What makes a woman?

Predominantly, the sports world continues to reflect the patriarchal outlook of the society
taapWhat makes a woman?
taapWhat makes a woman?

Mard Ki Body. This was the comment Taapsee Pannu received when her look for Rashmi Rocket was unveiled. The Pink actor sports a tough, sinewy look to play the role of a medal-winning international athlete. Our society, however, ascribes that description only to a male. Responding to the comment, Tapsee wrote, “Many women actually hear this daily for no fault of theirs. An ode to all the athletes who give their sweat and blood to the sport and their nation and still get to hear this.”

The exchange plays right into the premise of Rashmi Rocket, where Rashmi gets banned from athletics after tests show that her blood has testosterone higher than the levels prescribed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Rashmi goes to court for justice.

She is constantly asked about her gender because her body and sartorial choices do not fit the patriarchal definition of femininity. The film also deals with a graver issue of identity.  Intersex women or women with differences in sex development (DSD) naturally develop higher levels of testosterone. It is claimed that this is advantageous to their performance, but this is still contested. Several studies have slammed these regulations citing questionable science.

Authorities though claim that these rules exist to ‘ensure a fair-playing field’ but what they actually do is put women athletes under duress. Rashmi is subjected to humiliating and invasive tests. Her natural genetic makeup is used to assault her dignity. Rashmi’s identity as a woman is questioned because she doesn’t fit a binary definition of a woman. After her gender test, Rashmi is arrested and assaulted by male policemen because they believe that she isn’t a ‘woman’.

The story is a fictional narrative inspired by true events—the harassment she faces brings back several stories of women who were hounded after failing the gender test. Dutee Chand (who made history by getting her ban removed at the International Court of Arbitration for Sport) speaks about crying inconsolably for days without food and water after she was declared ‘not a natural woman’ by the media. Shanti Soundarajan attempted to die by suicide after the intense scrutiny and torment she went through.

Branded a cheat, she was shunned by the sporting community. Stripped of her silver medal from the 2006 Asian Games, Shanti has spoken about having to wear her hair short and change her dressing style to escape public gaze and judgement. She still hasn’t gotten her medal back.

Rashmi Rocket maintains a light tone throughout despite the significance and intensity of the subject at hand. It asks some correct questions: What defines a woman? What is natural? When athletes like Michael Phelps (whose flipper feet and long arms give him an advantage over others) are allowed to compete, why are intersex women curtailed, penalised, and asked to change their bodies? I also loved how motherhood is used in the film: Rashmi’s lawyer uses her pregnancy to raise a question on why a certain bodily function is deemed ‘unnatural for a woman’ while another is crowned as the ‘apex of being female’. However, it doesn’t delve too much into the complexity of the hyperandrogenism debate. Also, for a film that is focused on an athlete with DSD, it is surprising that Rashmi Rocket doesn’t bring up the terminology anywhere.

Taapsee Pannu as Rashmi anchors the film with a powerful performance that neatly balances strength, skill, and vulnerability. She is beautifully supported by Supriya Pathak, Supriya Pilgaonkar, Priyanshu Painyuli, and Abhishek Banerjee. And for once, we get a love story where the man doesn’t automatically become the saviour.

Predominantly, the sports world continues to reflect the patriarchal outlook of society. This is why Rashmi Rocket, despite its shortcomings, is a significant film for representation and an important reminder of the reductive definitions of biological sex and gender, thereby shining light on a neglected demographic.

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