Avenging Women: The Goddess Trope
Does this image look familiar? Most of you have likely seen it, in one form or another. Hindu cosmology in the North Atlantic belt presents many versions of Hindu goddesses—mostly defanged, in contexts they do not usually belong—and sadly, most conversations I’ve seen online about these goddesses involve racist appropriation. Usually, these conversations foster two camps, one against cultural appropriation and, on the other end, one that finds people shouting about creative freedom and the “exchange” of cultures (protip: if two cultures are not equal, the exchanges will most definitely mirror their political hierarchies too), as if the whole matter can be understood in the "SMS 'Y' if you agree" kind of way. No matter what "side" we may be on in this matter, we’re all involved in making a frame—the Hindu Goddess who is Sacred And Must Not Be Touched, or Freedom Of Expression Means I Can Use Anything The Way I Like, hijacking most discussion around the goddesses in scales of ethics—so when this conversation takes a different form, for instance when mainstream Bollywood films use the goddess trope, we’ve been somewhat conditioned not to interrogate such an ideal.
As the loud and obnoxious daughter of an extremely religious Hindu family, I grew up very fascinated with Ma Kali. Considering the fact that her anger defines her and that she is worshipped for her powers of destruction made me feel less like a freak for being so angry all the time. Today I would tell my 12- year-old self that I wasn’t so wrong for being angry at misogyny or racism, but in those days Kali was a figure I could cloak my my impolite opinions in. I reveled in her anger, and didn’t question this until very recently: Why does our anger need to be subsumed by religion to achieve its legitimacy? I’ve always thought of her as "the Avenger," a more radical version of Durga even, but at the time I didn't really ask why most representations of "anger" onscreen need to fit in an "avenging goddess" narrative.
I remember watching 7 Khoon Maaf last year and excitedly defending the film despite its many fails (tired old stereotypes of Russian spies and violent Muslim men are only the tip of the fail iceberg) because for once "the avenger" wasn’t a Hindu goddess. In the film, Susanna kills her six husbands after they’ve betrayed her or violated her in some form or another—it’s a refreshing take on marriage, I still maintain that. There are plenty of films in mainstream Bollywood about unhappy couples, angry women, broken families—but not so many that treat women as people who can defend themselves when need be, or even as people who may believe in other forms of justice. Susanna is all of those things: smart, sexy, a person who is allowed to be an active decision-maker and one who is held accountable for her mistakes. But in the end, she has to "redeem" herself to the audience (and herself, we’re told) by embracing Christianity. Throughout the film, we see enough markers that tell us she isn’t “really” Indian (read: Hindu), by constantly emphasising her Anglo-(Indian)-ness and her inability to "fit" into any husband’s religion. She tries most out for size: Christianity, Islam, and even a couple of Hindu husbands, she changes her dressing style and her speech to their cultures but she can’t find herself comfortable in any faith. The minute she starts believing again, her anger seems to wash away, and we see her dancing with Jesus (I wish I made that up).
Another "avenger" film is Bandit Queen, inspired by the life of Phoolan Devi. In it, we encounter Phoolan, a survivor of caste-based sexual and physical abuse who grows up to form a gang and kill her rapists. There are quite a few myths around her life and death (the controversies with the film are another matter altogether), and a popular one is how she would go to a Durga temple after committing each crime to ask for forgiveness. There's a range of dolls in her likeness dressed as Durga, given that she is popularly remembered as “Devi” (goddess), and the film definitely helps cement that image—she is a woman who wants revenge, but she is incredibly sensitive to the needs of others, especially women and children; whether outwardly invoked or not, there is an over-arching subtext that sees Phoolan as a goddess with infernal rage, but also capable of love and kindness.
Similarly, the recent blockbuster Kahaani also employs the goddess trope. The protagonist (an undercover police agent) Vidya uses the event of Durga puja in Calcutta as a cover for finding a sought-after terrorist. She uses the festival, dominant ideas of nationalism, and a fake pregnancy to get where she does—which I have to admit is pretty intriguing. At the end, however, after the terrorist is killed and Vidya retreats to a place no one knows, the voiceover explains how Vidya, like the goddess Durga, will always protect her people and rid the world of evil, as if to make absolutely certain that religion cannot (and dammit will not!) be a part of her arsenal. She cannot be a police officer who is doing her job any way she can (even if it means using people’s sexism to her end), she has to fit into the Hindu pantheon of goddesses; neither can she be "just" an officer on her mission—she is also a widow who has lost her baby due to the same terrorist’s deeds, and thus is out to kill him. Patriarchy and religion collude in really ugly ways to inject some kind of rationalization to Vidya’s need for revenge, and this meta narrative of religion is the reason we see her (and all the women above) as heroes—otherwise they’d just be criminals.
The flipside to this trope seems to dangerously suggest that "anger" not backed by religion cannot exist. Rather, it won’t be tolerated and it’s those "non-Hindu" women who can dream of picking up arms for their "personal" revenge; Hindu women commit violence against their own sons or terrorists like Vidya does, but it also has to be for "greater good." The only possible exception I can think of to this rule is the film Fiza where the protagonist Fiza, a Muslim woman, is asked to choose her country over her community and ends up killing her terrorist brother out of mercy. It’s not a coincidence that a Muslim character is asked to make that choice, while the Hindu protagonists get to be exalted (looking at you Mother India), nor is it just a plot convenience that "angry" women have to be rationalized as "goddesses."
What happens when most media you see tells you that this goddess trope is the only way your anger will be tolerated? Or worse, that you can't even be angry (in ways conducive to the Hindu dogma) if your faith doesn't belong to the Brahminical system? What happens when you're asked to choose your nation or your "national duty" over your community so that your humanity is retained, while Hindu protagonists are seen as "goddesses" and saviors? What do we miss when we’re only looking at goddesses whose integrity one must "protect" at all times and cost either from cultural appropriation or by "preserving" their sanctity?
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