Actor Mandira Bedi bid an emotional goodbye to filmmaker husband Raj Kaushal who died early morning on Wednesday after he suffered a cardiac arrest, as confirmed by several news media reports. While several from the Hindi film industry shared condolences on social media, Bedi performing the last rites of her late husband herself didn’t go down well with a section of social media users.
The 49-year-old writer-director-producer’s funeral was held at a funeral ground in Shivaji Park in Mumbai’s Dadar area. The couple who married in 1999 welcomed son Vir in 2011 and adopted four-year-old daughter Tara last year.
Countering women’s invisibility
As pictures of a jeans-and-T-shirt-clad Bedi performing the last rites started surfacing on social media and Bollywood news portals, trolls lashed out at the actor and television presenter. Several asked the need to do what she chose to do, whether it was so difficult, after all, to find a male relative, even as others called her out for the supposed ‘publicity’ stunt.
Bedi’s act counters the standard Hindu religious practice that authorizes the surviving son or other male relatives of the deceased to perform the last rites. In case of the death of a married woman, the husband owns that authority but the reverse is not true.
In essence, Hindu religious codes acting as moral codes for the larger Indian society prohibit women at the traditionally male-dominated space of a funeral site. Grief, last rites or funerals — the entire journey of mourning a person’s death through religious commandments and emotional-ethical responses — are drawn on the lines of gender binary. Women are expected to stay back at home, often organize themselves in women-only groups, cry, wail and weep. The feminine has been shaped on the ideal of softness, docility, frailty. Can their fragility allow them to withstand the strain and stress of handling a funeral, detailing stuff to be bought and organizing the event, patriarchy seemed to ask? Masculinity, on the other hand, constructed on the ideal of vigor, strength and stamina seemed to have all the answers in their favor.
In fact, the image of women wailing in a rising and falling crescendo and beating their hearts to express heightened grief have dominated renditions of mourning scenes in popular Indian cinema.
Throughout the modern period, women’s rights movements have intensively focused on owning public spaces that are traditionally a male bastion. Last year, when the Shaheen Bagh women protestors including an older generation of women reclaimed the public space — conventionally the preserve of masculinity — they challenged women’s invisibility in such a space. Later, when farmers in India took to the streets, they countered the patriarchal optics associated with farming that invisibilized women’s work.
Bedi’s act of challenging conventional gender roles doesn’t have any of the collective resonances listed above; it may not rise up to inspire any shared sisterhood. However, it is significant in its singular act of resistance.
Performative gender expects one to perform society-approved gender roles. An act like Bedi’s thus ruffles the feathers of many — both men and women as the vitriolic online posts indicate — including the so-called custodians of patriarchal propriety. Asking questions like ‘why Bedi’ stems from a deep-rooted gender bias and India’s legendary love for the male child. Sons are considered to be rightful heirs to the family name, lineage and property as well as the family’s tradition. Thus, it becomes their ‘natural’ right to perform the last rites of the deceased parent no matter what their age. In fact, so ingrained is this belief system in upper-caste and Brahminical culture that the right, which in itself is an exercise in grief, has come to signify a prestigious status of the male child in mixed-gender households, or the eldest male child in case of a number of male children.
In a nation beleaguered by a skewed sex ratio, such trolling that labels Bedi’s act as shocking, shameful, indecent and upholding misogynist statements like she doesn’t belong to the family line further augments the pain and trauma that women go through by being expected to be a passive entity in a masculine culture.
The recent times have witnessed a culture of patriarchal trolling of women who defy, from journalists to actors and women of all professions and walks of life. Digital custodians — much like their social counterparts — take it unto themselves to show them their ‘true’ place. Misogynist hashtags trend for a few days slut-shaming women, questioning their authenticity and agency. Bedi carrying the bier is an ultimate act of defiance underlining an important message that there’s no such thing called a man’s job after all, and it is enough to stoke digital sexism. Even though the act has the most personal resonance and emotional gravity on her and her children, moral gatekeepers of the online world seem to be asking ‘we expect a grieving wife; but a wife who grieves can’t light the pyre’. Bedi is the best judge of the intensity of her loss, and it is only natural that she gets to perform the last rites as she thus chose.
The patriarchal culture of a funeral also spells out the bodily code of conduct demanding bereaved Hindu wives to be ideally wrapped in widow whites signifying the washing away of the colors of their marital womanhood or femininity. But Bedi ditched the widow-white of a traditional Indian sari, in favor of a gender-neutral white T-shirt and jeans. Naturally, she was screened for propriety and ethical femininity.
In 2019, when Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan, two then newly-elected TMC (Trinamool Congress) Members of Parliament (MP) from West Bengal, posted their first-day Parliament photographs on their Instagram and Twitter pages, their clothes didn’t go down well with the social media junta. While Chakraborty chose a pair of blue jeans and white shirt along with white sneakers, Jahan wore a form-fitting wine-coloured ensemble of pants and peplum-sleeved zipped top. Users attacked the Bengali film actors-turned-politicians, reminding them how the Parliament is a “temple of democracy, not a place for Tik Tok”, or how they wore “indecent and inappropriate clothes”.
Several media reports noted how Bedi was ‘inconsolable’ in her grief, understandably so, but women are more often than not projected in terms of their vulnerability. Exhibiting grief as a proof of their loyalty has come to define society's expectations from a woman. So, not just clothes but body language also comes under patriarchy’s purview.
Last year, actor Rhea Chakraborty’s T-shirt slogan “Roses are red, violets are blue, let's smash the patriarchy, me and you” urged many to speak up. Smashing patriarchy’s guarded doors is important, every day, every time.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)