable or worthy of human emotion. When she speaks of her affection for him, he says dismissively, "ek tawaif ishq ki baat sikhaegi" (a prostitute will teach me about love?).

In a speech that sums up the film's misogyny, Dev tells Chandramukhi, "aurat ma hoti hai, behen hoti hai, patni aur beti hoti hai. Jab wo kuch nahi hoti, to tawaif hoti hai" (a woman is mother, sister, wife, or daughter. If she is none of these things, she is a prostitute). He articulates the film's androcentric ideology that defines a woman strictly by her relationships with men. If a woman does not have a socially sanctioned relationship with a man (as daughter, wife, mother), she has no worth or identity. Dev insults and judges Chandramukhi as a fallen, characterless woman because her identity and sexuality are not circumscribed within matrimony or maternity. Devdas exclaims, "nafrat karta hoon, nahin dekh sakta main aurat ka ye roop" (I hate, I cannot bear to look at this type of woman).

Chandramukhi's lack of protest against Dev's insults and her loyal devotion to him serve to guide our own response to his attitude. Rather than criticize his chauvinism, we are actually meant to share his view. Similarly, Paro's compliance to Dev's physical violence illustrates the film's acceptance of his behavior. By not rejecting or even questioning Dev's violent behavior and his misogyny, the film promotes a patriarchal rhetoric that subordinates women and normalizes violence against them.

Shanti Wesley is an Ashiana Coordinator and Counselor at Manavi.
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Title Annotation:motion picture
Author:Wesley, Shanti
Publication:Manavi Newsletter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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