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Parthénos or Apárthenos? Girls’ Piety and Sex in Greek New Comedy and South Asian Popular Cinema

Arti Mehta

Howard University

Piku (2015), an Indian film directed by Shoojit Sircar, offers a feminist reading of modern Hindu womanhood that models - in a new, globalized manner - the transitional phase between puberty and marriage where parthenoi are positioned in Greco-Roman comedy. In Piku, Sarcar adapts on-going exchanges between Indian and Greco-Roman cultures (e.g. Kalidasa’s fifth century C.E. Abhijnanamsakuntalam) (Stephens and Vasunia 2010, Hall and Vasunia 2010). The relationship between a bad-tempered father and his marriage-age daughter featured in Menander’s Dyskolos translates into an early twenty-first century film wherein a sexually-active young woman, disclaiming the chastity of earlier film heroines (Simran in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, “The One with a Heart Takes the Bride”), tends to a dyspeptic father (Reichl and Stein 2005). Sarcar’s film, subtitled “Hi Motion Se Emotion” (“[Bowel] Motion Is Emotion”) conveys the young woman of Menander’s comedy into her future self, now reflecting her father’s scatological distemper in her own daily life at the expense of love and passion.

South Asian romantic comedies offer alternative readings seeking to cohere Greco-Roman gaps in female characterization in texts such as Menander’s Dyskolos. Sarcar’s title character, Piku, demonstrates respect for elders (paying homage to deceased ancestors, worshiping gods). The father rejects the marriage imperative, arguing against women as servers – “food during the day, and sex at night” – whereas traditional Hindu society would marry a girl at birth. Similarly, it is Menander’s male protagonist’s approach to The Girl that causes her half-brother to intervene. Proverbs and impersonal constructions (Tzifopoulos 1995) convey the absence of female agency in both cultures and raise expectations of gender-based submissiveness rather than advocating for the fulfillment of desires both sexual and social. Sarcar advances the biological crisis of the father into a physiological hormonal dilemma for the daughter, explicating a biological event similar to the intimacies between protagonist and beloved in Menander’s play (Brown 1991). Following the film’s use of tropes of piety and sexual emergence – common events in Greek and Roman comedy - this essay uses close readings of the corresponding religious and romantic moments to argue that the paucity of Menandrian texts (Blake

1966) necessitate supplementation, and that the sexual status of The Girl merits reconsideration. South Asian films such as Piku and the living tradition embodied within this visual medium expand scholars’ resources for comprehending ancient Greek scripts.

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Classics In/Out of Asia

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