To watch Katherine Hepburn inSummertime (1955) is to have a dream-undream realised. There is the simple pleasure of watching her arrive in Venice – alone (unless you count her camera-companion), in love with the idea of being on her own, and worrying that she won’t like the city.
Sitting next to a man on the train, she asks him, even if her attention at this point is really on the city unfurling outside the window –‘Do you think I will like Venice?’
She follows the porter carrying her luggage out of the railway station with the briskness of a free woman chasing her dreams, with the stubbornness of Rani in Queen who wouldn’t let go of her bag.
She is not going to let anybody ruin this for her, not even herself. Even so, despite the joy she brings to her face, and ours – when she swallows the city with her eyes, she is also sincerely vulnerable in the way we are when we find ourselves companion-less in strange cities. No matter how much we have longed to be there, how much we have fought to finally be on our own, sometimes the silence of empty chairs next to us is too loud.
When I was 25, I took myself to Goa – alone. It was better than I thought it’d be. I was happy: I ate, I drank, I read and wrote, I watched Magadheera in Hindi on Sony Max. Everything was great – except on the last day at lunch, when the only other occupied table next to mine, paid their bill and left – I felt so abandoned that I began to cry.
I couldn’t understand it. They were total strangers and I was perfectly alright the next moment and before it but I still blame them for leaving me alone when I was still only half- done with my prawns.
I should have known then that Katherine Hepburn had a solution. Hepburn’s Jane Hudson deals with the silence of an empty chair as if it were not an empty chair – but an ‘extra’ chair. She puts it to sleep by making it lean on the table uselessly. This may have been done out of desperation to not feel alone, yes. Still, what we see is a woman fiercely straddling between alone-ness and companionship – not knowing how to ask for either.
One particularly lonely afternoon, she finds the courage to ask a young married couple if she could join them for drinks – the man declines. She’s heartbroken but takes herself out to lunch where she sees this couple strolling with another couple. At this point, she puts the ‘extra’ chair next to her asleep.
When the man who has been waiting to woo her shows up, she is happy but he sees the sleeping chair, thinks maybe she wants to be left alone, and excuses himself. Hepburn’s hand reaches out to stop him but it’s too late. She can’t reach him and neither can her hand. When she breaks down, we are humiliated on her behalf. But we don’t know if she is.
Two is good number, she says somewhere else in the film. But when she becomes two, she just wants to be one again.
Why? Because despite it all, and despite herself – she is the first to say ‘I love you’ to him, after resisting-letting go-resisting his kisses. She doesn’t know what she wants, which is perhaps the one thing that independent women are wholeheartedly compassionate about. We root for her when she’s in love, we root for her when she doesn’t want to be in love and we root/hoot for her when love pushes her into a canal.
It is charming to watch Hepburn resist love. She does it unwillingly and we watch it willingly. She tells the man a story from her past – the only story he and we know so far. And it takes us a while to realise that we actually know nothing about her – except that she’s from Ohio and that she’s a ‘fancy secretary’.
The only other story we are allowed is that she always wanted to wear gardenias. Later in the film, she gets a gardenia if only for a while before it falls into the canal, and when he rushes down to catch it – it is obviously out of reach, just like he was a few scenes ago. I was left wondering and then knowing that had she gone after the gardenia instead of he – she would have got it.
But that perhaps is the beauty of finding and not keeping the romance that one stumbles upon in strange cities. This idea of them being just as out-of-reach as you are. Jane Hudson never gets to keep the gardenias that men buy for her. Either they are too late or she loses them and they become unreachable. The only things that remain hers are the things that she buys – shoes, a dress, a glass, a somewhat sisterly affection for a small boy (not bought but given)
In the middle of a passionate kiss with the man, I worry that she will drop her shoe (which she is holding in her hand) The shoe is frighteningly close to the balcony and just when the kiss climaxes, it falls gently inside the balcony. I needn’t have worried. It was a shoe – not gardenia. She bought it with love while in love. It is hers to keep.
She loves looking at birds that fly over the buildings in the city. She likes to see the bells ringing, she won’t just be having the sounds, no thank you. She will see them. She will carry cigarettes but won’t smoke them, she will down a glass of bourbon mixed with something else. She will cry when she wants to. She will ask for company when she wants to.
There is something spectacularly ordinary about Hudson when she tells the man why she’s leaving.
All my life I’ve stayed at parties too long because I don’t know when to go. Now with you, I’ve grown up, I think I know when to.
I know that in the years to come, I will come back to this moment again and again because it’s the most extraordinary lesson you can learn on your own. No one can teach you and we get to witness this as she learns to recognize it.
Twelve years later, Joan Didion will say something similar about New York in this essay.
I was grateful that he comes to say bye to her (despite her request) — when she’s leaving – leaving forever – on the train. I was grateful if only because she was expecting him. I was even more grateful when their hands never meet.
And again, the final gardenia that he brings for her – she cannot touch, because it is still, after all this time out of reach. But that’s alright – I write this bearing in mind that all the things she bought in Venice are neatly packed in her many blue suitcases.
The little boy has the grace to continue walking with a man hellbent on embarrassing himself. He keeps slapping his forehead, meaning Karma- doing it in the most Kannada way possible — which is to slap your forehead and wipe that slap onto the rest of your face – as if to say my whole face is saying fuck you to you, you ass – stop being in love.
The man walks in and out of the song with no sense of what he is doing, often losing himself, falling again and again – on the road, on the beach. It doesn’t take very long for the song to move from desire to distance and finally to powerlessness. The woman laughs like a poem is finally finding the courage to be shameless with you. She does it often but when she does it with his glasses on her face, the poem is now grabbing your bum and dancing with you. And the man can only blush and say ayayayyooo nagthavlaaa (ayayayyooo, she is laughing!) — celebrating but also mildly nursing something wounded so he is also sweetly complaining.
I saw the bullet only after Kiruba pointed out that he was riding it very slowly. If you have a bullet and are not vying to draw attention, then either the bike must be really old or you must be really in love. What can be more powerless than a roaring bike made to submit to silence, to slowness, to pause?
The Kannada word for a man (bike) in this stithi is ಮರುಳನಾದನು. The Savarna feminist word for this is stalking. My word for this is that after a long time, a song is living in my body and my days are endlessly smiling at each other because I too want to ride a bullet like a man in love and think about Sairat’s Archie.
Take this stick. When its shadow is getting shorter, it means that it is almost noon. When there is no shadow, it means the sun is fully up and you must be back home.
All three stories in The Day I Became a Woman begin in the middle. It feels like being caught in a conversation between lovers.
In the first one, little Hava cannot play with her friend Hassan anymore because, on her ninth birthday, she is believed to have become a woman. Her mother and granny fret over her for a long time before finally permitting her to play with Hassan. She is told that she must be back by noon.
They stitch a chador for her, and she runs to meet Hassan. But his mother has locked him inside the house. He is told that he cannot come out until he finishes his homework.
Hava has to scream his name many times before he comes to the window and the more he delays, the more she worries that her stick’s shadow will be gone. And then through the window, Hava and the boy hang out.
She buys sweets and puts her tiny hands through the window to give him a lollipop. Behind her, the stick is buried in a small mound of mud. She keeps looking back to check on the shadow.
If you don’t stop right now, I will divorce you
Ahoo is running away from everyone. She is one among the cyclists in a marathon but there is something sharp about her eyes that never lose focus as she peddles fiercely. In the beginning, we can only see her back. She is in one corner of the never-ending road. It is not too long before we see who she is running away from. Her husband chases her in his horse, galloping away. For miles along, it seems like the only people in the world are the girls, their cycles, the horse and its man.
Toka toka toka.
She knows he is here and peddles faster. Kitchi kitchi kitchi kitchi
She barely looks at him. Sometimes she covers her face, annoyed clearly by this rude intrusion. His screams continue– I will leave you, I will divorce you.
Ahoo keeps cycling.
She doesn’t stop, she never stops – not even to acknowledge her own anger. And this is the most surprising and the least surprising thing about the film. Most surprising because – of what use is anger if you can’t show it? Especially to the person you’re angry with? But Ahoo doesn’t care about him enough to show him anything; she cares about herself which is why all that energy is going into peddling – so she can run away from him. It is least surprising because it’s what we have all heard many times over – let them do what they want – you just do your work. And in that moment Ahoo showed me how to be.
For many more miles, the only people in the world are Ahoo, her cycle, and her focus.
Earlier this year Faye D’Souza shut Maulana Yasoob Abbas up on her show.
“He (Maulana) hopes that he will rile me up. He hopes that I will throw a fit, and I will lose control of my panel and forget how to do my job. Let me tell you Maulana ji, I have seen the likes of you. I am not afraid of you, I am not threatened by you, I am not rattled by you. All you men think that if you rattle Sana Fatima when she is doing her job, if you rattle Sania Mirza while she is doing her job, if you rattle women when they are doing their job, then they will run back into their kitchens and leave the world for you again to conquer, I have news for you, we are not going anywhere.”
I am reminded of this when I watch Ahoo cycle as if nothing else in the world matters.
They are both vastly different moments but filled with such similar, deep urgency.
Ahoo’s husband throws a tantrum and leaves, and along with her, we sigh.
The women cycle – Ahoo is going fast and slow and fast and slow. Often, she rides slowly.
In Persian, Ahoo means Deer. And she moves like the deer when he comes. He goes and comes and when he does, he returns with more people. The only thing you need to know about the intruders is that each time they come, there are more and more men.
First the father, then – hold your breath – the mullah who is so thin and weak – he might just fall from his horse and die – and then, finally, ultimately – a troop of her brothers on their horses.
When they surround her, the camera zooms out and we never find out if they carried her home or killed her or took away her cycle. She may even have borrowed a cycle from one of the women. We’ll never know.
I have a feeling I’ll never remember what this ribbon is for.
In the third one – a very old woman has suddenly become very rich. She has ribbons in varied colors tied to her fingers – each ribbon reminding her of all the things she needs to buy – things that she could never buy before – a refrigerator, a bath tub, a dining table, teapot, crockery, AC, oven, gas, sofa. She finds a boy and pays him to cart her around the city. Every time she comes out of a building, a trail of carts with packaged goods follow her and so do little boys pushing these carts around.
All the goods are unpacked by the shore of a beach because she cannot remember what the last ribbon is for. She hopes that unpacking and organizing everything might remind her. The boys build the inside of a make-believe home for her as she lounges on the sofa and demands some tea.
All you need to know about the ending is that when the old woman sails off on a boat (all her things with her) – to catch a ship, so she can leave forever and find a home for herself; Hava, her mother and a couple of girls from the cycle marathon all step out of their stories to watch her leave.
All these stories, all these women – teaching me how to live, how to survive, how to breathe, how to ignore, and how to continue doing work as if nothing else in the world matters.
And again, I find that I’m grateful for stories like I’ve never been and always been.
So I wanted to watch this film in at least 6 different theatres and write about the audience reactions – because there were so many and so varied. I couldn’t afford it but I wrote something. Tell me what you think.
It is odd that people lay claims to specific ways of being feminist as if there are clear–cut designs to patriarchy that make us open the manual and go, ‘this is right way to respond to that’, ‘we must go to Town Hall and protest this; otherwise we are not being political enough.’
Aren’t there little pockets of silent, clichéd rebellion that our mothers and sometimes even we wage every day? The quieter yet steady rebellion that made my mother go to her favourite tailor to get measurements done – even after my father had made a big fuss about a man making such measurements. She even went ahead and got him a suit stitched from the same tailor.
Bubbly and the troop left for Mangalore at 5:00 this morning. Can’t believe she’s getting married already. Can’t believe the pressure that’s going to mount on me now to get married. Must must must think of abandoning the peeps and running off to a little place of my own. I have been dreaming of moving out since I was 16. I’ve been saying that longer than I have been saying I want to move out. FML.
Holiday today and yesterday 🙂 I cannot stop smiling! Yesterday I watched two horror movies back to back on Netflix and read a bit of Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the new Reading Room book. I’m slowly acquiring a taste for reading books at leisure and for watching horror movies obsessively. On Saturday, T and I watched Lights Out. Bastard is always fun to watch horror with. He’s just as jumpy as I am and starts panicking after returning home, which is always fun to make fun of. He called me an hour after we left to say that the lights at his home suddenly went out and that he’s freaking out to bits.
Kabali fever is getting to me. Must must must watch it soon. And with the right peeps in the right place. Only Lavanya or Poornima, that is.
In other news, I’m rediscovering the hots for Shah Rukh Khan. Have been listening only to Shah Rukh songs on YouTube since morning. Boli si surat is playing now and I’m remembering fondly how 19 years ago, mom and dad sneaked out of the house to watch Dil To Pagal Hai. Of course, I caught them red-handed and rolled on the floor and wailed until they decided to take me with them. They were like that then. They were convinced that if we watched Shah Rukh’s movies, we’d fall in love with boys and run away from home. Which is what my cousin M did.
Needless to say, every time DTPH played on Sony Max after that, dad would turn the TV off in a rage and yell at us to go study. Mother would purse her lips together if we ever talked dreamily about hero – heroines. Once she found my secret stash of pictures of all film stars – ones that I had painstakingly cut out from Star Dust and Film Fare. Shah Rukh, Madhuri, Kajol, Rani, Preity, Saif, Akshay, Urmila, Tabu, Sush, and Ash all had to be burnt in the choola because mother refused to speak to me until I got rid of all of them.
I wept and wept like only a girl who has been denied a secret life could weep. My cousins, N and R stood behind me and offered moral support while I threw all the pictures into the fire. I watched morosely even as Urmila’s red lipstick turned into a miserable, ugly grey and then ash.
N and R clicked their tongues every time I fished out a new picture. Didn’t matter who I was throwing , they all had glistening bodies and lovely hair. They each deserved the severest of tongue-clicking. Today, I have unlimited access to pictures from filmistan and whatnot. Still, there is neither the urge nor inspiration. Pah.