The compelling documentary Bachelor Girls will be uncomfortably familiar to any middle-class female working professional who has moved to Mumbai and parked her bags outside an apartment block’s gates, hoping to find a decent roof over her head.
As the testimonies of the women interviewed by filmmaker Shikha Makan reveal, this idyllic image is often shattered in quick succession by brokers, landlords, and the powerful committees that rules the numerous co-operative housing societies in the city. Unattached women who have moved to the megapolis for education or work endure nothing less than an inquisition, which is sometimes disguised as paternalistic concern for their safety. The rulebook of morality is thrown at them – no visitors (especially male), no late nights, no cooking meat at home, no parties – but it hardly ends there. Once these adult women move in, they find that they are treated no better than children who need minding.
In one of the many bizarre incidents Makan captures, a woman had to give a letter to her building secretary every time she had friends over. When a married friend dropped in, her husband could not enter the apartment until he showed his marriage certificate. Fame is no guarantee against the suspicion that single women are up to no good. Actress Kalki Koechlin recounts her difficult house-hunting experiences. “They want photos with you and autographs, but they don’t want you to live with them,” Koechlin wryly says.
Watchmen voice their opinions; trivial incidents get blown out of proportion; questions of a highly personal nature are the order of the day. In more brutal expressions of the prejudice against single female tenants, they are harassed into moving out by night-time knocks on their door. One woman is tarnished as a prostitute who is running a brothel. She fights back, but many women simply move and submit to the scrutiny all over again.
“The documentary emerged out of personal experiences that I went through when I moved to Bombay 10 or 12 years ago,” Makan said. The advertising filmmaker kept hearing of similar incidents faced by single women over the years, and she was finally pushed into making a film in 2014 when one of her friends underwent a traumatic experience.
“When looking for homes, there is always something not right in the kind of houses being shown to you,” Makan said. “You are always being told, compromise a bit, you are a bachelor after all.”
As Makan started lining up an array of single female tenants to interview, ranging from bankers to students, a few patterns emerged. Mumbai might enjoy the reputation of being the safest Indian city¸ but its hostile attitude towards people with diverse backgrounds, faiths, eating habits and personal styles is well documented. Being unmarried, and being a woman, brings out the worst in some societies. “Housing discrimination is a very big problem across categories, and gender is common to all subsets,” Makan said. “Even single boys gets bracketed and don’t find it easy to get apartments, but the whole attitude towards women is gendered. We have travelled so far in our journeys of feminism and we want to take control of our lives, and yet, we have to face such archaic stereotypes.”
Women are constantly put on the defensive about their choices – to stay single, to not have children, to live on their own. “I have not used the word patriarchy even once in my film, although that is the most immediate answer,” Makan said. “The situation speaks volumes about the way we treat people, about who is more powerful in the smaller ambits of society, in this case, the housing society secretary or committee.”
‘I am being rejected and judged for finally having a voice’
Bachelor Girls is filled with women of a certain type – they are mostly English speaking, middle-class professionals whose clothes, hairstyles and body language conform to the archetype of the modern Mumbai female. This was a deliberate choice, the filmmaker said. “I consciously chose to focus on upwardly mobile women and keep their voices, since this is my voice and this is who I am,” Makan explained. “I also chose this category since these women represent the benchmark for what we consider modern. Women from two-tier and three-tier cities look up to this definition of womanhood.”
For all the distance they have put between themselves and their socio-cultural baggage, such women are constantly reminded of how little they have travelled when they go house-hunting, Makan added. “I finally have a voice and I can stand on my feet, but I am being rejected and judged for being that,” she said. “How do we define this urban women of today and what are the complexities and challenges she faces? If the rest of society does not like this kind of woman, then where are we going?”
The “lack of empathy and tolerance” and the “power play” that is set in motion when women desperate for shelter confront the biases and restrictions of housing societies are especially stark in the disheartening account of a young fashion student from Basti town in Uttar Pradesh. “For this girl to take the step and come to Bombay – why do the city and its people meeting her miss that point?” Makan said.
‘Even Vajpayee, Mayawati and Modi would not find a house in Mumbai’
The 35-year-old filmmaker collected several such stories over the two-and-a-half years that she worked on the self-funded Bachelor Girls. She had to cull out some stories, including one of a Muslim woman. “The information that the story generated in terms of discrimination based on religious identity took the film on another tangent, and it felt wrong to cut that conversation short and come back to the gender question,” Makan explained. In any case, the filmmaker wanted to make a larger point that the problem is one of “how we treat each other in our society”, she said. “Housing is a microcosm of Bombay, and within the larger fight for space, you are denying a woman the physical and metaphorical space that she wants.”
A female secretary of a housing society articulates the prejudice against this sub-set: these independent women are removed from the family fold, go wild when they come to the city and go about as they please, she says. Some women dress up their biodatas or downright lie to get a place. Others are forced to rely on character certificates from male family members and bosses. “Sometimes, you feel like giving up your dreams because you don’t have the right place to stay,” one woman tells Makan.
Interviews with housing rights activists and members of such groups as the Real Estate Women Associates and Women’s Forum For Justice Co-operative Housing Societies reveal that the laws are toothless and cannot control the arbitrary and often unlawful rules set by building committees. One sympathetic lawyer sums it up: even Atal Behari Vajpayee, Mayawati and Narendra Modi would not find a house in Mumbai.