What would the world be if men were afraid of women?
The recent disappearance and murder of Mollie Tibbetts was not a big story in India. Tibbetts disappeared while jogging near her home in Iowa in the summer of 2018 and was found dead in a cornfield after a month-long search. Cristhian Bahena Rivera is accused of following her, and eventually murdering her, during her run.
For many women, this piece of news is a nightmare coming true and something we have all thought of as a consequence of being out in public spaces on our own. Being out and about feels safe only as long as an unfamiliar man is not around. Women do not miss the unfortunate irony of men who laud themselves as the protector of women when so often a space without men is a space we feel most comfortable and safe in.
Be that as it may, women have always tried to act out through big and small rebellions by being where we are not “supposed” to be. Campaigns like Girls at Dhabas and Why Loiter encourage women to reclaim public spaces, at all times of the day and night, by taking over streets, lanes, parks, eateries, shops, pavements, countrysides and other places where men make women feel unwelcome.
It is only through this constant and untiring act of being where one shouldn’t be and doing what one shouldn’t do, that women can surmount this unequal world that has been meted out to us.
It is with the backdrop of this reality that I watched Stree.
Stree tells the story of a small town in north India that is haunted by a ghost (that the town folks simply call “stree”—woman). Stree emerges and roams the streets of the town for four nights every year. During those four nights of pooja, any man not constrained behind the walls of his house is in danger of being picked up by Stree.
She seduces men and then takes them away, only leaving their clothes behind as evidence of their disappearance. The film is based on an actual popular folk legend, Nale Ba, prevalent in many parts of South Asia. Those who believe say that Stree is a bridal ghost and shapeshifter roaming around in search of her husband, kidnapping men from the safety of their house. The legend goes that the ghost is the unhappy spirit of any unsatisfied woman who has been unjustly killed by cruel men.
In the film, the town lives in constant fear of this powerful spirit, painting the words “Oh stree kal aana” (Oh woman, come tomorrow) on their walls as a protective mantra to keep Stree out of their houses. What follows is an entertaining horror-comedy that, true to its genre, dishes out witty dialogues with equal measures of eerie background score and sudden cuts. The filmmaker wants to make you laugh but also wants you a little spooked, but in the process, you cannot miss the point he is trying to make.
This is the world that women live in every day, and have forever. Fearing men, women are asked to stay behind closed doors to feel protected (even though seven out of 10 rapes are committed by someone who is known to the survivor). Women are told to be in public spaces only if they must and preferably in the company of a man they are related to. If at all she must be out, she should be back before sundown.
In the town, we see in the film, the power dynamics are suddenly flipped during these four days: men are terrified to step out alone or even in groups, while women are out and about getting things done.
The women in the town are least worried about Stree and scoff at the terrified men who think this unholy detention is unthinkable. Men, who do want to be out, eventually resort to wearing sarees to fool Stree into believing that they are women. But what you wear has never changed if you get attacked or not, has it? There are also some clever dialogues about consent and “yes means yes”, a concept even a female ghost understands, but men find difficult to digest.
By staying in the comic space, the film presents the absurdity of the situation that fear creates. One never knows if the fear is real or imagined. You can only know if stree is real once you step out and expose yourself to the danger, because life, after all, has to go on. But as films go, there is a solution to this problem, too.
A little flipping through ancient texts and deconstruction of urban legends later the motley group of protagonists – Raj Kumar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Aparshakti Khurana, Abhishek Banerjee, and Pankaj Tripathi – figure out how they can get rid of this ghost haunting their town.
This scenario is not too far removed from what many women, surely, have fantasised about. The injustice of women being deprived of public spaces and experiences because of the fear of men provokes the question: If men are the perpetrators, shouldn’t they be kept away from public spaces? Like in this and other horror films, the evil force wreaking havoc is banished through some black magic and lost-and-retrieved wisdom. But because life is not a film, men can’t and shouldn’t be expelled from public spaces the way ghosts are.
Women know this too well: though men benefit disproportionately and unfairly from the system, the feminist fight is against patriarchy and not with men. A world without men is actually not what women want, contrary to the picture conveniently painted of feminists. This misconception about modern feminists even finds a witty ode in the film when the ghost is referred to as a ‘padhi likhi chudail’ (an educated witch).
The film, however, does try to venture a guess at what women want – some love and respect, they say.
But this is where women might disagree with the blueprint of the better world that men try to build for women. Yes, we want love and respect, but we also want so much more. We want independence of thought, body, and action; we want opportunities and the freedom to succeed and fail by our own terms; we want to be angry, noisy, messy, irresponsible; we want to laugh out loud when we want to and not be compelled to laugh at all if we don’t feel like it; we want equal pay for equal work; we want to not be victimised for what we wear, say, or do; we do not want to be held to ransom because we have a uterus that can reproduce (or not); we want justice; we want to travel; we want space to be alone; we want to be lazy; we want to be powerful, call the shots, and govern countries; we want to work without being held back by sexual harassment; we want to live without fear; we want the option of living a life without a man; and we want, most of all, to do all the things that men get to do simply by virtue of being a man.
Stree, in a humorous way, tries to explain to men the world that women live in, by flipping the scenario.
It does what Atticus Finch, the endearing character from Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, calls ‘climbing into someone else’s skin and walking around in it’. But the question remains, is there anything other than fear—of mockery, humiliation, ostracisation, or punishment—that can inspire men to climb into a woman’s skin and learn how to just let us be?