Welcome to another day in a world where women’s personal choices become a much bigger concern than the dwindling economy. Few days ago, Miss Universe 1994, Sushmita Sen, made headlines as her personal life came to limelight when Lalit Modi declared they are in love. Now Sushmita (46) is a mother, a model, an actress, an entrepreneur, Miss Universe and top of all an independent and financially well to do woman. So what is wrong if she finds love in a 58-year-old businessman? But the internet wasted no time in becoming a self-proclaimed jury. A considerably large section frowned upon her and labelled her a ‘gold digger’ totally disregarding the fact that Sushmita is a smart, witty and intelligent woman capable of making her own decisions (and buying her own gold and diamonds!). “I dig deeper than Gold… and I’ve always (famously) preferred Diamonds!! And yes I still buy them myself!!!” Sushmita had a perfect clapback for the naysayers.
Now, what happens in a relationship between consenting adults is no-one else’s business. But this kind of targetted hatred and trolling is bad news for all women. Few cases in point would be Malaika Arora being trolled for dating a younger Arjun Kapoor, speculations around Samantha Ruth Prabhu demanding a huge alimony from Naga Chaitanya, Dia Mirza being criticised for bearing a child before marriage, someone like Swara Bhasker simply voicing her opinions fearlessly, or even an Urfi Javed choosing bold dresses.
In today’s #BigStory, we seek perspectives from actresses, filmmakers and sociologists, and attempt to find answers to why women are ostracised for making their own independent life decisions. Read on.
Sushmita represents all empowered Indian women
Argue that statement all you want, but Sushmita Sen has often made news for her unconventional life choices. At 24, just a few years after winning Miss Universe, she adopted a daughter as a single mother, and a few years later, a second one. She is independent and bold and fearless of any judgements. She has never kept her relationships under the wraps. She’s dated her fellow actors and most recently, model Rohman Shawl with whom she broke up last year. All of it was done with utter grace and dignity. Anyone who knows Sushmita personally, vouches for her being the self-made successful beautiful woman that she is.
An industry insider tells ETimes, “World over, whether it is in the US or our country, there was once a feeling of euphoria that finally 50 percent of the human population, which is women, is going to be truly emancipated out of the clutches of the old, regressive patriarchal mindsets. And they will be standing equally with the males. But over the years, we have seen the feeling of euphoria erode. And as nations become committed to the so-called traditional values that they use as a tool to control and change people, the first victim is the woman. I think women like Sushmita Sen, Dia Mirza, Swara Bhasker and others are fine women with a mind of their own, they are self-sufficient, who have a gaze which goes beyond the gaze that was given to them when they were perhaps born, or went to school. Simply put, the iron bars of culture, of tradition, of misinterpreted religious ideals will be pulled out and used against women who dare to walk alone, walk tall and walk free.”
Somy Ali finds it rather ironic to call someone as financially independent as Sushmita to be a ‘gold digger’. “Since the time I met and have known Sush, she has been the most intelligent and above all, dedicated her life to being financially independent. She has worked hard which is why she does not need a man to support her, let alone to dig gold out of,” she says.
Veteran filmmaker Aruna Raje believes Sushmita’s life and choices are her own and nobody has any business to question it. “But thanks to social media everybody who is a nobody or anybody has found a voice to speak whatever they want, even give an opinion on matters which require expertise! According to Plato, the Greek philosopher, ‘Opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.’ So I would say to those at the receiving end – just ignore,” she says.
In the words of Pooja Bedi, gratitude is when you count your own blessings and jealousy is when you count the blessings given to others. “Not that it’s our right to make her choices our scrutiny, but she has dated men across various demographics, be it age or finance or geography. It’s an ageist, sexist, patriarchal era we are slowly but surely emerging from. Strong, independent, successful and beautiful women like Sushmita set the stage for progressive change by living life on their own terms and leading the way for other women to follow. She represents the emancipated, empowered Indian woman that we should all admire,” she says.
Yesteryear actress Anu Aggarwal first met Sushmita when she was invited as the chief guest at a function to celebrate wins of both Sushmita Sen as Miss Universe and Aishwarya Rai as Miss World. She says, “Nobody knows the inner reality between Sushmita and Lalit Modi. Let’s leave them alone and wish them well. Age difference doesn’t decide that the relationship will be successful or a failure. Everything is subjective and people troll for anything and rumours also become a talking point. Live and let live.”
There is no age for love
It might sound cliche, but there really is no age to fall in love, and being or not being in a relationship depends on several factors like feelings, respect, commitment, compatibility and so much more.
Somy Ali who has known Malaika personally for years vouches for the stunning and hardworking woman that she is. “She has always been the breadwinner. She was stunning when I was in Mumbai in the 90s and she is stunning when I see her in photos online now. As much as I do not want to dignify the hypocrisy of women dating younger men, to me, this depicts the mindset of our society which is still in the dark ages and where men who are literally 55 years old are dating and playing leading roles with girls in their 20s. Kudos to Malaika Arora, Priyanka Chopra and Dia Mirza for doing whatever the heck they want to. So, what if one has a child before marriage? To me marriage is nothing but a piece of paper, it’s the actual love and bond that makes a marriage, not some caveman rituals,” she says.
A woman’s attire is nobody’s business
Since time immemorial, women have been expected to dress in a ‘modest’ way, not exposing ‘their’ body parts. But it’s ‘their’ body, so shouldn’t it be their choice what they want or do not want to wear? Psychiatrist Harish Shetty notes that a woman, even today, is believed to be an embodiment of virtue and the moral police of not only the family, but also planet Earth. “In our culture, we hold diluted forms of Sita from Ramayana in our psyche and would want to see that in every female gender. Women’s choices about clothes, food, alimony or holidays are socially approved, but divorce, choosing a partner or choosing N numbers of partners after breaking up is looked at as wrong. Such women are labelled as sluts, whores etc. Sushmita has a right to choose her partner and the number of partners doesn’t matter, though the type of choices may tell a different story. The choice of wanting to be together is bilateral and so they may be actual diggers, but they search for love and discover compassion, not dig gold,” he says.
It’s the world of male dominion
For thousands of years, women have been suppressed and subjugated. The society, not just in India but the world over, is male dominated and patriarchal. Aruna Raje agrees, “Even in countries that speak so much and so loudly still dominate women denying them agency over their minds, bodies, thoughts, opinions, choices and actions. Take the United States and the recent anti-abortion law in recent times. They label and ostracise women when they make independent and bold decisions. They are afraid more and more women will follow suit especially when the woman in question is a celebrity or a social media influencer. In fact, when I made ‘Rihaee’ 33 years ago, I was accused of ‘spoiling the women’ with my independent and feminist thinking.”
Social anthropologist and academician, Shiv Visvanathan says patriarchy is doubly hypocritical. “It makes sex voyeuristic and family puritanical. Sushmita’s case here caters to voyeurism but has ‘threatened’ the family of late. The system is clear. Women are the source of crisis and yet their purity defines the system. It would need more than an ordinary social movement to reform this. Meanwhile everyone lives off scandal either as a crisis or entertainment. Patriarchy as entertainment and as authoritarianism is doubly clear. Without a regular supply of scandal, patriarchy wouldn’t survive. The reciprocity of voyeurism and tyranny is obvious,” he says.
Anu Aggarwal admits she has been a prey to this social ostracism and has seen the worst hit coming from other women more than men. “It is the dissatisfaction we collectively face, the root cause of which is our ignorance, we are far from the joy within us. Hence we blame other people, rebuke, criticise, throw stones at them as we, by and large, are an unhappy lot of people. As a young girl, I faced so much public humiliation. But my success as a supermodel, and ‘Aashiqui’ shut the wagging tongues,” she says.
Filmmaker Amit Khanna believes though the mindset has changed a lot, patriarchy is still prevalent especially in small towns. “India is a patriarchal society and many men are misogynists. It’s an idiotic thing to say. What is this gold digger? I think the mindset has changed a lot today, but in small towns it is still prevalent. What’s happening on social media is the result of this. One has the ability to address anyone, it has become a platform to abuse people,” he notes.
Somy Ali opines women will always be ostracised by men because we live in a male dominated society. “Unless this mindset is modified nothing will change where it comes to women being objectified. I have dealt with it personally after my pink sari song in ‘Anth’ to an extent where comments circulated that, ‘Somy is an easy lay.’ Wearing sexy dresses doesn’t call for you to be deemed an “easy lay” or a slut. And I am not referring to trolls, I am talking about the industry men from the actors, producers and directors. Many of them have this thought process. Unless the male mindset is brought to 2022, things will remain the same. Keep in mind that this objectification has been going on from the Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman era,” she says.
Taking baby steps towards a change
As Sushmita rightly said in her Instagram post, “It’s heartbreaking to see just how miserable and unhappy the world around us is becoming.” Vikram Bhatt who has dated Sushmita Sen in the past strongly came out in her support saying she isn’t a ‘gold digger’ but a ‘love digger’. Talking about this name-calling, he says, “It’s not just about women, it’s about society at large. I think we’ve become a society where we have been given the ultimate weapon. That ultimate weapon is not to be able to say anything we want, but to be able to hide and say anything we want. On social media you can hide behind any name or number and that gives you the freedom to say what you want, throw memes, forward memes. You probably wouldn’t do it if your names were there. It just shows that people are mean, they enjoy bringing down other people, just because they can hide behind a curtain of anonymity. That is the problem. I think social media should come up with a rule that either you verify yourself or you are not allowed on social media. Then this nonsense can stop,” he says.
Pooja Bedi has a rather philosophical way of looking at it. “If lockdown has taught everyone anything, it’s that life is too short and fragile. Live fully, love fully and die empty of regrets. What people say is a reflection of their limitations. It should not become yours,” she says.
Aruna Raje is confident things will change. “I don’t know how long it will take to change but I do believe it will change. Every step is like a baby step but eventually you do reach your destination if you keep going! Only this week, the country chose a woman President from a tribal community and the Supreme Court ruled that we can’t deny choices of abortion to unmarried women,” she points out.