The 19th Memorial Lecture

Every year, since its inception, the Foundation invites an eminent person to deliver a lecture on the subject of women and human rights. Smt. Sharmila Tagore delivered the Nineteenth Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture on "Representation of Women : In Indian Cinema and Beyond" on 27th November, 2013 .

Thank you for inviting me here today. It is indeed an honour and a privilege to deliver the Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial lecture in the presence of such a learned audience. At the outset I would like to record my sincere appreciation for the Foundation for its stellar work in this field. Justice Bhandare's contribution towards the cause of gender equity is invaluable and will remain a huge inspiration for all of us. The road named after her, the Sunanda Bhandare Marg, close as it is to the Delhi High Court, is to my mind a perfect metaphor for women's struggle ? so close and yet so far.

Even 65 years after our independence, we find that India's progress towards establishing an equitable society has been slow and disappointing. Discrimination against women thrives and cuts across religion, caste, rich, poor, urban-rural divides. Today, in 2013, and so many legal provisions later, things are arguably better than before; yet certain things remain unchanged. Secure in their solid economic and social foundation, men are men, and we are the other. Today, women realize that unless certain fundamental issues that affect gender equality and justice are addressed, women's empowerment will remain at the level of rhetoric.

While education, employment opportunities and social networks have given some women like us a voice, many women still continue to suffer injustice silently in the name of family, honour, tradition, religion, culture and community. So ingrained are certain modes of thinking that bias is not even perceived as bias, not even by the women themselves.

As Uma Chakravarti says, all of us carry within us a sense of the past which we have absorbed over the years from mythology, popular beliefs, tales of heroism, folklore and oral history. This medley of ideas, which is patriarchal in nature, has a strong hold on our collective consciousness and forms the basis of our understanding of the status of women in the past. These perceptions are also continuously brought forward and constituted and reconstituted anew. Centuries of imbibing such ideas probably resulted in son preference in the Indian family, particularly in the north. While reviewing the book Religion, Patriarchy and Capitalism, Rajesh Komath says, and I quote, 'This entrenched mindset furthers the idea of female infanticide, considering girls as an economic burden. The dowry system and the notion of the girl child belonging to her husband (a kind of tying up of a woman to a man) treat women as an expensive commodity in her own family. Even at a time of societal progress in terms of science and technology, there seems to be no real benefit to the woman. Rather, what is observed is a reverse societal dimension.'

Traditionally, we as a nation have tended to view a woman either as devi (goddess) or as property of man but never as an equal. Treating a woman as a devi is pretty ingenious because then she has to be on a pedestal and conduct herself according to the noble ideals a patriarchal society has set for her. Women seem to like being on that pedestal and despite their inner urges cling to this ideal of being perfect at great personal cost. So, in spite of the outstanding advancement of both men and women, mindsets have been slow to change. And these mindsets have influenced our cultural spheres, and have been celebrated in festivals like karva chauth, raksha bandhan, shiv ratri, appealing to a man's ego in protecting and indulging the women in his family. So it is not surprising that a mass, popular, highly visible media like cinema, particularly Hindi cinema, has perpetuated these cultural myths.