As girls grow into womanhood, the body becomes the central medium through which these unwritten codes of behavior are transmitted and memorized. The demure lowered gaze fixed at some point on the floor, the acquiescent nod of the head, the feminine swing of the hips, the closely held thighs and the modestly drawn-in shoulders are all written into our bodies by invisible hands and inaudible words so that we start believing that this is the way we are supposed to be.
The containment of a woman’s body is demonstrated by the very tightness with which she holds herself and moves The notion that such gendered body language is ‘natural’ is reinforced by observing other women we encounter. For example, observing men and women in public transportation and on the streets of Mumbai, one notices the tentative and watchful manner in which women occupy public space. In BEST buses, the average women will occupy the least possible space, rendering herself as inconspicuous as she can…on the other hand, the average man will spread his legs out, occupy more than half of a two-seater in a bus and appear to disregard the people around him.
—Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade,Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets
Observing the occupation of space(s) by women is critical praxis for me when I watch films, particularly because there’s always some surprise (and satisfaction) in catching glimpses of scenes where filmmakers break away from the traditionally gendered frame. The screencaps above illustrate that sentiment best. While Indian women at leisure in public spaces has never been a plausible reality for the filmmaker to pursue, this uninhibited, un-sexualized, un-victimized image of women in private, domestic spaces has usually been shied away from as well, because film has been expected to make its female protagonists hyper-aware of their bodies in the form of traditional gender roles for the benefit of a cis, heteronormative, North Indian Hindu male audience. Obviously the harrowing majority of filmmakers from parallel cinema to the so-called mainstream are male and their own sexist expectations of women have been translated into the narratives of their films along with the way they frame their female protagonists, never affording viewers with the realities (or criticisms) of women and their occupancy of private/domestic space.
The women in these films however, are able to lie faceless and thoughtless in crumpled sarees and nightgowns, no male gaze to bind their bodies to a decreed acceptable amount of space. They spill out from the frame, with hidden limbs, faces, thoughts—a luxury the traditionally gendered frame would not dream of providing.