“I don’t care what you think, I am going to do what I believe is right,” says Aama to her daughter in one of the screenplays I am writing. This simple line somehow manages to irk a lot of my colleagues and friends. Almost everyone who reads the script wants the mother’s character to be a little less selfish.
For me, the character was only about a woman being honest about her feelings, so I ignored these suggestions but many similar opinions compelled me to rethink. Maybe the problem was in my writing; that the script didn’t justify her words and actions. I reworked the character sketch, redrafted sequences and exaggerated scenarios. Even then, the comments echoed the same responses – the mother sounds self-centered and therefore the audience won’t like her.
Clearly, if so many people felt the same way, there was something I was missing, something I didn’t understand. I started looking up mother characters in film and literature and around that exact time, a Nepali film centered on the mother character was trending on Nepali YouTube. I was advised to watch this much-appreciated film to learn something, and so I did. Unfortunately, my experience was an extremely uncomfortable one.
Throughout the film, this mother character is tortured and tormented. There isn’t a single scene where she’s allowed anything outside of grief. And such treatment is not limited to this particular character, all leading women characters are made to suffer deeply onscreen, and it’s only their pain that defines them. They are all wives and mothers who have no identity beyond these roles. In rare instances where they had some room to explore their femininity, the film strips it away. The plot is two hours of women being devastated, crying and being helpless.
Having seen and experienced a few things myself, this film was triggering something in me. My experience was made worse by the fact that the films seem to glorify this trauma. It seems to suggest that bearing torture without flinching is what women are supposed to do; it’s what makes them sheroes. The film was trauma porn for me.
Trauma porn is defined as any media content that showcases a particular group’s pain in excessive amounts for the sake of entertainment. And although it might seem like the voice of the voiceless at the outset, trauma porn is never created for those already tormented; instead, it consoles or entertains the non-marginalised group, the ones who never have to experience any of the traumas.
Women’s stories shouldn’t be defined by sacrifices, birthing children, and nurturing the men in their lives. Sure, these aspects can be a part of their stories, but reducing and limiting them to only these themes because it makes good drama is wrong.
These stories only cater to the maker’s ego. It’s similar to poverty porn, where some rich Western charity campaigns depict Asian and African children as poor, dirty and malnourished, only to gain sympathy and outreach. In the process, these organisations gather huge amounts of applause, fame and money.
Similarly, in films, privileged filmmakers decide to become saviours and tell stories of those cheated by the system. In June last year, The Help (2011) became the number one film on Netflix US, but the film was heavily criticised for the white saviour complex. Viola Davis, one of the leads was quoted saying that she regrets accepting her role in the film. “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” she told The New York Times in 2018.
That’s exactly how I felt about this particular film. The women and their trauma were only plot devices to shock and surprise the audience, to make the film exciting. This kind of storytelling is exploitive and women who are already experiencing this treatment first hand don’t need the same to be glorified on screen. We know how repressed we have been in the Nepali culture, please spare us the reminders.
I am not arguing here that we can’t tell stories of hardships – we can and we should, but in a way that doesn’t turn the weak into helpless victims who deserve pity and nothing more.
In this particular film, the problems arise because the camera’s gaze belongs to a man. It fits perfectly into how the patriarchy sees its women. In glorifying their trauma, the film seems to suggest that women are worthy of love, respect and glory only when they sacrifice everything they have.
The final scene where one of the leads decides to shave her head beside her mother’s funeral pyre is shot in an almost dreamlike slow motion. It’s like the camera is romanticising taking away something that is intrinsically linked to her identity. Another time, the loss of the mother character’s husband is followed by dramatic shots of pouring rain drenching her body and washing away her sindoor. These painting-like frames are the most beautifully shot scenes in the film. But the film’s obsession with glorifying and romanticising trauma was truly de-humanising.
At its core this film isn’t about women’s pain, it’s about a man witnessing women’s pain because throughout it tests women on how much they can endure for their husband, father, children…
And how does the film justify this treatment? Through a scene where the son says something in the lines of, “God can’t be everywhere and therefore he made mothers, you are God, mother…” And not far from its style, this scene is also adorned with smooth camera movements and melancholic background music. The artistic choices making you believe that this mother should indeed be Godly and only behave as such.
Unfortunately, this film is not an isolated case, the media has always used mother’s love as bait to sell products. Think of all the times, ‘Aama-ko-Mamta’ was used by poets, films, banks, shampoos, food, and even skin products to propagate their personal agendas. And in all these years of using mothers to make money, they never imagined mothers with their own dreams, or with a life outside of family and marriage. This glorification is so hyped that we’ve stopped seeing mothers as individuals.
Based on the comment section, where most people seem to be praising the film for depicting how Godly mothers and wives are, it seems like the audiences found the film enlightening and even entertaining. However, as makers and artists, we need to question ourselves if such films are painting the picture that the only thing women have to offer is sacrifice.
Women’s stories shouldn’t be defined by sacrifices, birthing children, and nurturing the men in their lives. Sure, these aspects can be a part of their stories, but reducing and limiting them to only these themes because it makes good drama is wrong. I hope the audiences who watch Nepali cinema can remember that we, women, are more than what the mainstream media chooses to say about us – that we don’t have to fit into neat little boxes of self-sacrificing Gods, and that we are just humans who can feel anger and sometimes practice self love even though it may be deemed selfish.