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"We can't kill the child, right?" - it been decades, but Bollywood still fails to disappoint us when it comes to addressing reproductive rights, especially abortion. Every now and then a film comes out wherein the topic of abortion is broached, but it always boils down to shaming women and making them apologetic if they take a stand. From Zeher to Sultan, unplanned pregnancies lead to one conversation - let's not kill the child. Despite the law and guidelines stating that ascribing personhood to a foetus is dangerous messaging, Bollywood seems to turn a deaf ear. Netflix's Mimi, starring Kriti Sanon in the lead, is no exception. While the topic of surrogacy is handled well, when it comes to abortion it takes ten steps back.
Let's take a look at some films and assess how urgent and important it is to speak up for a change:
The Netflix film follows a small-town girl Mimi (Kriti Sanon), who dreams of going to Mumbai and becoming an actor. But Mimi knows it’s an expensive dream. Desperate for money and the fear of time slipping away, Mimi agrees to be a surrogate for an American couple shopping for ‘healthy’ girls in India. As luck would have it, the couple runs away, leaving a pregnant, young girl to fend for herself. During a visit to the clinic, Mimi’s doctor tells her that more often than not couple’s abandon the surrogates, leading the latter to opt for abortions. For a heavily-pregnant Mimi, abortion might not an option. And this is where the film falters. It gives Mimi a lengthy dialogue on how a child grows inside the womb, thus making it a crime to ‘kill’ the foetus. It’s not enough to handle the topic of surrogacy sensitively. A message about anti-abortion is harmful enough when so much is at stake.
“I killed my child because of you” - Sonia (Shamita Shetty) tells Sidharth (Emraan Hashmi) in the film. Sonia goes on to point out that just because Sidharth wanted to ruin her career and keep her locked at home, he got her pregnant. Now, this is too real a situation, where men and women are constantly struggling with their desires, ambitions and roles in marital relationships.
But constantly equating abortion with murder is ascribing personhood to a foetus is dangerous messaging and adds to the stigma, especially when women are still struggling with getting safe abortions done.
Salaam Namaste has one of the most offensive sequences when it comes to addressing abortion. When Ambar (Preity Zinta) and her partner Nikhil (Saif Ali Khan) realise that they are pregnant, they take a decision to abort the foetus. “Get rid of it, let’s kill it!”, Nikhil exclaims. To which Ambar rightly replies, “The word is abortion, we need an abortion. Don’t say kill it”. The level-headed woman even goes on to school her anti-choice gynaecologist that she, and only she, gets to decide what she wants to do with her body. Do we see a ray of hope? Absolutely not. As Ambar’s determination becomes stronger, the most bizarre thing happens. She is shown an ultrasound of a heavily-pregnant woman. Medical ethics, privacy - did they suddenly disappear?
Soon after the ultrasound incident, Ambar makes a U-turn and declares, ‘I can’t kill it’. Without wasting a breath Nikhil retorts, “The word is abortion”. These dialogues are meant for laughs, when in reality making light about a subject as grave as abortion deserves nothing but criticism.
The sequence about abortion is pivotal to the film. Priyanka Chopra’s character makes it clear that she wants to go in for an abortion not because she is scared of having a child out of wedlock, but because she wants to focus on her career. “Having this child is not my ambition. You know how hard I worked to get here. I have imagined a different life for myself”, Sonia tells Raj (Akshay Kumar). What does the film do to Sonia? Makes her the villain and clothes her in all sexist stereotypes. After learning about her decision to abort the foetus, a selfish, misogynistic Raj immediately leaves her for another woman Priya (Kareena Kapoor), just because she agreed to bear his child.
With Priya, Aitraaz stoops further. She is diametrically opposite Sonia. Priya is the ‘ideal’ woman that Bollywood has fed us for ages. Despite being a lawyer she applies for the post of a secretary and mistakes Raj for his neighbour-friend, a barrister. Raj does not make any attempt to clear the confusion. Instead, he makes Priya work for her just because he starts liking her. And even after finding out about this deception, Priya pretends to forget everything and marries Raj. It’s disappointing that despite having two women propel the narrative, Aitraaz does nothing to give them the basic dignity.
The Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma-starrer has a sequence wherein Arfaa Hussein (Anushka) is made to feel terrible after she conceives. “How will you wrestle? Will you win gold with a pregnant belly?” Arfaa’s father blurts, clearly alluding that the world has come to an end. Arfaa, too, believes the same as she says she will live her dreams through Sultan (Salman). Time and again we see women in Hindi films crushing their ambitions, their passions because of unplanned pregnancies when an option like abortion does exist.
Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi
Seema Pahwa’s directorial debut is all heart. It deals with fragile relationships, the circus that unfolds in the name of rituals when someone passes away and how grief is something very personal and intimate. Coming to relationships, we see a husband and wife drifting away, forcing themselves to move on despite being haunted by past unresolved issues. Towards the end of Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, we see Seema (Konkona Sen Sharma) apologising to Nishant (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) for the transgressions in their marriage. We get fleeting glimpses of an abortion that Seema went through. The film cleverly avoids specifying as to why Seema is apologetic. But it’s hard to look away from the fact that the abortion sequence didn’t get the due importance it should have.
Well past her prime, journalist Deepti Batra (Kareena Kapoor) decides to go for IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) as she faces problems conceiving. Good Newzz has a promising start, but the descent is as steep. Hell breaks loose when the Batras fall victim to medical negligence and there’s a sperm mix-up with another Punjabi couple by the same surname.
The moment this shocking revelation comes out, Deepti's husband Varun (Akshay Kumar) proclaims that she get an abortion done. Not even once is the woman asked for her opinion and it’s shocking that she stays mum on whether or not to keep the child. If that isn’t enough, there’s a cringeworthy anti-abortion lecture that falls out of the doctor’s mouth. While getting a sonography done, Dr Joshi (Tisca Chopra) makes Deepti watch to the heartbeat of the foetus and then asks her if she would like to ‘kill’ the child. “Being pregnant is a blessing for any woman, but it is a miracle in your case,” beams the doc, and Deepti is brainwashed. She even passes that bug on to her husband - “We don’t want to be murderers, right?” Is this supposed to be the progressive drama of 2019 wherein an anti-abortion stance goes unchallenged?
Step in the Right Direction
On one hand, we have Bollywood regressing back years and on the other Malayalam film Sara’s has taken a step in the right direction to discuss women’s reproductive rights. From spelling out the details of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, to showing the leading lady’s (Anna Ben) disinterest in children and advocating for a woman’s right to abortion, Sara’s, along with all its flaws, makes a brave statement.
“It’s not that I don’t like kids. I just don’t have the knack of handling them, and neither did it seem essential to me. For me, a person’s ultimate aim should be to contribute something through which the world can remember you, not just to have kids and be remembered by them”, Sara Vincent explains.
To have a full-blown commercial film offering unconditional support to women who don’t want to become mothers makes Sara’s important. It reiterates what millions across the world have been screaming for decades - Her body, her choice. Nothing else matters.
The Grim Picture
An article in Indiaspend states that after an amended law received the President’s assent in March 2021, the terms of abortion have been liberalised in India. However, gender and reproductive rights activists are were dismayed that the law still does not recognise abortion as a woman's choice that can be sought on-demand, as is the practice in 73 countries. It still gives doctors, and not women, the final say.
The report also states that in 2015, 15.6 million abortions were accessed annually in India, according to a study in The Lancet. Of these, 78% or 12.3 million were conducted outside health facilities.
At a time when unsafe abortions are a raging concern in the country, shouldn’t mediums open their minds and include issues that are claiming the lives of millions? One might argue that in the real world, women still consider ‘abortion’ a crime. But what about millions of those who think differently and are fighting to bring about a change? Aren’t they considered worthy enough to be given screen space in films and shows?
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