Friday, 24 May 2013

Anna Karenina & 21st Century Asian Women

This post is for the movie-buffs, the theatre enthusiasts and especially for my female readers.

In my last semester, we studied an essay by Tolstoy, which inspired me to go hunting for a few of this Russian fellow's books at the Delhi Book Fair. I found Anna Karenina, one of his most notable pieces of work, an intimidating three-inches thick. It is a story about a Russian aristocratic woman of the 19th century, married to a politician, and her rise and fall in St Petersburg society as she finds herself entangled in an extramarital love affair.

I know this is usually considered the Cardinal sin in bookworm-society, but I am going to say it anyway: I enjoyed the movie better than the book. Cue the collective gasp.

In a time when Hollywood is constantly churning out 3D-overkills that assault the senses, or comic-book-themed remake after remake, or endless stupid sequels - I realized I had not seen a great movie in a very, very long time, and since the 90s I'd say the number of truly great and original cinema productions are few enough to count on my fingers. Then I watched Anna Karenina yesterday.

I'm going to try to hold back on spoilers in this review because I'd hate to give you too many details - I want you to watch it and experience it for yourself. But I will say that the movie was beautifully executed: it was a movie, pretending to be a play. The characters walked on and off a great wooden stage, fake screens were put up and removed to change scenes, the soundtracks were in the style of extras walking through the scenes with trumpets and accordions, spotlights dropped on main characters to cue a dramatic moment. Anna Karenina the movie may have had its storyline borrowed from Tolstoy's book but as a whole, the movie is in a league of its own; it is a different experience from the book entirely.

My favourite scene was when Anna - now openly in an affair with the young military man Vrosnky, now openly cuckolding her politician husband who is considered a 'saint' and 'the savior of Russia' - is seated in her box at the opera. The music suddenly drops, the dramatic spotlight hits her face, the heads of the ladies in the hall are all turned towards her, and among the hushed whispers as they point and stare are little loud snippets of conversation as one aristocratic lady after another commits character-assassination. Anna can only bite her lip and burn beneath the caustic stares and the glaring spotlight.

The best part about the movie is the fact that none of the actors, at least to me, are extraordinary. Keira Knightley, Jude Law, John Cusack, and the rest perform suitably, but are ordinary in their performances - and that allows the dramatic stage-styling of the movie to do half the work; powerhouse performances along with the dramatic format may certainly have ended up in overkill, and the focus on any one actor's performance would have taken away from the movie's success in drawing out the theme of the story (more on that soon) with such precision.

Now what does any of this have to do with 21st century Asian women? Readers of the book probably already know, but for the rest of you - the book and the movie, in very distinct ways, address the issue of loveless marriages. The movie is a treatise on the arranged marriage based on 'wealth' and 'family name' -- a phenomenon still common to people today predominantly in Asia. That society has a lot of parallels with a 21st century Sri Lankan or Indian one: the patriarchal power system, the restricted sexuality of women, the commercialism of the marriage arrangement. The microscope plunges deeper into the issue as it focuses on women in this complex cultural setting. There are three relationships running through the length of this 19th century Russian tale: and two to me are most significant in this discussion -- the one in which Anna has an extramarital affair, and the one in which her brother has an extramarital affair. Tolstoy chooses to have these two tales running parallel - to show us the obvious differences, between a man who has an affair outside marriage, and a woman who does the same. While Anna must face the growling monster of St Petersburg aristocratic society, that condemns her for her loss of virtue (19th century slut-shaming) - her brother barely gets even a rap on the knuckles.

Some people might say the whole point at the end of it is that 'hey, women should have the freedom to have affairs outside marriage too!' but I think that's over-simplifying it. I think the movie is doing less to preach about what should be the ideal, and is doing more to simply show us the ugly underbelly and the chaos within a society riddled with hypocrisy and gender bias. The scenes reach a climax as Anna's children, both by her husband and her lover, are pulled into the mess. At one point her husband threatens with divorce - which he predicts will result in inevitably 'driving her to the streets' (Anna's brother meanwhile continues undisturbed in his sexual liaisons outside marriage). At another point, when Anna is settled down with her lover, she is racked with guilt and insecurities, because she knows she has done 'wrong' - she is a woman who has 'acted against god' by breaking her wedding vows, and the society around her is a constant reminder of it, and she clings on to Vronsky, constantly expecting him to leave her, for her upbringing has taught her that a woman who has done what she has done is wretched and undeserving of love and happiness.

For women and especially for women who think of and discuss female issues, Anna Karenina the movie is an absolute gut-wrenching must-watch (and of course, get the book too, though like I said, that would deserve an entirely different kind of review). What is the nature of individual human freedom? How far do society's norms have the right to play a part in it? What is 'duty' in marriage - duty to one's children, to one's spouse - and how does it interact with 'love'? Is love superior to duty or vice versa? And the most important topic of all the questions posed in this story - the agency that women have over their own lives, and the traps laid out by women and men of our own society today (and once upon a time in Russia) to desperately keep women from exercising that agency. As opposed to simply throwing around the very over-used statement 'give women equal rights and freedom!' - Tolstoy, this movie, and its contextual release in the 21st century, may inspire you to look beyond the rhetoric and see just how complex and intricate our system of gender bias is, how many layers there are to it - political/ religious/ cultural/ economical - and to truly begin to strategize on how best to dive into the deep quagmire that is organized-oppression, and start cleaning up this monumental mess we have allowed to fester. 

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