Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978)
“The very presence of women in public in seen as transgressive and fraught with anxiety,” write academic Shilpa Pahadke, journalist Sameera Khan and architect Shilpa Ranade in Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, a book that shares with the film its central concern—women’s right to the city. “So long as women are able to convey the dominant narrative of gender—that they belong in private and not the public—they get conditional access to public space. To signal refusal to adhere to these codes often invites censures, sanctions and violence.” The book makes a spectacular case for women’s right to loiter, questioning why in India women must walk a straight line between one “sheltered” space and another. It dares readers to imagine an Indian city with street corners full of women. “A man may stop for a cigarette at a paanwalla or lounge on a park bench. He may stop to stare at the sea or drink cutting chai at a tea stall. He might even wander the streets late into the night. Women may not… She is either mad or bad or dangerous to society.”
This particular scene has always been really captivating for me with consideration of two contextually important things. The first is that Alice (played by Anjali Paigankar) chooses to “loiter” at night, and despite shopping + consuming having a gendered connotation, she seems to have no real intention of buying anything in particular which strengthens this theme of the woman and the public space. Even the way she walks around looking at sunglasses, shoes, etc. is lethargic and pointless, especially with the last scene in mind where her brother tells her mother that her late hours at work are for “other” purposes. Juxtapose this scene with the titular character Arvind Desai’s various instances of loitering and the second reason Alice’s occupation of public space is interesting becomes obvious. Arvind and Alice have the same disposition though the connotations behind these dispositions are separated by gender and class. When Arvind loiters, he is a consumer but an intellectually displaced man too. When Alice loiters, we do not focus on her internal character and the philosophies she might cater to. Instead we look at the external—the store, the danger of the male gaze, her body language, her clothes, and her reasons.