"I was the first woman to burn my bra - it took the fire department four days to put it out."
― Dolly Parton
Allyson Berri, in her rather interesting article "What's behind Dolly Parton's rejection of feminism?" points out very interesting statistics. She says less millennial black women identify themselves as feminists (21%) compared to white women (26%). 75% of white women felt that feminism had delivered whereas 46% of African American women concurred. In explanation, she suggests that often woman of colour are asked to chose between identities –race or gender and they were not comfortable sacrificing one identity for another.
If this is the complexity of America one can imagine how nuanced is the discourse on feminism in India where each of us-men and women- seamlessly wear a myriad of identities-gender, caste, region, language and ethnicity.
Having read so far, it would reasonable for you to raise your eyebrows and ask as to what all this has to do with the promised legal critique of a series on Amazon Prime-that too of its second season?
My answer is that I propose to examine how this series-the underlying theme of which is women's empowerment, "liberation" being both dated and corny, opts the easy route of oversimplification of the nuance and might, in the long run, damage the cause of the woman in the legal profession.
First, a brief introduction to the readers who have better things to do during lock down-like exercise videos, saree challenges, legal webinars or cooking lessons-than serial binging. "Four More Shots Please-Season Two" (which hereinafter, in tribute to Karan Johar, unless the context should otherwise necessitate, be never be referred to as "FMSP", which expression shall include its subsequent seasons and remakes decades later) is a story of four independent women who strike a friendship at a watering hole in the Millennium City. One is Kavya Arora, a lesbian gym-trainer from Punjab, the second is Damini Roy, an entitled bong journalist whose parents, for some strange reason, break in Bangla as spoken by Jackie Shroff in Devdas, the third is Siddhi Patel, the bubbly, almost schizophrenic, South Bombay Gujju girl who journeys from reticence to rockstar stand up comic in ten episodes and the fourth is Anjana Menon, a lawyer from National Law School (NLS-as she says repeatedly) whose early marriage ends in a divorce, leaving her to balance her time between an adorable baby girl and a demanding law-firm practice.
Needless to add, there is an eerie similarity to the very popular "Sex and the City" series, with Manhattan replaced by Mahadevi. The concept of four independent ladies who know what they want and how to get it in a Man's world remains intact. Even in this pack of four there is one lawyer, one writer and one easily embarrassed 'decent' girl. The character Samantha, my personal favorite, seems to have been distributed between the Indian bens and Samara-a Bollywood film star who falls in love with the trainer!
We examine the character of Anjana Menon. I have no cinematographic talent and so I confine my analysis to the portrayal of a lady lawyer through this NLS graduate.
Season Two distributes her life in three phases. The first half has her face male chauvinism in her law firm where she hits the road block of the proverbial boys' club. Conceded that the subtleness of gender discrimination in the legal profession would require some exaggeration to take the message home to the viewer, however, the makers should have known better than to fashion Anjana's firm in the likeness of a khichdi cooked up with bits of Suits, Ally Mcbeal and Boston Legal! I want to know in which firm would the male senior partner have a drinking party inside the office to drive home the boy's club message? That is if you were thick enough not to get it in the preceding scene when Ms Menon's client is handed over to her junior associate in a meeting in their presence-again which ass would do that?
The second phase is the briefest and the funniest. Anjana quits her firm peeved at being passed over for the promotion and fights her first independent case for the poor designer whose dress has been ripped off by a powerful European Haute Couture House. This pits Anjana against the debonair and dashing Mr Bose while inexplicably the two have several meetings with each trying to suppress that irresistible urge to jump under the sheets with the other while having to make do with the sheaves of proposals for settlement. A high five for alternative dispute resolution and mediation apart, even now our informal legal resolution has not reached the levels of juvenility depicted with Ms Menon and Mr Bose flirtatiously snapping at each other in a roomful of mysteriously silent props-Bose's colleagues!
The third phase is when Anjana impresses Bose so much that he offers her senior partnership as well as an entry to his "open marriage". After a little hesitation, enough to establish for the viewer that Ms Menon was not amoral, she is soon completely at ease with jointly vetting a legal contract in the buff with her senior partner, hidden away in a hotel suite. The expressive senior partner and his "new acquisition" have no hesitation in letting their attraction spill over to the conference room-again with the "colleague" props who fail to catch the chemistry between the star crossed lovers-which even a radar in Abbottabad would have detected.
The character Ms Menon therefore etches two extremes of the legal profession for us. At one end is a competent woman lawyer by-passed by a boy's club determined to keep the doors of professional advancement locked for her. At the other is this same hapless soul transformed into a senior partner in a sleeping partnership which also seems to work out swell for her professionally.
Before we proceed further, as Ms Menon is presumably from Kerala and as her heart is in Bombay-let us begin by remembering the very first in the profession from these two places.
Anna Chandy was born in 1905 when the place was known as Trivandrum. She was lucky to have been born in a kingdom whose regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had her heart in the cause of advancement of women. In 1926, when Anna obtained her post graduation degree in law from Government Law College, she became the first woman in Kerala with a law degree. Chandy was a trail blazer taking up causes such as widow remarriage and wage disparity. It was this fire in her which led her to contest the Assembly elections in 1930. Some things have not changed with time and like women in the public space, and women in the legal profession have to face even now, immediate connections with a powerful man had to be traced out. Chandy was unfairly linked with the powerful Deewan of Travancore. Unperturbed she fought on and went on the serve in the Assembly from 1932 to 1934. In the assembly, Chandy thundered at her opponent for trying to "ban all efforts by women to gain employment, on the grounds that they are a bunch of creatures created for the domestic pleasures of men and that their lives outside the hallowed kitchen-temples will harm familial happiness."
It was this spirit that drove Chandy to be elevated as Munsif (judge) in 1937, then District Judge and finally, in 1959, to be the first woman High Court Judge of India.
Justice Chandy was from Ms Menon's home state. She may have been the first lady justice of an Indian High Court, some say Asia, but she certainly was not the first lady lawyer. That distinction went to a certain Parsi gentle-lady from Anjana's adopted city-Mumbai.
The city was called Bombay when Cornelia Sorabjee, one of nine children, became the first female graduate of Bombay University. Cornelia did not rest there. With funds contributed by several benefactors, which included the celebrated Florence Nightingale, this prodigy arrived in England in 1889. In 1892, through a special exemption decree, Sorabjee became the first woman to acquire a Bachelor of Law from Oxford. On return to India, she immersed herself in causes of women's empowerment. The tragedy was she was not permitted to defend women in court on the ground that she did not have an Indian legal qualification. When she remedied that, she was still barred from practice in Indian Courts relying upon a law which disqualified woman lawyers. This foul law would finally be felled only in 1923. Even in 1924 when the Indian profession was open to women, despite the native fascination to hire English lawyers to plead their case, and many an English lawyer flourished in our chartered High Courts, like our Ms Menon would face a century later, Ms Sorabjee was sadly mostly confined to drafting work and giving opinions. She finally called it quits in 1929 and retreated to London.
Would it be fair to weigh down poor Ms Anjana with the weight of this dual legacy? In fact, Anjana is make belief, should any lady lawyer- and mercifully with every passing year, the legal profession in India is seeing more and more women take up their rightful place as officers of the Court –have to be burdened with the weight of the historical struggle being fought for generations by India's women lawyers to find their equal place under the sun in a cloistered eco-system which frowns on merit and is allergic to change?
Before you brush this aside as a storm in a tea cup-an overreaction to what is otherwise a good binge worthy series giving the much needed joy and distraction to thousands sentenced to confinement with little to do, try to close your eyes and picture Mahatma Gandhi. Now honestly admit how many thought of Ben Kingsley! My point being that the suggestive power and subtle influence of the entertainment media cannot be underemphasized.
The traditional barriers to women in the workplace apply with manifold amplification to her existence in the legal eco-sphere. Imagine, this is a profession which starts off by demanding time with the saying "Law is a jealous mistress". With minimal salaries, long gestation, preference for pedigree, the legal profession is a Himalayan challenge for the healthy but unconnected male-so one can imagine what a veritable obstacle course it is for a woman. While lot is collected in the name of lawyer's welfare, as in the case of everything else, the Coronavirus lockdown exposed how the system has remained blinded to the marginalized-lawyers had to crowd fund to support young lawyers left without any earning. There are hardly any initiatives to support lady members with facilities like maternity assistance and child care. It is not the lack of recourses that is the inhibitor every time; it is also the mindset. For example, the biggest stumbling block a lady lawyer on maternity leave faces is how to manage her case-a creative approach could put in place a system of volunteer lawyers who could come to the aide of such women. To my knowledge there is no scheme either to assist young lawyers, men and women rent or purchase office space to start on their own. After all, not all lawyers are as lucky as Ms Menon's boyfriend (incidentally also from the NLS) who from being an intern in season one, in a matter of months, appears as a happening "junior partner" earning enough to want to support the EMI payments of his girlfriend's Bombay Flat!
Sadly, like in all other vocations, from acting to politics, even in law, we always find it so difficult to credit the dramatic success of a woman to her sheer grit, talent and determination. It is so easy to believe the angle of a "male benefactor"-after all that also serves the subtle purpose of discrediting and tainting her achievement. I am afraid that, given that we live in a world with this predisposition, a completely nuance-free, sleeping with a senior partner character might not help the cause of the female litigator in the long run-even if it be as a bona fide tribute to the sexual autonomy of the female of this age.
How would I have viewed Ms Menon? Let's ask how Ms Menon would herself have so wished. No one puts its as well as Tagore through the words of the Manipuri Princess Chitrangada. The besotted Arjuna, the Pandava Prince in exile, offered to put her on a pedestal and worship her if only she accepted his hand in marriage. Chitrangada replied, I neither aspire for a pedestal nor do I desire to serve thee as a slave, if possible treat me as an equal!
(Sanjoy Ghose is a Delhi-based lawyer. He tweets @advsanjoy)
(This is the fourteenth article in the "Law On Reels" series, which explores legal themes in movies)