With the entertainment industry slowly picking up post-Covid, and cinemas allowing a larger audience with the third wave restrictions easing out, two Bengali films saw big releases recently. One of them was Baba Baby O starring Jisshu Sengupta as a 40-plus bachelor, opting for single fatherhood through surrogacy.
That a subject like surrogacy can be the theme of a big-budget commercial Bengali film, and the target audience not confined to the so-called posh classes either, is an eye-opener, reflecting the changing profile of viewership. In a way, it also vindicates what is often said, that cinema mirrors contemporary society.
Perhaps fiction and real life merge somewhere. Today, Bollywood’s big stars are no longer hesitant to talk about subjects like surrogacy in personal life, so far discussed in a hush-hush manner or confided only to close family members. In 2011, when Aamir Khan and (former) wife Kiran Rao revealed that they had welcomed a baby through surrogacy, there was an audible gasp, and it was endlessly discussed in the media. By the time superstar Shah Rukh Khan and his wife Gauri Khan announced in 2013 that they had welcomed a third child through surrogacy, it made headlines but only for a short time, as people clearly accepted it as nothing unusual.
In recent times, the practise has reached another realm – that of single fathers through surrogacy; Karan Johar and Tusshar Kapoor, for example. As for women celebrities, single or married, Shilpa Shetty, Farah Khan, Sunny Leone, Preity Zinta, and Ekta Kapoor, to name a few, have opted for surrogacy to fulfill their dream of becoming parents. On the international scene with an Indian connection, the latest to join the group are Priyanka Chopra and husband Nick Jonas.
This is a welcome change in attitude indeed, and hopefully will lead to more conversations in a more open atmosphere. Celebrities from the silver screen, after all, have a great fan following in cinema-crazy India.
Not that surrogacy is unheard of in our society; it was only the veil of secrecy that kept it out of public knowledge or view. In India, especially where a married woman’s worth is weighed on the scale of motherhood, the inability to conceive earns unkind comments and ill treatment in the marital home. The social and mental pressure has even led women to death by suicide.
Medical advances and new technologies have revolutionised the scene for couples wanting to have a progeny with interventions, like IVF (in vitro fertilisation), surrogacy etc, if adoption is not an option. Subsequently, many centres known as ART (Assisted Reproductive Technologies) clinics have cropped up, especially in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, and India has come to be known internationally for surrogacy options.
To begin with, most clients were NRIs and white couples from Western countries where commercial surrogacy was illegal. ‘Commissioning parents’ – as they are known in the business, became familiar with the possibility of earning money by carrying a child for another couple.
This rampant ‘commercialisation of the womb’, as described by many, raised a hue and cry among activists and NGOs working in the field of healthcare, who pointed out that poor women in need of money were exploited by the rich. As a result, the government banned commercial surrogacy in 2017, to investigate the allegations.
In 2021, the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill 2020 was passed by the Rajya Sabha to streamline the practise. The new version allows only ‘ethical’ or altruistic surrogacy, that is, involving a consenting relative in which no charges, expenses, or monetary incentive, except medical expenses, are paid to the surrogate mother.
However, those opposing the bill say that it is another way of exploiting a woman by denying her right of choice.
On the other side of the coin, for many poverty-stricken families opting for surrogacy by a healthy woman who is already a mother, and with consent of the husband, it is a way out of penury as the money is substantial (though there are allegations of smaller payments than originally promised, and middlemen siphoning off money).
In celebrated Sahitya Akademi winning Assamese writer Arupa Patangia Kalita’s story Rajmao, Kamala is a poverty-stricken woman who takes up a job in far-off Delhi to pay for her bedridden husband’s treatment and children’s food and education. When she comes home, obviously flush with money, jealous neighbours whisper that she could have taken to the flesh trade. A maid couldn’t earn that much, right? Kamala cannot reveal that she accepted the offer to bear a child by the rich infertile couple, her employers. That could lead to ostracisation within the close-knit village community.
Such social issues, and the fact that the mother must give up the baby as soon as he or she is born, are real too. But it is a choice a willing woman as well as the couple who want to go for surrogacy make for various reasons. What is new is that even the rich and famous do not mind talking about something which would have been considered a PR disaster once. Perhaps this is a comment on changing times too.
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