Infertility in Bollywood: Omnipresent Motherhood and Omission of Menstruation
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
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Singh, P (2020, August 26). Infertility in Bollywood: Omnipresent Motherhood and Omission of Menstruation. BeyondBlood. https://www.beyondblood.org/post/infertility-in-bollywood-omnipresent-motherhood-and-omission-of-menstrual-cycle
Infertility has made its way into Bollywood movies many times. From old Bollywood movies to more contemporary ones, there has been a presence of themes around infertility. While some things have changed in the way infertility is portrayed, some themes have remained constant. Motherhood is the omnipresent theme in movies, even in those which are not necessarily related to infertility. This idea of motherhood becomes profound when taken in the context of infertility and it is depicted as an instinct that every woman has, irrespective of whether she has had children or not. Thus, motherhood becomes something that every woman strives to achieve, and without which life becomes incomplete. Herein, having children becomes an innate part of a woman's life, a notion that is being reinforced for centuries.
Cinema in its very essence reflects the popular notions, and this is exactly what happens when Bollywood movies deal with infertility: they reinforce the ideas of compulsory motherhood. What is even more peculiar about this whole discourse around infertility and motherhood is that it is disproportionately focused on female infertility and female need for having children. A close study of movies that deal only with female infertility exposes the omission of medical complications and/or menstrual issues that a woman might have. Infertility and motherhood become the centre of attention, and all other issues regarding infertility, and especially menstrual issues and complications take up no space in the narrative.
Infertility is a stigmatised issue and leads to fear, hopelessness, anxiety and depression among women. Research, conducted by Zehra Kaya and Umran Oskay(2019) on the level of stigma and hopelessness in Turkish women regarding infertility, concluded that higher levels of stigma in the family or society lead to increased levels of anxiety and hopelessness. The study also pointed to the fact that it is important to provide proper information to women about the causes and consequences of infertility and the need to set up support groups for women going through physiological and psychological troubles due to their infertility. Infertile women face huge levels of distress and a lot of it stems from the pressures put forward by family and friends and this increases with the duration of marriage (Yilmaz, Yazici and Benli, 2020). Not being able to be a mother and fulfil society expectation becomes a crucial cause of distress, anxiety and depression. It is only after a woman comes in contact with a doctor and gets proper information about infertility and the alternatives, that the level of distress is reduced (Massarotti et al, 2019). Infertility is a huge stigma in Indian society and regards women who are infertile as ‘cursed’. It becomes even more important in such a society to present infertility in a positive light. While Bollywood movies have tried to break the stigma, the absence of proper medical information and an over-emphasis on motherhood becomes an issue.
Infertility in females is an issue that is not mass represented in the media. The only source of factually correct information comes from the health care officials and doctors, but unfortunately, this source neither disseminates information on a mass level nor is it accessible to everyone. A young woman is more likely to receive information about infertility from a media source, rather than a health care official, and information from media remains informal and not always factually accurate (Lampi, 2011). In India, the only media source that has talked about infertility is movies. There are no widespread video or print advertisements centred around the topic of infertility and the only form of advertisement we get are for fertility clinics, which do not provide any medical information. Thus, movies become the sole basis of information about infertility.
This is the reason why it becomes important to introspect the way in which infertility, surrogacy and IVF are represented in Bollywood, and how much of space do menstrual issues takes up in those narratives. The reproductive cycle is an important part of the menstrual cycle, and if a movie is trying to represent infertility and problems in the female reproductive cycle, menstrual issues need to take up a certain amount of space. Moreover, the movies dealing with infertility also talk about medical alternatives like surrogacy and IVF, and the menstrual cycle plays an important part in all these procedures (Jukic et al, 2010; Qin et al, 2016; Gizzo et al, 2015). So far Bollywood movies have only been able to address the psychological effects of infertility and that too is limited only to the dejection resulting from the inability to be a mother. The next part of the paper will look at four mainstream Bollywood movies that dealt with the issues of infertility and how motherhood was omnipresent in them and the menstrual cycle was omitted.
Infertility in Bollywood
A movie as old as Amar Prem (1972) revolved around a woman who was thrown out by her husband, who remarried, and the social taboo and disapproval by her mother and society forced her into sex work. What is unique about the movie is that it is not focussed on a love story between the two main characters, but rather focuses on the female protagonists 'motherly love towards a child who was ill-treated by his stepmother. The main idea of the film, that it reinforced through various ways, was that even after not having any children of her own, the protagonist being a woman was ‘naturally’ a mother and motherhood was an essential part of a female’s life. Since Amar Prem, some movies have come out, especially in the 21st century, which tried to deal with the idea of infertility. Some examples of such movies are Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001), Filhaal (2002)l, Vicky Donor (2012) and Good Newwz (2019). There is no denying the fact that the characters and the ideas around infertility in these movies have changed substantially in the past few years. Earlier, movies had a way of depicting infertile women as a ‘helpless’, and more often than not their husbands would leave them. Over time these notions underwent a change and movies started to focus the narratives more on alternatives to reproduce in case of infertility. The above- mentioned movies dealt with surrogacy and IVF in great detail.
Chori Chori Chupke Chupke and Filhaal were two movies that brought attention to female infertility and surrogacy as a feasible alternative, and they were unconventional for representing such a stigmatised issue. Filhaal followed the story of a young married woman(Tabu) who is devastated after learning that she is infertile and goes on to ask her best friend(Sushmita Sen) to be a surrogate mother. Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, starring Salman Khan, Rani Mukherjee, and Preity Zinta, follows a similar storyline where a sex worker(Zinta) becomes a surrogate mother for an infertile married woman. While there is no denying of the fact that the movies tried to bring a refreshing change in the narratives of Bollywood movies, the scope of infertility, as well as surrogacy, remained extremely constrained. Chori Chori Chupke Chupke became more of a love story, heavily borrowing scenes from the Hollywood cult classic Pretty Woman and Hindi movie Doosri Dulhan, and didn’t deal with the mental, emotional and physical trauma that a woman suffers, either with infertility or surrogacy. Filhaal was a good movie in terms of dealing with human relations and emotions revolving around the process of surrogacy, but it also didn’t dwell much upon the subject it was trying to represent. One common theme is both the movies was the importance of motherhood for both the infertile women and the surrogate. There was a constant reinforcement of the idea that having a child and being a mother is a crucial aspect that makes one’s life and marriage complete, and because motherhood is natural to women, a surrogate mother will have a ‘motherly’ bond, causing rifts between the two women.
In movies like these proper and decent levels of representation of medical causes, complications and consequences become important because the movies play an important role in disseminating the experience of infertility and/or surrogacy. These two movies do not even dwell upon the reason for female infertility, and it was especially necessary because they released at a time when there was no conversation and knowledge around infertility or surrogacy in the popular discourse. While Chori Chori Chupke Chupke haphazardly showed miscarriage, leading to permanent infertility, the causes and effects of and on menstrual cycle are not depicted. The movies showed a very early miscarriage and had a premise to discuss ‘spontaneous abortion’’(which happens within 20 weeks of pregnancy) and the effect of miscarriage on menstrual cycle (Jukic et al, 2010). Filhaal just mentioned ‘birthing complications’ as a reason for infertility, not addressing the issue and its medical causes at all. Even the starting process of surrogacy depends and is regulated according to one's menstrual cycle and leads to hormonal changes, and is an important piece of information. While movies do revolve around relationships, life events and emotions of its characters, proper information about an issue, especially a widely uninformed medical issue, becomes important, because it serves as a primary harbinger of information too. Pieces of information provided by movies do have a lasting impact on the way people perceive and receive knowledge about the said issue.
Vicky Donor was a huge critical and commercial success and brought an unconventional story line into the limelight. The movie, marking Ayushman Khurrana’s debut, revolved around sperm donation and infertility. The movie was a landmark in dealing with issues of male infertility and sperm donation. Vicky, who becomes a ‘high-performing’ donor, is portrayed as a man first ashamed of his job as a sperm donor and follows his and his family’s journey into accepting him as a man who brought happiness to many couples dealing with infertility. Bringing an element of irony into the film, Vicky’s wife (Yami Gautam) learns that she is infertile, and that becomes a turning point in the movies, with a tone shift from comedy to drama. While the movies did play an important role in changing the conventional narrative of mainstream cinema, the idea of motherhood looms over the movie, with Gautam’s character's dejection over her infertility and inability to reproduce. A film with such an open conversation around sperms and sperm donation could also have discussed menstrual cycles and complications, or at least the causes of infertility and its effect on menstrual health of a woman.
Coming to a much recent release, Good Newwz, shows the horrors of using IVF and infertility for comedic purposes. The movie's premise is centred around two couples undergoing In Vitro Fertilisation and the confusion that prevails after the mix up of the sperm of two men due to their same last name. The movie essentially is a slapstick comedy with short people, fart, fat, sex and masturbation jokes, and a heavy amount of its comedic narration is based on the different lifestyle of ‘classy’ Batras (Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor) and the ‘unsophisticated’ (Diljit Dosanjh and Kiara Advani) Batras, even though both couples are visibly rich, upper class and caste. The difference in their lifestyle and taste stems through their profession and the cities they belong to. While the movie has numerous problematic instances, especially regarding Kumar’s character, for the article, the parts related to infertility, motherhood and IVF will be discussed at length here. The movie employs a comedic way to explain how IVF works and dwells more on the inability of Akshay Kumar to masturbate in a cup, than on the actual process and complications related to IVF. There are definitive statements regarding the accuracy of IVF, how it is a better option than surrogacy and adoption, and the need to have kids with one’s blood.
Compulsory motherhood is the most eminent theme in the movie. Kapoor’s character is of a professionally successful woman, albeit her life is incomplete because she is unable to reproduce. The film starts with showing her as ‘desperate’ to have children and worried about her husband’s family views and thoughts regarding her inability to reproduce. Her husband, Kumar’s character, on the other hand, is irritated with his wife’s behaviour and not too bothered about not having children. He is happy with his life and career, while his wife cannot think her life as complete until she has children of her own. These first 15-20 minutes of the movie itself set the precedence of the importance of motherhood in a woman’s life and the taboo of infertility. While the movie goes on with its plot there are constant reminders of the importance of experiencing motherhood and childbearing, no matter whose sperm it is, a mother will love the child she is bearing and reinforces the idea that all women are natural nurturers and good mothers. With constant importance and narrative given to compulsory motherhood, comes an attack and disdain on other alternatives like surrogacy and adoption. In an important scene, a female doctor, who is an expert in IVF, tells Kapoor that childrearing is an important and essential part of ‘womanhood’, implying that it is only through childbearing that a woman's life becomes complete and fulfilled. Thus, surrogacy and adoption may make you a mother, you will not experience the entirety of womanhood. In another scene, Advani tells Kapoor that she didn’t go for adoption because ‘apna khoon to apna hota hai’ (a child with one’s own blood is important in having a more personal and crucial relationship).
Even with the over-emphasis on motherhood and how IVF helps in reaching the ultimate stage of womanhood, there is no discussion regarding the process and complications of IVF. Reasons for infertility, whether male or female, are not discussed. How IVF was related to the menstrual cycle and the ability to start the IVF cycle on any day of the menstrual cycle(Quin et al, 2016) were important discussions to be included in the film. Menstrual issues that could have taken up informative and important space in the narrative are not included. The only complication that is discussed regarding IVF is the mixing up of sperms, which is uninformative and brainless in its very essence. The film fails to use its narrative, which was entirely based on infertility and IVF, to talk about helpful information. What it did was glorified motherhood and childbearing and used a widely underrepresented issue, whose proper medical knowledge is unknown to the masses, as a comedic setup for the film.
The above-discussed films are a few that dealt with infertility and the alternate options to child-bearing. What is essential to note here is that none of the films discussed the possibility of a life without children or motherhood. In some way or another, the infertile woman became a mother and fulfilled her ‘destiny’ of completing her womanhood. Be it adoption, ‘motherly’ love, surrogacy or IVF, motherhood became an omnipresent theme and the struggles of infertility were overpowered only through motherhood. It will be refreshing to see a movie that talks about infertility, but doesn’t shove motherhood in some form or another as a solution to the problem and makes space for infertility in women, along with the choice of not being a mother.
When a movie is trying to depict issues like infertility, surrogacy, sperm donation or IVF, it is trying to break certain social taboos and stigmas related to said issues and procedures. However, what gets lost in this process is the fact that these topics need to be medically accurate and should portray their effect on the female body. The menstrual cycle gets disturbed and affected by all these procedures, and the whole narrative around infertility, surrogacy and IVF, without a talk around the menstrual cycle becomes problematic. There is a need to inspect why it is that the menstrual cycle does not take up space in a conversation where it is an important part of the theme of the movies.
On one hand, these movies try to deal with breaking the stigma around issues of infertility, on the other, by omitting discourse around menstrual cycle they reinforce stigma around talking about menstruation in public places. Even if these movies do not want to discuss menstrual cycle per se, the medical causes, complications and procedures they are portraying, and their subsequent effects on the female body require a factually correct and adequate representation. We can’t deny the fact that movies do not only serve as entertainment to their audience. It is not being argued that the entire movie should be about the process and effects of the medical procedure it is portraying, but it is important to include important information related to it. They reinforce ideas and perceptions which are consumed as knowledge, and thus it becomes the responsibility of the people associated with the movies to carve out space for medically factual information and knowledge.
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