Sindhu-Bhairavi is a 1985 film set in the world of Carnatic classical music, which exposes underlying conflicts of language and gender in society. If you know your Tamil culture history, you’ll know that language politics are intertwined with caste and regionalist exploitation. This story will never not be deeply political. But is it feminist?
The main story revolves around three characters, a renowned male musician, his docile wife Bhairavi and his intellectual lover Sindhu. As this essay by Lakshmi Prakash points out, it is rife with romanticised patriarchal tropes. Interestingly the title contains the names of the two main female characters but not the male character. It is a bit clever since SindhuBhairavi is the name of a classical ragam and this is a story set in the world of raagam-taalam (also the opening lines of one of the songs in the film).
I saw Sindhu-Bhairavi for the first time when I was young enough to need dialogues and a three-hour story explained to me scene by scene. The people doing this, as with any kind of translation, added their biases & personal politics. I watched the film again recently and recognised a distinct male gaze. And even with these many patriarchal lenses, the very existence of a character like Sindhu was path-breaking for me. I am very glad I was exposed to the idea of womanhood like that at an early age. Even if it was fictional. Even if she got a bad ending in the movie. Where does it fall on the feminism scale? The answer varies and that is also the reason for this post.
I see feminism as a much needed response to patriarchy. At its core, feminism challenges a system of exploitation; it asserts itself as existent and valid. Feminism is always rebellion. While it started as women’s rights, along the way it has added nuance and also amalgamated with other issues of similarly marginalised groups. As some battles are won, other hurdles pop up. That means the definition of feminism must always keep changing. We must hold our feminist gaze in the context of the time, location, culture and circumstances of what we gaze at.
JK Rowling with her millions worth of access to therapy and PR set herself up to fail today’s feminist standards. But does that suddenly make Hermione Granger, Minerva McGonagall and Luna Lovegood regressive? I don’t believe so. As a young girl growing up in world that erased & punished my acts of individuality, I found hope in these fictional characters who might understand what it was like to be me. It was a crucial intervention in a system designed to break me down into a slave-object for men. Interventions like these were the building blocks of my feminism. Dismissing these characters from the ranks of feminism, because of their creator’s actions external to this world, is erasure of journeys like mine. Feminism is not about boosting one marginalised group at the cost of erasing another marginalised group. While I cannot support transphobia or anyone that blatantly professes it, erasure hurts me too and doesn’t serve the cause of either group. Oppression olympics are distinctly un-feminist.
There is the fact that stories are complex universes with many motivations, actions and conversations. It is reductive to judge them by a binary of feminist or not based on one moment. A film is even more complicated since it takes hundreds of people to make it, with their diverse histories, personalities and politics. I don’t have a consistent answer to whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist. In Indian movies, I know the male actors (and sometimes male directors & producers) are usually more powerful than the entire rest of the team put together. Because of this privilege, I find it fair to hold them to more rigorous standards.
The male gaze of Sindhu-Bhairavi is limiting but was (and still is) much more evolved than the average male way of thinking. It is decidedly the story of JKB’s fall from grace and his redemption through art. The female characters are but plot points in the time-honoured tradition of cinema. Their names in the title are a testament to dehumanisation via deification. Womanhood is treated as external to humanity. Stories like these consider everything that happens to a cis man as female – as if human beings are men and everything that happens to humanity is female. Inspiration, beauty, love, support, art – these are personified in female bodies. Temptation, desire, distraction, addiction – these are female too. This means that my entire gender is treated not as a category of human beings but as a descriptor of experiences that a man goes through. This is dehumanising.
In this framework, I find the character of Sindhu still very sympathetic. The film is about the brittle arrogance of one man, his terror of vulnerability and his inability to function once his facade of ego has fallen. Sindhu appears in a guileless gust of newness. She is such an admirer of JKB’s art that she challenges his intellect. She never accounts for the idea that the man is not his art, but just a big EGO. JKB’s response is retaliation. There is no recognition of her appreciation (that’s just taken for granted because he believes himself such a genius). Instead, there is an enraged attempt to humiliate her.
When she charms everyone even in that cringe-worthy episode, JKB reduces Sindhu to a sex object. This is such a damning comment on how most cis men treat sex. All things that fascinate & inspire a man must be caged (and that includes female humans). Sex is a tactic to control women, not a way to express love. It doesn’t matter that she reciprocates with love. The scene where Sindhu argues with herself in his presence is powerful. It’s a dilemma straight women face even today – trying to logic ourselves out of feeling attraction and affection for a gender that does not recognise us as human, that bears us constant malice, that wishes us only harm and for which, we will eventually be punished. That these aspects are considered and depicted, elevates the story’s male gaze, for me. It’s almost feminist. At least as much as I can believe a man could be, in the 1980s. The fact that in 2023 women are still disproportionately judged for infidelity, makes even the above perspective seem rather progressive.
The film’s language politics are much subtler. JKB prides himself on singing in Telugu and is contemptuous when Sindhu suggests including Tamil songs in his repertoire. Her logic is that it makes the glory of Carnatic music more accessible to more local people and who better than a maestro to spearhead that? Earlier, he is shown to be deeply appreciative of Lata Mangeshkar, a singer whose primary language of art was Hindi. JKB also sneers at his uneducated wife for not knowing what a Delhi-based event would be about. In the 1980s, Tamil Nadu was still seething from the Hindi imposition agitation and battling Brahminical politics of a more Sanskritised Tamil. For those with that perspective, it seems like the film sets up JKB to be extremely unlikeable, even a traitor to the local cause of Tamil upliftment. Sindhu is the everyman, the orphan woman that carries appreciation and regard but never lets that reduce her self-respect.
There is a poignant scene, where after consideration, JKB practices a Tamil song at his usual haunt of the seaside. A poor fisherman stops to listen to him. He has no knowledge of who the singer is but JKB looks obviously well-dressed and upper-caste/class, the kind that a poor man would be afraid to approach. Still, he comes up and offers a token of his appreciation. He says, “I have no money but I want to give you something.” And the fisherman holds out a cheap string of seashells. Sindhu’s influence has grounded JKB and also brought him the kind of humbleness that is the hallmark of a true maestro.
True to its time, the character of Bhairavi is set up for mockery because she is ‘just a housewife’. Today’s context shows us that JKB’s behaviour is gaslighting, from his tantrums about her cooking to his contempt for her ignorance of art. It is Sindhu who validates Bhairavi’s desire for children and elevates Bhairavi from downtrodden wife to domestic diva. Decades before we were talking about disproportionate emotional labour in homes and women holding up other women, Sindhu-Bhairavi was making a point of it.
Sindhu walks away from the mess of JKB’s predations, addictions, her extramarital pregnancy and society’s shaming with her head held high. Of course, that’s another trope of Tamil cinema (and some Bengali fiction too) – the long suffering woman holding her head up with dignity through her trials. Still, the movie holds up a rich mine of feminist thought up for consideration.