A judge walks into a courtroom and asks a husband about his wife’s period.
It sounds like the beginning of a sexist joke. But, before you cringe awaiting its punchline, this is actually a scene from an unconventional Bollywood melodrama – a web series that’s trying to smash the patriarchy.
I’m on its set in the heart of Mumbai trying to wrap my head around the concept, on assignment for Dateline. It looks like your average court – complete with a stenographer, an audience slowly falling asleep in the stalls, and two powerhouse lawyers – one defence, one prosecution, exchanging cries of “Objection!” and “Your Honour!”.
On the surface, it’s oddly deadpan for what I’m told is a comedy. But while I’m there, particular English words and phrases jump out amongst the Hindi – “masturbation”, “period”, “affront to the sentiments of man!”, “your tradition is an outrage!”
They’re words and phrases Indian television has rarely, if ever, heard.
The show is named Court of Sex – and on trial are some of India’s most entrenched patriarchal traditions and taboos. Everyone is an actor and the tone borders at times on the ridiculous. Playing out like an absurd courtroom soap opera, one of India’s most popular television formats, each episode exposes old beliefs that see women discriminated against.
“[Court of Sex] is not done to either titillate or anything of that sort, we want to sort of, you know, break those taboos,” says the show’s softly spoken director Feroz Abbas Khan who, in sandals and kaftan, seems more philosopher than Bollywood director, as we talk between takes.
“Topics that are not discussed openly, we want to bring them into the open, in a space where normally there is a silence. That’s the idea, to challenge old mindsets. Because unless gender equality, gender sensitivity, becomes a very important part of a conversation in our society, India cannot progress.”
Topics cover anything from menstruation to sex selection, masturbation and child marriage, but all of the episodes have female empowerment at their core. Feroz tells me periods are still considered impure in many parts of India – with women banned from touching pickles or entering the kitchen and in worse cases being banned to cow sheds for the duration of their period. So Court of Sex tries to explore and discredit these old beliefs as myths, outdated taboos, and show a more progressive path.
Behind the scenes, the production seems enormous for a web series. Six cameras, multiple takes, lighting crews, camera dollies, gaffers, and sound ops. Everyone is there to give a space to women’s voices and yet, I can’t help but notice a glaring failure; everyone in the production team, including the director, is male.
Between takes, I make the point to Feroz, couching it as perhaps provocative.
“I don’t think it’s a provocative question,” he counters. “To believe that only women can think about women is wrong. And to believe men can only think about men is wrong. We need to be able to cross these lines. I think the faster that men get sensitised to women issues, gender equality will become a reality much quicker.”
It’s an interesting point. Watching Feroz and the crew at work, it makes me realise how little we try to engage Australian men in conversations around feminism and gender equality. Events or content aimed at female empowerment are by and large targeted towards, well, women. So are we preaching to the converted?
In India, it’s only by engaging with men, breaking down the male points of view that dictate almost all aspects of Indian culture and society, that women will ever truly make gains. Traditions are largely based on patriarchal family values and gender roles – which see regressive attitudes deeply entrenched in the every day.
To give an idea of how deep these attitudes run – a survey by the International Centre for Research on Women in 2010 found 65 per cent of Indian men believe women should tolerate violence in order to keep the family together. While a study by the UN’s Population Fund found a third of men in eight Indian states admitted to having forced a sexual act upon their wives or partners at some point in their lives.
Marital rape is not a concept legally recognised in India. And while there is a push to outlaw it, India’s own government has now rejected calls to do so, saying it could “destabilise the institution of marriage” and put husbands at risk of “harassment”. That’s how nuanced, conflicted and layered problems stemming from the patriarchy can be in India.
On the set of Court of Sex, this is something director Feroz Abbas Khan knows all too well.
“Those conservative ideas come from the fact they feel that family values or the family is a very powerful unit and the family can only be together if women are subservient. So they feel that if women raise their voices, or ask for equality – that could perhaps disintegrate families.”
Feroz says the beliefs stem from a mix of religious beliefs, social norms, tradition and the fact men in India are largely in a position of economic power both within the family and society more generally.
“They tend to get that power in their hand and they don’t want to leave that power,” says Feroz.
The mission of Court of Sex is to remove the so-called “preachy” or “accusatory” tones often inherent to discussions around feminism and gender equality, while making their ideas palatable.
The show is equally watchable for the offender as it is for the victim, with humour playing mediator.
Male viewers are encouraged to recognise themselves in the characters on screen, but they are distanced from the prosecutor’s accusations. They’re not the ones being attacked, so they’re not on the defensive, ultimately vetoing the “not all men” argument which so often shuts down conversations around women’s experience.
It means there is a new space to engage in a discussion, to break down the fears, beliefs, customs and traditions to reveal untruths. Perhaps even prompt an awakening.
“So the whole idea for entertainment education is to change behaviour, behaviour towards some social norms and behaviour to those things that are regressive and reassure them a more progressive way that they could emulate into their lives,” says Feroz.
“It could just be, perhaps, a small a kind of a spark. It could ignite something in the minds and hearts of the people, so that there is a chain reaction to it.”
Watch the full report, “Sex, Lies and Soap Opera” on Dateline, Tuesday 10 October at 9.30pm on SBS.