Saturday, November 12, 2011

Monsoon Resistance

Depictions of resistance to oppression in popular culture aren't reserved for just the grand revolutionary moments - e.g. wars of national liberation from a colonial power or a homegrown dictator. Resistance also takes place in the micro moments of everyday life. Films and television, amongst other mediums, are excellent tools to highlight such moments. They can happen in the most unlikely circumstances and can be interspersed with other narrative themes. Meera Nair's film Monsoon Wedding (MW) illustrates such moments.

MW tells the story of a Punjabi Hindu family in the days leading up to the wedding of Aditi Verma, the family's eldest daughter. One of the film's story arcs focuses on the issue of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by a family elder, Tej. As the story unfolds, we learn that Tej had sexually abused one of his nieces, Ria, when she was growing up. Ria, who is now in her twenties is confronted by Tej's presence when he returns to New Delhi for Aditi's wedding. Ria and Tej are the only ones aware of what transpired years prior. Further complicating Ria's ability to confront Tej is his revered stature in the family. Ria's paternal uncle Lalit Verma (and Aditi's father) openly expresses his love and affection toward his brother-in-law Tej throughout the film. His gratitude stems from the fact that following the family's migration to Delhi following the partition of India, Tej helped to take care of the family following the trauma of the migration.

Against this backdrop, Ria suspects that Tej is possibly once again sexually abusing another child, Aliya, who is the prepubescent daughter of Lalit's close friend. Aliya is staying at the Verma house in the days leading to the wedding. During one of the pre-marriage celebrations (the Sangeet) Aliya makes statements to her and her friends suggesting that she has some knowledge of how adults kiss. This heightens Ria's suspicions as she sees Tej walking with Aliya toward his vehicle. She makes the decision to stop Tej from driving away with her. She frantically runs to where the vehicles are parked. As Tej is about to drive away with Aliya (all with the blessing of Aliya's parents who have no knowledge of what has been happening and what is about to happen), Ria stands in the way of Tej's vehicle. After Tej stops the SUV, Ria takes Aliya out of the car. Ria confronts Tej about his previous sexual abuse of her and now Aliya. She does so loudly and publicly in front of Aliya's father and Lalit, as well as Tej's wife (Lalit's sister and Ria's paternal aunt) who comes on to the scene. After Ria is slapped by her aunt, she leaves with her friends in their car.

The next morning, Lalit finds Ria and begs her to return home with him. He tells Ria that he believes her. However Lalit expresses that his "hands are tied" given what Tej has done for the family and the close bonds that existed over numerous decades. Ultimately, Lalit is able to persuade Ria to return home, as the wedding cannot proceed without her. In the remaining scenes leading to the wedding ceremony, there is a great deal of obvious tension as others in the house evince disgust with Tej through their facial expressions and body language. Finally, as the family is in a room seeking the blessings from deceased family elders, namely Ria's father (and Lalit's elder brother), Lalit stops Tej as he is about to go and receive guests. Lalit declares to Tej that he cannot have Tej remain at the house given what Tej has done to Ria. Tej and his wife (Lalit's sister) are asked to leave and never come back. 

Both Ria and Lalit's actions represent forms of resistance that have a normative quality to them. For Ria, it is the act of outing and confronting her abuser's oppression, not only against herself in the past, but with respect to what he was about to do to Aliya. It is an act of protection. It is also to break an implied code of silence. The difficulty of her task is even more accentuated by the fact that Tej was a highly respected member of the family and deference is normally given to such individuals. Lalit's confrontation with Tej also serves as an act of resistance in refusing to conform to the perceived custom of revering and respecting one's elders. An elder deserves no respect when they violate the physical and emotional integrity of another. However, his resistance is also more personal given that he must confront his memories and affection toward Tej and set those aside.

MW's resistance is therefore about impugning the implied codes of silence that work to the benefit of elders and persons in authority in a given social field. The themes raised in MW are not confined to family contexts in the Global South. In an interesting, although tragic way, the theme of abuse raised in MW harkens to other instances of abuse (sexual or otherwise) that we see today in the Global North as well. Abuses which take place in families here, but also those that take place institutionally. In particular, it raises issues about the duty to speak up and protect others who are being subjected to abuse. In recent days, the revelations surrounding the sexual abuse committed by an assistant football coach at Penn State and the failure of others to respond to this has unleashed an understandable sense of public outrage against those who knew. MW, amongst others illustrate the difficulties in confronting and calling attention to such oppression while presenting the "right" path.