“Would you call yourself a feminist?” I still remember the last time someone asked me that question. I was on a long train journey with a group of lively young men and women – most of us in our mid- to late-twenties – returning home after a strenuous trekking expedition. We must have run out of conversation or food, or both, for suddenly one of our male companions turned to the girls and loudly asked, “So, are you feminists?”

“Of course not,” scoffed one young woman, an advertising executive. “No way!” replied another, who worked for a multi-national corporation. And so it went down the line. The fitness trainer, the doctor, the investment banker, each one dodged the label. “Feminist? No that’s not me!” said each young woman quickly before she turned to look at the others. It wasn’t just the certainty of their answers that took me aback. It was also the meaning implicit in their replies – that somehow it was not good to be a feminist and that those who were feminists were somehow misguided and incongruous beings.

Unlimited Girls
94 min., English and some Hindi
with subtitles.
Director: Paromita Vohra

Why not? I asked the investment banker next to me. Because feminists are aggressive, angry and bitchy women, who hate men and are against marriage,” she replied quite easily.

The conversation disturbed me, and continues to haunt me from time to time even now. Is this what most young women – even those who have enjoyed the so-called fruits of feminism – understand feminism to be? Or do they believe in its principles and ideas of equality and advancement for women but fear the label itself? In Paromita Vohra’s engaging documentary Unlimited Girls, some of these concerns find a voice. The 94-minute film, produced by the women’s group, Sakshi, explores the ideas and experiences of feminism in contemporary urban India.

Peppered with diverse voices – college students practicing a pom-pom dance, women at a bra sale, a priest, young lesbians, teachers, a woman cab driver, a yuppie married couple, mothers of daughters burnt for dowry, academics and activists – and using a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, the film looks at feminism and its varied meanings in as many different settings as possible.

There’s a self-reflective tone throughout the film. As it tells you about feminism the way it is lived in India, it also critiques and questions it: why must women lead double lives, being feminist but not saying they are? Has feminism really changed the relationship between the sexes in urban India or are those changes only superficial? Does it matter today whether the early feminists burnt (as a matter of fact they did not) a bra? Is it important to know feminist history and does that knowledge change your life? Does feminism really matter in marriage? Does their identity as women necessarily bring women together? Can girls today imagine another world? And how do we let our doubts and confusions co-exist along with our search for love and independence?

What makes this film especially endearing are its touches of humour and the fact that it is feisty like its filmmaker (Paromita and I were classmates at a media school about 15 years ago), feisty enough to hold its own even in a crowd of disbelievers and sceptics. In particular, its idiom appeals to a young audience.

For one thing, the film does not pontificate on feminism, but instead provides its viewers a context for an intelligent discussion about it. Secondly, the film uses conversations in an Internet chat room as a running thread where the narrator called Fearless interacts with characters such as Chamki Girl, Anarchist Ann and Devi_is_a_Diva. Together, they probe feminism. For many young audiences, the chat room is an immediate draw and puts them quickly at ease with the main subject.

The main drawback of the film is that in its attempt to say so much about feminism at one go, it glosses over some pertinent issues or never really manages to lay them out in all their complexity. Such as the issue of feminism and marriage – how do women who consider themselves feminists negotiate the ideals of feminism within the confines of the marital home? Does marriage and motherhood necessarily force them to compromise on their feminist beliefs or are there many more intricacies at work here?

Unfortunately, Unlimited Girls takes a very limited view of feminism and marriage. The one example of a yuppie couple discussing their marriage in the film – prefaced by a one-liner, ‘Does feminism really matter in marriage?’ – seems to give the message that all women who marry obviously aren’t ‘true’ feminists or don’t really have independent minds. The truth, however, is a little more complex than that.

Still, the film begins a conversation on a subject that many today shy away from and that is its biggest strength. Its attempt to dialogue simultaneously with the young and the activist, the believer and the unconverted has to be appreciated. And not just on International Woman's Day.