In the year 2007, India’s reigning Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai became the first ex-Miss World to marry a variety of holy trees and shrubs before tying the knot with a human being. The reason, we were told, was that she was astrologically a Martian, a manglik. A manglik, according to Hindu astrology, is someone who has the combative planet Mars sitting in the house of marriage in his or her horoscope. Mars thus situated is said to make the Martians strong-willed, assertive and somewhat intolerant of bullies in general, besides posing a grave threat to the physical well-being of the spouse and possibly his/her family.
What made Aishwarya’s manglik status fodder for media debates was the fact that the father of Aishwarya’s husband-to-be was no less a man than the fabled Big B of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, who is known to have a deep faith in astrology and shamanic rituals. Initially, there were doubts whether Abhishek Bachchan would get married to a Martian at all, but obviously his love for her was strong.
So, after many astrologers had been consulted, it was decided that the marriage could take place, provided that the Martian bride, before tying the knot, visit several temples and perform certain rituals for propitiating the angry red planet. This meant, the astrologers said, that Rai marry a peepul tree and the holy basil bush. These would absorb all those vicious rays from Mars. Interestingly, Abhishek was also said to have a similarly placed Mars in his horoscope, but no one ruled that he also be married to a holy cow or a she-snake to ward off danger posed by Mars to the lives of Rai and her family.
During the nuptials that followed, it became clear that Rai was set to enter what the poet Adrienne Rich once described as the Kingdom of the Father. Ritual, language, tradition, custom and etiquette were all bent to service the traditional notion of male supremacy in the marriage. The beautiful, well-dressed and bejewelled women—Big B’s wife, daughter and grand daughter, and the bride’s mother—were relegated firmly to the margins as symbols of their men’s wealth and social status. The wedding party was shaped and led by Big B himself and his close male friends. After the marriage ceremonies were over, he was the one who drove the car with the bride and the groom, thus ritualistically bringing home a bejewelled bride for his son. One just caught a glimpse of a coy Rai, all lost in the glitter of gold and diamonds, sitting demurely at the back, her head bent low. The next day she was seen being led little-girl-like by the husband who held her hand, into the Tirupati temple courtyard.
What did all these images tell us? That power remains both a primal word and a primal relationship in the Kingdom of the Father, and the individual family unit that defines and showcases that power is rooted in the idea of women being men’s property. Following the logic that drives the Kingdom, the prime expectation from Rai hereafter will be that she now hurries up and provides the Big B with a grandson to perpetuate the Bachchan clan. Big B has been embarrassingly frank for sometime now about his desire to have a grandson ASAP. It is obvious also from several remarks made by Mrs Big B on a subsequent TV show that she also expects Aishwarya to be a traditional dutiful daughter-in-law, and relieve her of the immense burden of catering to the whims of her two extremely demanding male ‘babies’.
One can understand Mother B’s desire to have her bahu help her run the house. Jaya Bachchan herself gave up a successful career in films to stay at home and care for a large family consisting of her husband’s parents, brother and his family and her own two children, leaving her man free to build his career in films. But that was her decision. One does not quite know yet whether young Rai would like to be a clone of Jaya. Similarly, one can understand Big B’s desire to perpetuate brand Pater Familias Indicus, and hand down the reins of the Kingdom to his son and grandson, when the time comes. But the question many would like to ask is: Why is an intelligent, modern and immensely successful career girl being subjected to such nonsense in the name of a tradition, which turns women in most rich Indian families into either a vacuous Barbie or a plump and matronly Matrushka doll?
The fact is, as Gloria Steinem pointed out ages ago, unlike men, who are free to sow their wild oats in their youth, young women, especially ex-beauty queens, remain full of insecurities. Most of them perhaps crave a social role that would guarantee them mental and physical security and, of course, approbation. Don’t beauty queens tell the jury routinely that they wish to be like Mother Teresa and help society and the downtrodden, instead of confessing to their dreams about making it big in Bollywood? Men grow more and more conservative with age. But as they age, intelligent women radicalize and begin to question the definition of niceness. The reason? They have by now experienced marriage and maternity, two of the most radicalizing events in every woman’s life.
Niceness may look nice on screen, but in real life, Rai will soon discover, it often keeps fairness at bay. If she is to survive in Bollywood as a successful actor in her own right, she has a big task of resisting pressures and challenging someone else’s definition of what makes a nice wife and mother. Perhaps this is where her strong Mars, that combative army general among the stars, will give her the courage and the strength to overcome doubt and despair so many female actors from Shanta Apte to Meena Kumari have faced.
—Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org