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Breaking Bad at Dhaka Lit Fest 2018: a conversation we should have had a long time ago

“If we choose to tell stories about women there will be gallants of storytelling,” says the very well- known Bollywood actress, writer and activist Manisha Koirala, at Dhaka Lit Fest 2018. Invited as a panellist to talk about her book “Healed”, she shares a stage with Nandita Das, another talented actor, director and social activist under the panel “Breaking Bad”, moderated by Sadaf Saaz, the director of DLF. These three inspiring women join in a conversation to talk about women’s role in the film industry, stereotypes in society, gender roles, beauty standards, LGBTQ issues and much more.

The session begins with both women talking about how they started their respective careers in their industry and defied convention with their work. Manisha speaks of how she always wanted to go beyond stereotypes and considered herself lucky because “good filmmakers with good subjects” somehow managed to come to her and was fortunate enough “to recognize those opportunities.”  She goes on to talk about the joy that acting gave her and the satisfaction it brought with it.

In a conversation about how they started, Sadaf Saaz asks Nandita Das about her film Fire and how it was  ”one of the only mainstream Bollywood movies to feature homosexuality.” She says it became a “landmark censor decision” at the time, not having a single scene cut from the movie. While that was a remarkable feat, it was eventually criticized for supporting homosexuality in a deeply conservative society. People were encouraged to not watch the film, and later it was banned because it apparently went against commonly perceived sub-continental culture. Nandita believes that was important in making a nation realise an important lesson about the restriction on freedom of expression. “The film was significant for me because the kind of conversation it triggered” and had a “small role to play” when India passed the bill on legalizing homosexuality.

The session progresses to the role of women in the filmmaking industry. Both panellists agreed on how, even now, we have not been able to move away from the “boxed stereotypical roles” for women in movies. Women are hardly ever given strong characters or leading roles.  They believe that directors need to challenge themselves in making more diverse female characters. Manisha comments “Women are the most interesting characters…I get attracted to stories where women are portrayed slightly differently.” The conversation slightly shifts after Nandita mentions the struggles of being a woman director in a male-dominated industry. She asserts how she would always have to face questions about being a woman director, answering questions on what it’s like. “When we are working we are not constantly thinking that we are women.” She says she felt that being a woman was a “primary identity” before anything else. However, she thinks that just as there is a “male gaze” in movies, there is also a “female gaze”, and the identity of a woman cannot be ignored. It is crucial to acknowledge that identity to inspire more female directors to come forward.

The talk diverts to the “male gaze” and Manisha explains why she included this subject in her book. Women are always trying to cope with beauty standards that society places on them. The objectification of women in movies are still present and women are “constantly being judged by the standards of others.”  The lack of female directors makes it harder for a woman’s perspective to come through properly.

Later, asked about her campaign “Dark and Beautiful”, Nandita says “Being a dark person and living in South Asia, you are constantly made aware of it.” No matter where one goes they are constantly undermined because of their skin colour and people will not stop pointing it out. Fair skin is still synonymous with being beautiful and “matrimonial ads haven’t quite changed yet”. The campaign was significant in taking a stand against society’s obsession with fair skin and using women’s looks.

Woman and wit go hand in hand – Raba Khan addresses critics at Dhaka Lit Fest

Photos: Christina Joyeeta

Raba Khan – a well-known video blogger, YouTuber and comedian – made her mark at the 2018 Dhaka Lit Fest as a panellist, alongside a number of famous writers and poets. Known for her satirical videos, she was invited to the panel “Women and Wit”, with Fariha Panni. The session began by addressing struggles in the relationship between women and wit all over the world, touching on how women are not expected to be funny in our patriarchal society. People always appreciate a man for being funny but when it comes to a woman, she is termed a “goofball”. “Women are not desirable when they are funny,” says the 19-year-old Raba, who has her own cult following on Bangladeshi social media and is a rising star among the youth of Dhaka’s varied urban culture. On the other hand, there is an immense pressure on men and their need to be humorous or entertaining.

Questions were raised on social media about her place in such an event when it was clear that Raba would be attending DLF as a panellist. She commented on the lack of women all around the world in the comedy entertainment industry.  She said that there isn’t anyone she knows or could look up to with a career in comedy, whereas there are many male comedians like Hanif Sanket, Naveed Mahbub and Mosharof Karim, just to name a few. Since she hasn’t come across any woman who pursued this line of work, it was twice as challenging for her. There will always be people who won’t take her work as having any importance. She also questioned who else they should have brought on this panel to talk about this specific topic.

Dhaka Lit Fest: Women and Wit

Later the session diverted to the ever going clash between humour and seriousness. Fariha Panni asked the audience – “Why can’t someone be serious and funny at the same time?” –  which the audience countered by saying how people who use sarcasm in their remarks are hardly ever taken seriously. What people fail to realize is that through a sarcastic tone one can easily take on issues that are difficult to address otherwise. It’s a way of telling the truth in a much lighter manner, without coming off as confrontational.

Raba said that there isn’t anyone she knows or could look up to with a career in comedy, whereas there are many male comedians like Hanif Sanket, Naveed Mahbub and Mosharof Karim, just to name a few.

When asked about the stereotypes in our society that she addresses in her videos, Raba says, “I make these stereotypes to break them”. She wants to change these stereotypes that are present in our society by making people laugh. Some of her comparisons can seem a bit far-fetched, but purely for entertainment purposes. She asserts, “I try to make my videos entertaining and exaggerate things. Without hyperbole it’s hard to emphasize the message”.

In a country like ours, being a woman and going through daily activities can be a challenge in itself, let alone be a female comedian creating content for social media. Quoting from a person in the audience, “Women and wit go hand in hand”. It is certainly necessary to talk about this in a platform like DLF. This segment was slightly different from others at DLF – light, relaxed and much more interactive. By getting Raba Khan to the panel it was easier to catch the attention of the younger generation. Raba’s inclusion by the organisers was a way to connect with young people. It’s important in getting messages out that would otherwise have been dismissed as being juvenile. It served its purpose well, as evidenced by the lack of a single vacant seat in the auditorium. Hopefully, it’s a start in breaking stereotypes and inspiring more women to take up comedy.