2: Portrayal of Female Infanticide in Bollywood

Objects of Analysis: Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (2003) and Kaali Khuhi (2020)

by Cavan Tay

A Village Without Women

Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (2003) is a dystopic depiction of an Indian village in the distant future populated exclusively by males due to years of female infanticide. This is an uncomfortable reflection of the cultural reality in India, where the strong preference for sons results in the illegal abortion of millions of female foetuses (Nayan, et al). The film explores the implication of this “un-natural selection”, illustrating a future where this continued cultural practice has caused a severe gender imbalance. The shortage of women changes society’s norms and attitudes, such as bride-buying and polyandry being normalised. The male sexuality has also become more repressed and sexually frustrated, resulting in the men being more perverted, virile, and violent. The haunting distortion of the patriarchy as hypermasculine and hyperviolent serves to remind the audience of how unnervingly hostile and misogynistic society is to women. The story is centred around a family of five young men and their wealthy father (Ramcharan) who is worried that his sons will remain unmarried.  His worries are relieved when they discover a young girl, Kalki, living some distance from the village. She is simultaneously married to all the five sons, effectively resolving Ramcharan’s concern of having unmarried sons. However, Kalki’s life begins to deteriorate as she is exposed to the brutality, inhumanity, and misogyny unleashed by the family. She finds momentary reprieve in Sooraj, the youngest son, who is the only one who treats her with respect.

Kaali Khuhi (2020) is similarly set in a village where female infanticide once used to be rampant. The consequences of this cultural practice, in contrast to Matrubhoomi, is more supernatural and eldritch. The village is cursed by the spirit of one of the dead girls, Sakshi, who was killed after being born. The story revolves around Shivangi and her parents, who try to put an end to the curse.

The Apocalypse of Demographic Collapse

In Matrubhoomi, the cause of the apocalypse is the cultural practice of female infanticide. The hyperbole and exaggeration inherent in apocalyptic cinema allow the film to imagine the prolonged effects of this cultural practice. There are three distinct dystopic elements of the film that are directly perpetuated by the persistence of female infanticide. The first is the perversion and distortion of the male sexuality because of the shortage of women, resulting in a violent and unempathetic version of the patriarchy that remains throughout the film. The second is the central problem of the film, which is the terrifying possibility of being unmarried.   The third is implicit, which is the threat of demographic collapse. In a world without any women, that would be no one left to bear children and renew the population. Therefore, the practice of female infanticide is also shown to be a threat not just to women, but to humanity.

This theme of dystopia (not in the technological sci-fi sense that we’re familiar with from western media because of shows like Black Mirror, but apocalypse as an outcome of culture) is used to critique the validity and sustainability of these cultural practices that still, unfortunately, exist in India till this day (Nayan, et al). The reality of female infanticide in India makes Matrubhoomi more culturally significant, as it does not portray a fictional world, but rather, serves as a prediction for what society will look like if this cultural practice continues. While the narrative tools are effective in critiquing culture, it will be remiss to neglect the significance of using film as a platform for political messaging. Especially in a cinema such as Bollywood, which has struggled with a history of sexual assault and harassment of actresses (“#MeToo”), and where most popular films follow traditional and conservative norms (Raina), such as films always ending in marriage, the release of Matrubhoomi in 2003 was uniquely positioned in Bollywood’s history as subverting the tropes commonly associated with the cinema.

Kaali Khuhi, which was released almost two decades later, is an interesting contrast to how the politics of Bollywood Cinema has progressed. Kaali Khuhi instead uses the genre of horror to provide a similar cultural critique. In both cases, the source of the problem is directly linked to the cultural practice of female infanticide. However, while this manifests as demographic collapse in Matrubhoomi, it is manifested a vengeful and murderous spirit in Kaali Khuhi. This is a distinct and notable shift in the underlying feminist narratives, from victimhood to vengeance. The victims of female infanticide are personified in the “antagonist” of the film and symbolise the injustice and resentment they feel for being senselessly killed because of this cultural norm. There are various ways to account for this shift. Firstly, Kaali Khuhi is directed by Terrie Samundra who had experiences growing up in Missouri and California. while Kaali Khuhi is still a Hindi film, we cannot ignore the influence from the director’s experience growing up in the west, and from a western studio, Netflix. Secondly, the media and film industry in 2020 is more globalised than it was when Matrubhoomi was released, resulting in Bollywood beginning to borrow from Hollywood tropes such as the “Femme Fatale” and adapting it to the horror movie genre. Thirdly, this shift also broadly follows the shift in feminist politics. Matrubhoomi was released when the feminist movement was still emerging and had yet to gain as much critical mass and influence as it currently has (and this was particularly true in India, which was insulated from the wave of feminism happening in the west in the 1990s), in contrast, Kaali Khuhi was released after the “fourth-wave” of feminism – a movement focused not just on female victimhood, but on female empowerment. This idea of female empowerment in India (specifically the idea of revenge against male perpetrators) can be attributed to the drama/documentary Pink Saris, that follows the story of the vigilante group “The Gulabi Gang”. The group was formed in response to widespread domestic abuse against women but was also a crucial turning point for feminism in India. The popularity and emergence of the trope of “female revenge” can be seen in Hollywood as well with the release of Promising Young Woman also in 2020.

Disgust and Desire – How the patriarchy contradicts and sabotages itself

Matrubhoomi explores gender inequality through dehumanisation. The film begins quite unsettlingly, with a disappointed father drowning his baby girl in a public ceremony because he was hoping for a boy. Not only does this explicitly frame the cultural context, where female children are seen as less desirable (and the corollary of this, that the life of a woman is worth less than a man), but the fact that this is done in a public ceremony shows that it is normalised and accepted. Society’s deep prejudice against women has resulted in them not even batting an eye when a young baby girl is murdered. This theme, of women being worth less than men, is something that continuously underpins the narrative.

Ramcharan’s dilemma highlights the paradoxical and illogical nature of the patriarchy – they do not want daughters (to the extent of committing female infanticide and foeticide) but simultaneously want (and to some extent, need) women for their sons to be eventually married to. In fact, the narrative itself is based on this paradox. The problem, which is the frightful prospect of having grown unmarried sons, is caused by gender imbalance from preferring sons over daughters. What compels the narrative is the father’s desperation to find a wife, and the son’s desire for marriage, female companionship, or sexual intimacy. The conflicting but coexisting attitudes towards women of disgust and desire are useful in outlining the ideology that the film aims to critique – patriarchy. The film critiques the stubborn and obstinate nature of the patriarchy, and how society fails to reflect and question their beliefs even under such extreme circumstances. It does so firstly, and quite directly, through the village’s collective refusal to birth female children despite the severe gender imbalance. Even though the men are frustrated about being unmarried, they’d rather turn to other more inconvenient measures, such as human trafficking and courtship-driven emigration. Their frustration, while immense, is insufficient to correct their deeply rooted patriarchal beliefs. On a secondary level, the film also shows that the initial justification for female infanticide no longer exists. Daughters were seen as undesirable because of the custom of dowry, where an amount of money (or property) would be brought by the pride to her husband upon their marriage. This social and cultural construct resulted in daughters being seen as “financial burdens”, where parents would worry about having to eventually pay their dowry. Conversely, sons were seen as “financial assets” because of the dowry the family would eventually receive. This further shows how customs serve to reinforce gender inequality. Cultural norms disadvantage the family of daughters, and advantage the family of sons, creating the notion in society that there is a “preferable” gender of child to have, and that one gender is superior to the other. However, while this reinforces male superiority, the patriarchy is also seen to cannibalise itself as this is the same belief that hurts men and causes them to be unmarried. However, in the context of the film, this system of dowry no longer exists. In fact, because women are in high demand and men are desperate to get married, the roles are reversed. Ramcharan becomes the one paying the bride’s (Kalki) family a significant sum of money to marry his five sons. This shows how beliefs can persist beyond the initial cultural norms that justify them, and even when having a daughter can now be viewed as a “financial asset”, the stubborn and illogical nature of the patriarchy prevents society from collectively revaluating how they view gender.

The “Damsel in Distress” and the (Male) “Hero”: subverting or reinforcing sexist tropes?

While Kalki is ostensibly the protagonist of the film, she is by no means independent or empowered. She represents the vulnerability and helplessness of women in India and is a symbol of their oppressed status.  She fulfils the common Bollywood (and Hollywood) trope of the “Damsel in Distress”, disempowered and stripped of agency, awaiting a man to save her from her predicament (Solis). While the “Damsel in Distress” trope has sexist origin (from the patriarchal belief in male superiority, resulting in women only being imagined and portrayed as helpless victims), the same trope is used here to a different effect. While Kalki is ostensibly a damsel in distress, the cause of her distress is a critique of the patriarchy, instead of a reflection of it. Her helplessness is not appeal to some male fantasy, but to viscerally point out the harmful effects of misogyny in India and the suffering it induces in its invisible victims.

With every “damsel in distress”, there must be a “male saviour”. In Matrubhoomi, that role is initially played by Sooraj. He treats her with warmth and respect, which when juxtaposed against his violent and misogynistic older brothers, makes him appear like an angel. This initial positioning of Sooraj as a “hero” is particularly problematic (and pernicious) as it valorises and praises Sooraj for doing the bare minimum – treating Kalki with basic human decency. This plays nicely into contemporary feminist discourse, specifically “man-hating” feminism that can be summarised aptly with the catchphrase “All Men Are Trash”. Matrubhoomi shows how even “good men”, such as Sooraj, who might be directly perpetuating the patriarchy, nevertheless benefit from it. Sooraj benefits from the “lower standards” created by the existence of tremendously evil men, and therefore the corollary of this is that he is praised (and seen as morally virtuous) for simply doing the bare minimum. Therefore, the lower standards and lower expectation of men means we only expect them to treat women with decency, and never hold them to higher expectations, such as to dismantle the patriarchy – we are simply content (and relieved) that they aren’t being violent and chauvinistic. Kalki is never empowered to resolve her own plight, and there are no other strong female characters in the film that help her, therefore the text remains “male-centric” in that it suggests only good (or reformed) patriarchy can combat a villainous patriarchy. Interestingly, the narrative does not reward Sooraj, as his brothers ultimately kill him out of jealously (thus subverting the “male saviour trope”. This tragedy plays a central role in the plot, it sets the tone that there is no “happily ever after” or “deus ex machina” – and the inescapability of Kalki’s hell is something the audience must fully confront. The portrayal of femininity in Kaali Khuhi is dramatically different. The victims of female infanticide, which are faceless in Matrubhoomi, are represented by Sakshi. This apparition returns from the black well where female foetuses are dumped, a symbolic defiance of the cultural practice that has taken her life. Femininity, therefore, is not symbolised as helpless and vulnerable, but empowered through its ability to terrorise Shivangi and her family. However, this portrayal is complex and problematised due to its position in the narrative as antagonistic Female revenge is not glorified or valorised, but rather, seen as a source of terror and something that must be resolved by the characters in the film. Nevertheless, the film still manages to subvert the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and instead portrays femininity as formidable and vengeful. This is reminiscent of the use of Kali as a symbol of feminism in India in recent years. In Hinduism, Kali is the goddess of time, doomsday, and death, and is often portrayed with a bloodied sickle and a severed head. Kali’s cultural significance and her association with violence has made her a useful feminist icon and symbol to represent the zeitgeist of feminism in India – angry, vengeful, and fed-up with the years of oppression and gendered violence, an ideology that is echoed in Kaali Kuhi as well.

Works cited

Chakravarty, Nayan, et al. “Cultural and Social Bias Leading to Prenatal Sex Selection: India Perspective.” Frontiers in Global Women’s Health 3 2022. <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fgwh.2022.903930/full>.

“#MeToo: Here Is the List of All Men from the Film Industry Who Have Been Accused of Harassment.” The Indian Express, 11 Oct. 2018. <https://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/bollywood/me-too-accused-men-list-harassment-5396034/>.

Raina, Ajay. Review of Conjugations: Marriage and Form in New Bollywood Cinema, by Sangeeta Gopal. South Asian History and Culture 5.3 (2014): 404–407. https://doi.org/10.1080/19472498.2014.905333.

Roy, Sudeshna. “Depiction of Sexual Violence in Indian Films: Viewing from and in a Man/Patriarch’s World.” Journal of Media Ethics (2021) pp. 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1080/23736992.2021.1976649.

Solis, Michael A. Rescuing Women from American Mythology: The Damsel in Distress. Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2021.