Cinema and Feminism

Why the woman is actually not on top in 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha'

In the end, the feminist parable must also collapse, for the position is not a mainstream one and cannot be allowed.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the multiplex in my small town was booked to capacity. A disappointed young couple who could not get tickets got ready to go back home when the woman turned to the man and said, “Even one ticket would do. I could sit on your lap." A wistful joke.

The boy then pulled the girl by her hand and said "Dum Lage Ke Haisha". The girl made a face and stepped on to the escalator while the boy gestured to her to walk back to him. Not a bad prologue to what I would be watching for the next two hours – the Woman on Top.

The film is about a romance, or rather the lack of it, between a medium-sized young man, Prem, and an overweight young woman, Sandhya, in Haridwar. It is 1995 and Prem runs an audio cassette store and spends most of his waking hours with Kumar Sanu singing in his ears. Sandhya goes to college and wants to be a school teacher. Prem does not like Sandhya but has to give in to his father’s persuasion.

So Prem has decided, even while saying yes to the marriage, that he won’t be able to love his wife because she is fat.

The plot progresses through a series of tragicomic comments and circumstances, including serving a divorce notice and the consequent six months of let’s-fix-it, to Prem, the almost good for nothing’s success in a race where he beats his friends and enemies by carrying his overweight wife in an amateurish shortened Hardwar version of a decathlon.

What I found most interesting about the film is its constant invocation of the Woman-on-Top visual rhetoric. Of course the Woman on Top is a fun sex position and all that, it might even be a feminist statement, but to incorporate this into a film set in Hardwar, a town known for its religious references, is a bit surprising. Even more surprising – and delicious – is the decision to use this in a film about what clothing companies like to call ‘plus size’ woman.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha therefore literalises the burden of the woman on top position, the trials of a marriage from a male perspective – that is why Sandhya has to be overweight, bulky, difficult to carry, eliciting taunts. We cannot forget that “Dum laga ke haisha” is a male anthem of collective masculinity, to carry, to break, to tear, to bear. Who has heard women sing “Dum laga ke” after all?

This is how the Woman on Top optic plays out:  

Sandhya climbs up a ladder in the library and looks “down” at her man reading in a room below; after their marriage has soured, she sleeps on the bed while Prem sleeps on the floor; the only instance of lovemaking we see in the film is when the woman initiates it – her face on top of the man’s; in the “Dum laga ke haisha” competition, when Prem and Sandhya fall into the water filled pit, the woman climbs up to the “shore” and lends her hand out to the man below.

When they are crying over their personal failures towards the end of the film, we first see Prem hiding behind a wall and weeping. When he hears muffled sounds of weeping, he gets up to see Sandhya sitting on the stairs and crying. The director plays this leitmotif throughout the film, the woman on top parable brought to us by clever camera angles or raised perspectives, on a staircase, on the ladder, and so on.

There is only one scene where the man is on top, and such is the failure of this “position” that it leads immediately to the crisis in the marriage.

Prem is with his friends on the terrace, his wife is dancing with the womenfolk below. A couple of drinks bring out Prem’s frustration with his wife’s size – imagine sleeping with a woman like that, he tells his friend. The result is a slap from his wife who’s climbed up the stairs and overheard the conversation. A show of equality follows: it is in the ethic of tit-for-tat, a slap for a slap.

Prem’s problem is not with the “size” of her body alone – he also cannot handle the size of his wife’s CV. Sandhya’s education throws his lack of it into relief in such exaggerated measure that it makes him take his board exams again. The marriage begins to get lubricated only when the man has found success – would the dum have lasted had the Prem-Sandhya pair not won the race?

When Prem and Sandhya discuss the possible contours of their separate lives after the end of their marriage, Sandhya makes a telling, even preachy, statement against lookism, about there being more to love and relationships than the indulgences of the eye, of a cookie cutter approach to beauty and size. A male voice in the audience came to annotate my viewing of that scene: “It’s her brain that is large – that is her problem.”

Sexist as that comment is in a certain way (Would that comment ever have come for a man?), there is an element of truth in it: The brain is, after all, right at the “top” in the hierarchy of the body.

Which patriarchal society has ever wanted to make love to a woman’s brain after all? And so we have an exhibition of Sandhya’s cerebral acrobatics – not just her academic results and the worldly success they are expected to bait, but the lovely scene, for instance, when Sandhya uses the word “metabolism” to explain her body weight to her husband’s aunt – but never of her body.

The man’s body is made visible to us in instalments – his legs jutting out of his RSS shorts, and when he comes out of the bath twice, wrapped in soap lather and a towel. The woman remains all covered apart from a hint of cleavage in the prologue of a lovemaking scene.

The “doh jism ek jaan” ethic that drives the Bollywood metaphysical machinery is here literalised and then subverted in primarily two ways: the optic of a bulky woman on a rather slim man makes him look like a poor coolie lugging this heavy baggage for a promised handsome fee; the surnames of the married man and woman are, surprisingly, different – Prem is “Tiwari”, and Sandhya retains her maiden surname “Varma”.

There is also something else: one human carrying another immediately brings in the connotation of dependence, and the person being carried is infantilised in our eyes – the infant, the child, the sick. But Sandhya resists being infantilised throughout the film.

Shakha-babu illustrates the essence of the competition, for instance – he demonstrates the demand for the partner’s infantility by making a young boy climb on him. In my mind, Hindi cinema’s most striking image of the woman climbing on the man’s back is Jackie Shroff carrying the petite and eroticised Urmila in Rangeela. Sandhya is, of course, no Urmila, and in spite of the VLCC weight shedding package advertised during intermission at the INOX in Siliguri, where I watched the film, she remarkably reveals no ambition to lose any body weight.

The film must end with the end of the woman-on-top position, and so the kissing scene where the man and woman share a kiss on an “equal footing”, and the concluding Dard karara song, modelled on 1990s Hindi cinema, have both the man and woman sharing “top” positions – a rock by the riverbed, a raised platform, and so on.

Only success will convert a man and consequently bring success to a marriage. Sandhya must plead with her husband to ask her to stop going to Meerut to take up a schoolteacher’s job. By giving up on her professional achievement and indulging her husband’s inconsequential success in a rather silly competition, she has to save her marriage.

In the end the feminist parable must also collapse – the woman cannot be on top. The camera jerks back to the same eye level as the man and the woman standing in front of the bathroom. For woman on top is not mainstream and cannot be allowed to be.

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.