Much has been made in the West about how Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has done in one wham-bam what an illustrious lineage of superheroes could not do – ignite a sense of empowerment in little girls and grown women by giving them a strong heroine to look up to. A heroine who does not need a man to be powerful and whole, who can fight better than the men, and look marvelous while at it.
In India, however, cinemagoers like myself found the idea quaint. “The film is entertaining but meaningless,” I said to my teenager after leaving the multiplex, telling her about all the hoopla in the Western media. “It’s all make-believe, so it’s not empowering really. I’m rather more inspired by movies that show regular women doing extraordinary things,” she replied, referencing Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal inspired from a real-life story of two village girls from Haryana growing up to become international wrestling champions.
None of my friends could fathom the greatness of Wonder Woman either. It was just another fantasy film, wasn’t it? Gal Gadot looked very pretty, no doubt. But why was a so-called goddess so clueless all the time? How come she didn’t recognise the other god? It was funny how she rejected women’s clothing, but that uncomfortable-looking ensemble and high-heeled boots were hardly an ode to feminism. Oh, and the boy didn’t have to die.
Later, chancing upon an Ola driver’s picture of Goddess Durga stuck to his car’s dashboard, it finally struck me. The difference in reception lies in the fact that, here in India, we’ve had superheroines for a long time. Far longer. And so many of them. There’s Mahadevi, of course, the original mama with a 108 different names. She’s the ultimate amazon. The all-encompassing power that drives the universe. The legendary shakti who permeates every star in the sky and every cell in your body.
We’ve grown up seeing so many different goddess avatars and superpowers that modern Hollywood heroines can barely hold a feeble LED light to them. Our wonder woman can turn you to dust with her gaze, raise you to the heavens with her palm. She thunders and roars, and turns the blood of men to water. She has eight hands, an all-seeing third eye, and the ability to shower all the world’s wealth and knowledge on you – if you’re nice. She has no need to live up to any cultural notions of womanhood, no need to wear a shiny vest or short shorts, no need to ‘behave like a woman’. Indeed, she needs no man – she is the baap of all men.
Oh and can she slay, slay, slay. Real heads with blood and matted hair too. And smile sweetly while riding lions.
Interestingly, our goddess is also human. As Parvati, she throws tantrums for impossible demands. As Kali, she is fierce and violent. She cries, she swears revenge, she laughs hysterically giving everybody goose bumps. She is unpredictable like the weather – sunny one day, stormy the next. You don’t mess with the devi.
She’s also a love so powerful, so unyielding and constant, that even the gods worship her.
You can move the universe with love like that.
It’s no wonder, really, that Indian women were left wondering at Hollywood’s new feminist icon. While ordinary Indian women can only dream of the kind of freedoms Western women enjoy, our goddesses throw the ball out of the park. Wonder Woman has a long way to go before she wins our devotion.
First published in the July 2017 issue of eShe. Buy the copy here.