A month after she turned 25, Sangita Sharma arrived in Mumbai, the city of her dreams, leaving behind a small town in northern India where relatives constantly asked her why she was not married.
Sharma first stayed with an aunt, then at a working women's hostel. A few years later, when she had secured a well-paid position at an event management firm, Sharma decided she wanted a flat of her own.
She knew it was not going to be easy. A shortage of housing is a constant problem in India's financial hub, which has a population of 12.4 million and some of the world's priciest real estate. More than 450 new residents move into the city each day.
Mumbai landlords are known to be notoriously choosy. Some rent only to vegetarians, others will not rent to Muslims, and single women seeking a room alone are often at the bottom of the list.
But what Sharma was unprepared for was the gender bias she faced in inquisitions by prospective landlords, often beginning with “You are not married? Why?”, followed by “Do you come back late at night? Do you have male visitors?”.“They were like the most rigidly conservative of the relatives I escaped from,” Sharma said. “It was when I started sharing notes with friends that I realised it was a routine thing in Mumbai, this city we think is progressive and cosmopolitan.”
Filmmaker Shikha Maken, 35, went through the same depressing encounters with landlords when she moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2006. A little over two years ago she decided to make a documentary on the discrimination facing single, emancipated women who want to rent an apartment in Mumbai.
The dream soon becomes quite a nightmare, says one of the women who shares her experiences in Maken's film Bachelor Girls. The woman says the usual reaction she heard from prospective landlords was, “Are you single? Go away.”
Well-known actress Kalki Koechlin recalls her demeaning house-hunting experiences after she separated from her husband.
“They (landlords and real estate brokers) want photos with you and autographs, but they don't want you to live with them,” she says.
Life does not become any easier after one rents a flat. The single women in Maken’s film recount one traumatic experience after another. Watchmen who are supposed to protect instead leer and make snide remarks when one of the women comes back late at night. Another is accused of running a brothel because men visit her at home. A third has strange male neighbours knocking at her door in the wee hours. The women in Maken's film are successful, liberated and financially independent. They are bankers, corporate executives, IT specialists, actors and businesswomen.
But they are single, and Indian society still finds it difficult to adjust to that.
“Parents want their daughters to be educated, strong and earn their own money. But as soon as they achieve that, they want them to marry and become stay-at-home mums,” says Maken.
Meghna Bose, a teacher in Mumbai, says she felt she had more choices when she started looking for an apartment after she got married.
“Women have achieved a lot when it comes to shaping a female identity in India, but so many people are still stuck in a very backward way of thinking when it comes to gender,” Maken says.
“There is great demand for conformity these days,” says Samita Sen, a professor at the School of Womens Studies at Kolkatas Jadavpur University.
Recent studies have shown that single women as well as Muslims – find it difficult to rent houses in Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai.
“They don't fit in that small box of who is seen as normal by the majority,” Sen says.
Maken says her film is about how people treat each other in society, and how gender can be made into a power game. She made the film to vent some of her own frustration and spark a discussion that may help to hasten a change in attitudes.
“Once I started digging, I came across more and more stories that show sexism is still strong, even in Bombay (as Mumbai was previously known), which is supposed to be the most liberal city in India,” she says.
The film has privately screened all across India, producing a steady flow of commentary and conversations.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Maken says. – DPA