HE SOUNDS LIKE SHE! Voice and Gender in Aurat Raj
this is an academic paper (of sorts) so apologies if it gets boring.
The annals of Pakistani cinema have produced many a bizarre and wonderful film. Yet few can match the harmonious balance between surreal farce and aesthetic ambition found in “Aurat Raj” (Women’s Rule)
The film works on several levels – as a scathing political satire, as a film layered in intertextual references to the industry and its aesthetics and as a provocative commentary on sexual relations. From a technical standpoint though, the film’s most striking feature is its use of voice, and that is what this paper will be focusing on.
It is the aim of this paper to show that the use of voice in Aurat Raj serves to convey the film’s message through disembodying the voice from the body, and using that disconnect to rearticulate methods of gender representation on screen.
Before we begin to understand how voice is used in such a manner, we must first break down what this paper refers to as the ‘message’ of this film. To understand that, it is vital to contextualize this cinematic text.
The plot of Aurat Raj is delightfully fantastic – a young wife (played by Rani) gets tired of her philandering husband’s shenanigans, and decides to take revenge. She rounds up like-minded feminists, who break hell on their male counterparts, leading to riots. Peace is brokered through the promise of elections, which are promptly won by the women’s party. Upon assuming power, the wife acquires a bomb, which can reverse genders – making men into women and women into men. The bomb is detonated, and society is turned on its head, as men learn about the ignominies faced by women on a daily basis.
Ostensibly then, this film is about celebrating women, highlighting the injustices meted out to them, and asserting their right to equality and power. But that wouldn’t be an accurate reading.
Khurram Shafique, one of Pakistani cinema’s most noted critics and historians, writes that
“The cinema of woman has yet to be born in Pakistan. Our films, as they come, are fantasies created by me… I would consider our cinema as a manifestation of the male unconscious because all movies are fashioned by men’s choices and all female roles appearing within them are “male-identified”, or “women as perceived by men rather than women as they really are”.”
This is the first important part to keep in mind when trying to understand this film – it is not made for women, even though it is about them. The film actually uses women to make a statement to men. However, before I explain this further, another distinction has to be made.
The staple product of South Asian cinema is the masala film. As a generalized term used to describe a vast body of cinematic work, its definition can be unwieldy. However, two basic criteria for such films can be fleshed out, which are also relevant to our discussion here.
Firstly, as Nayar explains,
“… such movies do not take the form of a literacy-driven object. Instead, the conventional [masala] film possesses clear characteristics of oral performance and orally transmitted narratives, conspicuously sharing traits with, for example, Homeric epic and the Indian Mahabharata. It is a cultural product that has been historically circumscribed by the psychodynamics of orality – that is, by the thought processes and personality structures that distinguish a non-writing mindset, and, as such, it is a product that employs specific devices and motifs that are traditionally part of orally based storytelling.”
With regards to narrative in particular, we turn to Vasudevan, who writes that
“masala films represent a moral universe, the disruption of which initiates the narrative action… [and] restoring order or resolving the disruption is usually the goal of the narrative.”
Aurat Raj is firmly within the realms of the masala film, and as such, the intended message of the film has to be interpreted within these constraints.
I will posit here that the purpose of the film is to show to men how women are dealt with in a patriarchal society. It serves to explain to men what it would be like to walk in a woman’s shoes.
The basis for this claim lies firstly in the fact that this film, like others before and after it, is not showing women in any other manner than the way they are portrayed in society and on screen. It is a view of society through male eyes. Secondly, the moral rupture in the film arises from the actions of the playboy husband, and as such the film’s resolution lies in him understanding, accepting and resolving his follies.
Both points are further emphasised by the fact that almost the entire film exists as the husband’s dream – a dream that shows him the error of his ways. At the end of the film, the husband wakes up, and immediately begs his wife for forgiveness. Thus, we can safely say that the entire narrative is one viewed by a man, and serves to educate man about his responsibilities.
This point is further strengthened by the fact that after the bomb’s detonation, society itself remains the same. Men (the new woman) are teased, exploited and continuously treated as properties and objects. Therefore, the film is not seeking to extrapolate the nature of a society ruled by women, or how women would react to being handed over the power held by men.
It is also important to also realise that in contrast to western ideas about gender, the masala film equates gender equality through a system where both genders are constrained in their choices. The contours of those constraints are provided by the boundaries of the moral universe within which these films reside. Thus, it would be unwise and futile to try and find ways in which the film could service intellectual feminism as it is defined in the west, simply because that is a subject matter alien to such films. This point is showcased at the film’s climatic battle scene, where the genders are reversed to their original settings, and both men and women decide to battle together to defeat the foreign armies invading their country.
We can now turn our conversation towards the use of voice within this film. How does Aurat Raj employ the idea of voice? The main clue is provided by the fact that the notorious bomb that inflicts a gender-bender on the entire society is named the “Awaz Bomb” (Voice Bomb).
The choice of names makes it explicitly clear that voice is the primary link to gender. The switching of the voices then, is the most definable characteristic of the new gender equation in the film. Although men find themselves dressed as women and vice versa, the criteria for defining gender representation on screen is deemed to be the voice, which is also switched for both genders. Thus for most of the film, male actors dubbed the dialogue for females, and their female counterparts dubbed the male actors’ lines. In terms of power politics, this is very important. The bodies of the actors trade positions within society, but the voices retain those places – the oppressed men speak with the voices of women, and vice versa. Hence, the film’s articulation of its message is through voice, and its position in society.
To understand what this means in terms of film theory, we must look at how voice is employed within cinema.
According to Lyotard,
“… the mise-en-scene turns written signifiers into speech, song and movements executed by bodies… and this transcription is intended for other living bodies – the spectators… The idea of performance… seems linked to the idea of the inscription on the body.”
Doane expounds upon this idea further, writing that
“The value of thinking the deployment of the voice in the cinema by means of its relation to the body (that of the character, that of the spectator) lies in an understanding of the cinema, from the perspective of a topology, as a series of spaces including that of the spectator – spaces which are often hierarchized or masked, one by the other, in the service of a representational illusion.”
As we can see from here, the voice is one aspect of a topology of spaces, which are all creating a representational illusion. It therefore stands to reason that the shuffling of these spaces is not only possible, but that it would necessarily lead to a different representation of a certain illusion.
Doane acknowledges the possibility of such shifts and recognizes them in the writings of Lyotard as well:
“Lyotard speaks of the post-modernist text, which escapes the closure of representation by creating its own addressee, “a disconcerted body, invited to stretch its sensory capacities beyond measure.” Such an approach can be seen as an attempt to create a politics based on erotics.”
As explained before, Aurat Raj is not seeking to explicitly create a new politics, but rather showcasing the discrepancy within existing politics between the genders. As such, we can see that the intellectual, and more importantly, technical possibility of switching voices for genders (a task much more difficult for theatre or literature for example) is used as a device by the film to further its own plot.
Since neither the film’s narrative nor its resolution seeks to challenge the conventional moralities regarding gender, it would be a mistake to see the switching of voices as an attempt at forging new erotic politics. In fact, it is more instructive to realise that the filmmaker (Rangila) is exploiting the topological nature of the cinematic illusion by reordering the existing hierarchal spaces.
Having understood the link between voice, the body and cinema, we now turn our attention to voice, cinema and gender. Hellinger and Bussman draw upon Butler’s ideas to write that
“Butler argues that gender works as a performative, constituting the very act that it performs… For Butler, there is no prediscursive self, as even our understanding of ‘biological sex’ is discursively produced… [therefore] we must turn our focus to the speech event itself, uncovering how speakers manipulate ideologies of femininity and masculinity in the ongoing production of gender.”
An interesting example can be found in the voices of flamenco singers. Labajo writes how critics felt that
“… the “Cante Jondo” (Deep Song) reaches its full expression in bass and baritone voices; women who have practiced a good “cante” owe their success largely to their naturally thick, dark and heavy voices, which give them virility. This means that the “Cante Jondo” is only appropriate for men’s performance. Or, as often said by fans moved by this marked virility: “it’s just right for machos”
She further adds that for a protagonist of this particular genre
“… his voice, as a mere sonic support, can certainly be considered as the only proof of patrimony and customs with which the “cantaor” demonstrates/represents the signified elements of this type of musical expression.”
Scholars such as Tasker have made similar points about action heroes in cinema, and the kind of voice they are supposed to have. A famous example both write about is that of Sylvester Stallone’s decision to change his action-hero image by appearing in Tango & Cash. According her, the most important switch was the decision to make his voice more higher pitched, and less gruff for the new role, in order to emphasize its difference from the previously macho role.
This discursive idea of gender creation through voice is not alien to South Asian cinema either. The most celebrated example is that of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. Srivastava writes of
“tendencies that come to gather about her singing style [which] attribute to it the characteristic of ‘good’ and ‘authentically’ Indian-feminine.”
He further adds that
“… she has established a specific vocal style, which… became recognised as an aesthetic marker of modern Indian female identity. And if vocal style is the single most important marker of aesthetic identity, then it can be argued that Lata’s singing voice has instituted a very specific identity for Indian womanhood… the ‘woman’ conjured by Lata Mangeshkar’s singing voice is the product of certain development that are peculiar to the processes of Indian modernity.”
What these arguments make explicitly clear is that the voice can come to determine not only gender, but also specific ideas associated with gender. Therefore, it is possible for each gender to have various ideas associated with it which are articulated through a particular voice. The example cited above was Stallone’s gruff Rambo persona, versus his fast-talking, high pitched cop in Tango & Cash. Both voices are male, and yet are capable of creating different discourses about men.
Similarly, a variety of socio-historic reasons have led to Lata Mangeshkar’s voice being identified with a certain idea of a nationalized gender.
Rangila’s use of voice in Aurat Raj suggests that he too is intimate with these ideas, and exploits them for similar purposes. Thus, the character played by Rani is given a stern man’s voice. In contrast, the rogue character of Chakori, who indulges in smuggling and sexual assaults is voiced by the same actor who played the philandering husband. This voice is more lecherous and smoother, hence conjuring up an idea of masculinity distinct from the one represented by Rani’s character.
But perhaps the most explicit, and comedic use of this device is reserved for Sultan Rahi. Rahi spent his entire career playing hyper-macho action heroes. He appears in this film as himself, and therefore also undergoes a voice change when the bomb explodes. In a parodied reference to his on-screen persona, the voice he is provided with is extremely shrill and high-pitched. Again, this decision demonstrates that both the filmmaker, and more importantly, the audience are aware of this quality of voice being identified, or gendered, as hyper-feminine. Thus, it is the ideal counterpoint for the physical frame of Sultan Rahi, as it maximizes the comic potential of the situation.
In conclusion then, we can see how Aurat Raj manipulates the relationship between voice and the cinema to not only create, but also reinforce ideas about gender. The film’s context as a masala film with a predetermined set of morals is also vital in understanding where the usage of voice can be seen as a device, and thus what particular message that device seeks to convey.
Our argument has led us to the conclusion that the film is interested in recreating society with the same patriarchal values, only with the bodies of men and women occupying different power roles. It is the voice however, that remains within the same power dynamics, hence implying that voice remains the most potent marker of gender, and the power plays between genders in society. For a film which dabbles in drag dressing, bizarre characters, outlandish plots and twists, its use of voice represents a stunning achievement in managing to bring together such disparate, and seemingly low-brow devices, into such a potent and powerful idea.
Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space.” Yale French Studies 60 (Cinema/Sound.1980): pg 33.
Hellinger, Marlis, and Hadumod Bussmann. Gender across Languages the Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 2001. Pg 157 Print.
Labajo, Joaquina. “Body and Voice: the Construction of Gender in Flamenco.” UMBC: An Honors University in Maryland. Web. 21 Mar. 2010.
Lyotard, Jean Francois, “The Unconscious as Mise-en-Scene” in Performance in Postmodern culture, ed. Michael Benamou and Charles Caramello (Madison: Coda Press, Inc. 1977) pg 96
Nayar, Sheila J. Invisible Representation: The Oral Contours of a National Popular Cinema,Film Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3, Spring, 2004, pg 21
Shafique, Khurram. “Importance of Being Eve.” The Republic of Rumi. Web. 21 Mar. 2010..
Shafique, Khurram. “Women and Cinema in Pakistan.” The Republic of Rumi. Web. 21 Mar. 2010..
Srivastava, Sanjay. “Voice, Gender and Space in Time of Five-Year Plans: The Idea of Lata Mangeshkar.” Economic and Political Weekly 39.20 (2004): pg 2019
Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993. Print. pg 83
Vasudevan, Ravi. The Melodramatic Mode and the Commercial Hindi Cinema: Notes on Film History, Narrative and Performance in the 1950s Screen 30.3 (1989): 29–50