Thursday, December 15, 2011

Malayali women in the public sphere: More power to Ranjini Haridas

Many Malayalis love to hate Ranjini Haridas, the anchor of the popular reality show Idea Star Singer which airs on Asianet . Ranjini is a smart, articulate woman with a good sense of humour. She actively participates in the music reality show she anchors, interceding with comments.

I want to say that a lot of the opposition to Ranjini's dress and her accent is not because of her dress and accent, but because she behaves in a way a nice Malayalee girl is NOT supposed to behave. A good Malayalee girl is supposed to be quiet and demure in public. Adakkavum othukkavum is drilled into little girls from the time they can talk. Kerala's physical public spaces are so very M*A*L*E. Even in Kochi, the supposedly most cosmopolitan city of Kerala, you will find very few women without a male escort outside at night in our streets or in public transport. Maybe, the IT/BPO culture will change that, but women have to pay a price until that happens, as Thasni Banu can testify. I think it was in a report published in the Kochi city edition of the New Indian Express that several female sales personnel were quoted talking of sexual harassment they frequently encounter in streets and in public transport when they rush back home at night.

The tragic rape and death of Sowmya highlighted how a nice Malayalee girl is created. It was repeatedly highlighted that she was going home for her "pennukaanal". She was constructed as a perfect victim, the good daughter who was working to support her family, who was looking forward to being married and leading a "settled" life. Only an adangia othungia Malayalee girl would get this treatment. Makes me wonder if a prostitute or a divorced woman would get a similar reception in our papers. Many thanks to J Devika's Kafila article for spurring my thoughts.

So, that brings me back to Ranjini Haridas. Some bloggers have accused her of being patronising towards contestants from subaltern backgrounds and of buying into the classical music is pure music and everything else is impure dogma (do note the words "pure" and "impure" also resonates of caste). Ranjini has caste and class working in her favour, no doubt. It is doubtful if someone (man/woman) from a subaltern background would have been able to "get away" with challenging supposed social niceties so long. Prof. Crenshaw will not be happy at this teasing out caste, class and gender separately but for simplifying the analysis let me indulge in that for a bit, focusing only on Ranjini as a Malayalee W*O*M*A*N

As a woman, she has faced more scrutiny than say, Sreekantan Nair or other male anchors precisely because she refused to fit into the pre-cast mould of dovish female anchors on Malayalam TV. In dual (male-female) anchor shows, there has been more than one instance of the male anchor hogging all the attention while the female anchor is made to stand there as a dumb barbie doll.

The Malayalam actor Jagathi Sreekumar made some comments about her anchoring style and questioned why she was "judging" the participants when there are judges on the show in the grand final of Munch Star Singer (also aired on Asianet) which was held before a live audience in a stadium. I think this was a sexist attack that was against Ranjini's in-your-face, not-adangi and not-othungi style of anchoring. Jagathi is a fine actor, but he had no business commenting on her anchoring style in public. If he was so bothered about it, he could have talked privately about it, but why make it public? Because Jagathi like most (all?) Malayali men are alpha-male. Would he have said that to Sreekantan Nair or Jagadeesh in a public forum? I doubt it. A woman, especially some one like Ranjini who is outspoken is fair game.

Ranjini handled it well and while researching for this post, I came across a piece by her explaining why she did not give it back to Jagathy in the same coin. She has a better sense of propriety than our thespian. So more power to Ranjini.

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