By Francesca Lewis
The concept of shamelessness is a strange one. As Amanda Palmer, often derided as a “shameless narcissist,” has pointed out, shame is generally a bad thing – so surely being shame-less should be good? A dictionary definition tells us that shame is “a feeling of guilt, regret or sadness because you have done something wrong.” This is the shame we feel when we were rude to our Aunt Jane and our mom says, “speaking to your Auntie like that – you should be ashamed!” This is not really what we are talking about when we label someone “shameless.” We are more likely to be referring to the secondary definition of shame – the ability to feel guilt, regret or embarrassment when we do something wrong – an idea that depends entirely upon having a consensus on what constitutes “right” and “wrong.” When we say “that person is shameless, she has no shame!” we are saying she doesn’t seem to feel bad about violating our moral codes. And, of course, shame is also a synonym for dishonor or disgrace; shame is what comes upon us when we sin or transgress – ideas in themselves extremely subjective. To be shameless is to have a disregard for the current or traditional rules of society and to break them without regret.
Geeta Malik’s latest film, Shameless manages to explore these ideas in its 4 minute running time with a very simple premise: a woman is accused of prostitution and counters this by wordlessly producing trinkets that prove every one of her accusers is a customer. The film stands as a quirky, fun reminder that no one is without sin and that those in power are often the very offenders they claim to oppose. People in glass houses should not be throwing stones.
Asha’s shamelessness, though, was what really fascinated me. The all-male panel of accusers sit on a raised platform while Asha sits crossed legged in the sand, a group of village women pointing and yelling at her. She doesn’t seem to care, simply staring directly at them, without her head bowed, as they detail her “crimes.” This defiant, silent, stillness, beautifully portrayed by Malik herself, is at the heart of the film. Asha does not deny the accusations but rather faces them with a cool indifference, with hints of both sadness and amusement at the hypocrisy around her. She appears to be completely uninterested in and unaffected by the constraints of traditional morality and propriety – which does indeed make her shameless. Yet we can’t condemn her since these rules seem both hypocritical and unfair. What meaning does shame really have when the rules themselves are called into question? This is wonderfully illustrated by the film’s surprise ending, which sees Asha confront angry villager, Meeru, with an ankle bracelet, confirming that she too had been in her bed. When Asha gets up and leaves, Meeru follows her and the two walk off into the sunset hand in hand. The reveal of this new detail brings an extra layer of meaning to the title of the film.
In recent times the idea of “shaming,” as a verb, has risen in popularity as social justice causes attempt to highlight the ways that certain groups are discriminated against by society – fat-shaming, slut-shaming etc. Asha is certainly shamed for her prostitution (which is never actually established as such – perhaps she just has multiple lovers?) but after leveling the playing field by revealing the private ways in which her accusers have also transgressed, she is not shamed for her queer relationship. The panel of accusers are certainly shocked, but they have very little to say. Malik’s queer happy ending then can only take place once those in power have admitted they are not perfect. Is humility and openness in our leaders the key to a shameless society?