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Sports and Culture

Beyond 'manly' taboos, can Rashmi Rocket soar new heights?

Reminiscent of Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand's gender battles as an athlete, Taapsee Pannu's upcoming film has a tough task on its hands.

Beyond manly taboos, can Rashmi Rocket soar new heights?

Sohinee Basu

Published: 26 Sep 2021 4:05 PM GMT

The rare occasion that Bollywood is not found floundering to look for "Choli ke peeche kya hai?" or doubling as the peeping tom as well as the moral police and bad-naming the Munni's, it decides to wake up from its reverie and talk about problems, instead of being the problem themselves. We aren't saying we are blessed with too many of these occasions, but they do come about and usually it is when a Taapsee Pannu or an Ayushmann Khurrana is helming a movie project - without too many surprises.

Delving into hush-hush territories that has historically been a very active site of controversies, Taapsee Pannu's latest endeavour sees her as a track and field athlete, a sprinter to be precise, in Karwaan director, Akarsh Khurana's film Rashmi Rocket, that deals with gender-testing in sports. Slated to release on October 15th on the OTT platform of Zee5, the Taapsee Pannu-starrer hopes to be a path-breaker, primarily because of the selection of such a tricky and sensitive topic.

While the idea of women playing sports of every kind, no matter how 'manly' may have still settled in, eyebrows are quick to raise when a certain female athlete looks a certain way, is built a certain way and performs a certain way in competitive sports. The questions immediately crop up, urged on by years of conditioning about what feminine standards 'should be', even in sports and these athletes are put on the spot and their gender is openly put under scrutiny, inviting trauma, harassment and in some cases, an end to the career of the athlete itself.

Eager to take patriarchal notions head-on, Taapsee Pannu's Rashmi Rocket toys with the question of 'What is conventional femininity?' and seeks to shatter it all. Convention and femininity aren't words that belong beside each other and yardsticks will only prove to be futile in such cases. Forever a campaigner of movies which are socially relevant ever since her Pink days, Taapsee has a vested interest in sports and has played the role of an athlete on a number of occasions.

From being a hockey player in Soorma to learning the sport in Manmarziyaan, to being a sprinter in Rashmi Rocket and soon-to-be a cricketer in Shabaash Mithu, which is Mithali Raj's biopic, Taapsee has played it all. However, this is the first time Taapsee will take centre stage in an issue-driven sports drama and the waters here are very muddy.

Nude parades to chromosome tests - curiosities circling femininity

Caster Semenya (left) and Dutee Chand

Athletics saw a boom in the 20th century and both male as well as female athletes were on the rise, hunting down medals, creating and shattering records. On the one hand while this was a big victory for sports as a whole, on the other hand it kindled the gender debate as suspicions were fanned based on the appearance and performance of an athlete, their 'manliness' and 'femininity' - either the lack or excess or 'abnormal', 'displaced' presence of it, became criteria for athletes having their career's curtain being drawn upon.

At a time like that, the 1966 European Athletics Championships demanded that the female athletes parade around in their nude in front of three gynecologists. Organizers, to justify the nude parade, said they did it because "there had been persistent speculation through the years about women who turn in manly performances," as the Life magazine reported. Even at Commonwealth Games that very year, athletes had to undergo gynecological exams to prove their sex.

Receiving backlash for this humiliation, the IAAF opted for a more 'dignified' way in 1967 and decided to perform gender tests by taking a swab from the cheeks of the athlete and testing the chromosomes present in it. To be allowed to compete with other female athletes, one had to have XX chromosomes as a thumb-rule, back then, failing this chromosome test would mean disqualification from the event and further, harsh actions.

Not taking into account the event of genetic anomalies and biological variations, the IAAF's method to detect 'female-ness' was faulty to the core. One of the first athletes to be victimised by this policy was Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska who was found to have "one chromosome too many", as she had a genetic mosaic of XX/XXY present in her cells. After this finding, all of Klobukowska's records and medals, including a gold and a bronze from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were rescinded and taken back. Her career was over and she was just 21, barred from competing, mistakenly identified as 'not female' because of her genetic condition.

History has been troubled constantly by gender verification tests and the most recent ones in memory are that of Caster Semenya and closer home, of Dutee Chand. Hormone tests began in the 90s as levels of testosterone started being used to judge the 'femaleness' of an athlete. South African star sprinter, Caster Semenya who won the gold medal at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the 800 m category was made to undergo sex verifications tests on many an occasion owing to her high testosterone levels. She was ordered to either bring down her testosterone levels or compete in a different category and shift to long-distance running instead of her patent middle-distance, owing to this.

Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand was also dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games squad after she 'failed' the hormone test, owing to her condition of hyperandrogenism, by the IAAF. Chand, then 18, contested it immediately and took it up with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) who ruled in her favour, allowing her to take part in the 2016 Rio Games, which did not set testosterone levels as a marker or a catalyst for enhancing performance on the track.

'Not a female' - who's to decide?

Dutee Chand

Taapsee Pannu's upcoming film, Rashmi Rocket, has a heavy task on its shoulder as it broaches an already-sensitive area of gender. The debate runs hot and the opinions, however mixed, are strong and the jury is still out on the question of whether gender tests should be abolished. Dutee Chand's tryst with gender-tests rises immediately in the memory once we see the trailer of Rashmi Rocket, where the Gujarat-based sprinter is also made to go through similar harassment and her sex is questioned.

Deciding what makes someone more female than the other is hardly a matter to be deliberated upon. The staunch feminist that Pannu is, in the virtual press conference of the trailer launch sharply shot out, "Who defines what's feminine and what is not? Is it just about your muscular build that you will be judged on who is a female and who is not? Do you realise that there are some hormonal imbalances that are there in certain females by default, it is not their choice? It might be a result of that they end up having the kind of physique that they have."

Society has been conditioned, only too well, about what is feminine and what isn't and Bollywood has also played the perfect role in perpetuating that image - bring on the chiffon saree-clad damsels-in-distress, dancing and singing in the rain. If Khurana's Rashmi Rocket has to rise, it has to, from a backdrop like that - dissociate itself from age-old stereotypes and establish a new narrative, untangle itself from the sarees and ideas of 'conventional femininity'. It isn't an easy task and it is definitely messy, but it is also a debate that needed its space on the screen, so that reality can contest it and finally stop trying to suspiciously pry behind veils, unfairly.

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