The “Bachelor Girls” interviewed in Shikha Makan’s brisk documentary are professional women in their 20s and 30s, educated and gainfully employed in the large, cosmopolitan Indian city of Mumbai. For some landlords, these women would be ideal tenants: white-collar, responsible, educated, capable of paying rent regularly, stellar character references from heads of banks and human resources managers. But for certain cooperative housing associations of Mumbai, these women make for undesirable and unreliable tenants. Without a husband or parents living with them, who watches and safeguards their morals? Who makes sure they don’t come home late at night? Who vouches for the family backgrounds of the people whom they invite over for dinner? Who makes sure they are not joining a brothel, or worse, running one in their flat? Why else would an unmarried young woman start her career in the big city?
This is a housing crisis of a very particular and gendered sort. As with many socio-cultural issues, housing discrimination is a symptom of a much deeper illness, even in a relatively progressive city like Mumbai. As this film and its interviewed women suggest, this housing problem is one way in which a culture and a system can control the lives of its women, particularly those who are unmarried and have their own careers, money, and agency.
In many ways, these women are revolutionary, setting up shop by themselves in a big city. These women want to run their lives as they see fit. These women have already distinguished themselves by being highly-educated, by (mostly) being emotionally supported by their families, by being literate in terms of their legal rights and in city smarts. A strong and well-articulated fear and distrust of their independent means upends certain people’s views of “tradition” and “culture” and is manifested through housing discrimination. The people (men and women) who discriminate against single professional women – landlords, registrars and chairpersons of housing associations – cannot tell a professional woman not to have sex in the city but they can discourage independent behavior by literally kicking these women out of their houses, and in some cases, out of the city. After all, these women cannot pursue their dreams if they have no home to dream in.
These stories (and those of other women) are heartbreaking, particularly those which end in violence and death. All these women want is to have a room of their own to which they can safely retire after a long day at their jobs. The enormous emotional, financial, and legal cost of securing their home seems ridiculous and unbelievable. But listening to them express themselves – intelligently, forcefully, thoughtfully, and in many cases, with a great sense of humor – makes one feel hopeful about their future. This small, representative group of women interviewed was a force to be reckoned with. One hopes that, post-filming, these women got together for happy hour and decided to pool their money into buying one large apartment complex and living near each other happily ever after.
Bachelor Girls (2016) dir. Shikha Makan, 60 mins. Official selection at CAAMFest 35, March 9 – 19, 2017.