Documentary channel

Single woman seeking a house in Mumbai? ‘Bachelor Girls’ tells you why it’s like hell

Shikha Makan’s documentary reveals the prejudice faced by unattached women as they try to find a roof over their heads.

The compelling documentary Bachelor Girls will be uncomfortably familiar to any middle-class female working professional who has moved to Mumbai and parked her bags outside an apartment block’s gates, hoping to find a decent roof over her head.

As the testimonies of the women interviewed by filmmaker Shikha Makan reveal, this idyllic image is often shattered in quick succession by brokers, landlords, and the powerful committees that rules the numerous co-operative housing societies in the city. Unattached women who have moved to the megapolis for education or work endure nothing less than an inquisition, which is sometimes disguised as paternalistic concern for their safety. The rulebook of morality is thrown at them – no visitors (especially male), no late nights, no cooking meat at home, no parties – but it hardly ends there. Once these adult women move in, they find that they are treated no better than children who need minding.

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In one of the many bizarre incidents Makan captures, a woman had to give a letter to her building secretary every time she had friends over. When a married friend dropped in, her husband could not enter the apartment until he showed his marriage certificate. Fame is no guarantee against the suspicion that single women are up to no good. Actress Kalki Koechlin recounts her difficult house-hunting experiences. “They want photos with you and autographs, but they don’t want you to live with them,” Koechlin wryly says.

Watchmen voice their opinions; trivial incidents get blown out of proportion; questions of a highly personal nature are the order of the day. In more brutal expressions of the prejudice against single female tenants, they are harassed into moving out by night-time knocks on their door. One woman is tarnished as a prostitute who is running a brothel. She fights back, but many women simply move and submit to the scrutiny all over again.

“The documentary emerged out of personal experiences that I went through when I moved to Bombay 10 or 12 years ago,” Makan said. The advertising filmmaker kept hearing of similar incidents faced by single women over the years, and she was finally pushed into making a film in 2014 when one of her friends underwent a traumatic experience.

“When looking for homes, there is always something not right in the kind of houses being shown to you,” Makan said. “You are always being told, compromise a bit, you are a bachelor after all.”

As Makan started lining up an array of single female tenants to interview, ranging from bankers to students, a few patterns emerged. Mumbai might enjoy the reputation of being the safest Indian city¸ but its hostile attitude towards people with diverse backgrounds, faiths, eating habits and personal styles is well documented. Being unmarried, and being a woman, brings out the worst in some societies. “Housing discrimination is a very big problem across categories, and gender is common to all subsets,” Makan said. “Even single boys gets bracketed and don’t find it easy to get apartments, but the whole attitude towards women is gendered. We have travelled so far in our journeys of feminism and we want to take control of our lives, and yet, we have to face such archaic stereotypes.”

Women are constantly put on the defensive about their choices – to stay single, to not have children, to live on their own. “I have not used the word patriarchy even once in my film, although that is the most immediate answer,” Makan said. “The situation speaks volumes about the way we treat people, about who is more powerful in the smaller ambits of society, in this case, the housing society secretary or committee.”

‘I am being rejected and judged for finally having a voice’

Bachelor Girls is filled with women of a certain type – they are mostly English speaking, middle-class professionals whose clothes, hairstyles and body language conform to the archetype of the modern Mumbai female. This was a deliberate choice, the filmmaker said. “I consciously chose to focus on upwardly mobile women and keep their voices, since this is my voice and this is who I am,” Makan explained. “I also chose this category since these women represent the benchmark for what we consider modern. Women from two-tier and three-tier cities look up to this definition of womanhood.”

For all the distance they have put between themselves and their socio-cultural baggage, such women are constantly reminded of how little they have travelled when they go house-hunting, Makan added. “I finally have a voice and I can stand on my feet, but I am being rejected and judged for being that,” she said. “How do we define this urban women of today and what are the complexities and challenges she faces? If the rest of society does not like this kind of woman, then where are we going?”

The “lack of empathy and tolerance” and the “power play” that is set in motion when women desperate for shelter confront the biases and restrictions of housing societies are especially stark in the disheartening account of a young fashion student from Basti town in Uttar Pradesh. “For this girl to take the step and come to Bombay – why do the city and its people meeting her miss that point?” Makan said.

‘Even Vajpayee, Mayawati and Modi would not find a house in Mumbai’

The 35-year-old filmmaker collected several such stories over the two-and-a-half years that she worked on the self-funded Bachelor Girls. She had to cull out some stories, including one of a Muslim woman. “The information that the story generated in terms of discrimination based on religious identity took the film on another tangent, and it felt wrong to cut that conversation short and come back to the gender question,” Makan explained. In any case, the filmmaker wanted to make a larger point that the problem is one of “how we treat each other in our society”, she said. “Housing is a microcosm of Bombay, and within the larger fight for space, you are denying a woman the physical and metaphorical space that she wants.”

A female secretary of a housing society articulates the prejudice against this sub-set: these independent women are removed from the family fold, go wild when they come to the city and go about as they please, she says. Some women dress up their biodatas or downright lie to get a place. Others are forced to rely on character certificates from male family members and bosses. “Sometimes, you feel like giving up your dreams because you don’t have the right place to stay,” one woman tells Makan.

Interviews with housing rights activists and members of such groups as the Real Estate Women Associates and Women’s Forum For Justice Co-operative Housing Societies reveal that the laws are toothless and cannot control the arbitrary and often unlawful rules set by building committees. One sympathetic lawyer sums it up: even Atal Behari Vajpayee, Mayawati and Narendra Modi would not find a house in Mumbai.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.