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Sunday, March 04, 2001

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Long wait for justice

Despite the progress women have made over the last few decades, there are still some whose wrongs have not been redressed. Bhanwari Devi, who was gang raped in Rajasthan in 1992, is one such. With International Women's Day on March 8, bestselling author PINKI VIRANI'S exclusive preview of "Bawandar" ("Sandstorm" in English) is timely. The film, based on Bhanwari Devi's story, has won appreciation abroad, but is being held up by the censors in New Delhi.

THINK about her - a woman in her mid-50s, Bhanwari Devi, in a forgettable Rajasthan village - as you read this. She is hunched over a potter's wheel right now, making pots. No one buys her pots anymore, but work she must, for she needs to hope. Think about Bhanwari Devi, at her clay-caked wheel, her case pending in the high court as she awaits justice. She was gang-raped in 1992; her medical examination was conducted 52 hours after the rape; two years later the trial began in a lower court; five judges were inexplicably changed, the sixth found the accused not guilty in 1995.

Bhanwari still lives in the same village as her five upper-caste rapists. The State's MLA even organised a victory rally in Jaipur for the five who got away; the women's wing of that political party attended the rally to call Bhanwari, among other things, a liar. Bhanwari hopes the potter's wheel will turn in her favour.

The rapists offered her compensation (in 1994) to withdraw the case. Her reply was: "Tell our village elders you raped me, restore my dignity." The rapists refused. Her brothers felt she should have settled and they broke all ties with her. Her older son and daughter-in-law, as well as her in-laws, followed suit. Her husband - otherwise supportive, warm, caring - took time to accept his family falling apart. Bhanwari turns the potter's wheel; inspite of all those bravery awards she has received: the Rs. 10,000 given to her by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Narasimha Rao, the standing ovation she got in Delhi where she said, "Manney nyaay chahiye," she is just a woman asking her country to be just.

Think about Bhanwari, thank her. She is the reason why every Indian woman is now covered, legally, against sexual harassment at work. After her gang-rape, some committed Delhi women took up the issue of sexual harassment at the work place and followed it through legally. Bhanwari was a saathin, a grassroots worker, recruited in 1985 because she needed the money.

Contentedly married as a child-bride herself, she had no personal reason to oppose child marriages or gender biases. But when she accepted the paltry salary, she took professional charge, reporting on upcoming child marriages to her seniors who would inform the police. The villagers reacted by refusing her water from the well and to sell her milk. On September 22, 1992, at 6 p.m. those men raped her. In a year and a half's time, it is going to be a decade for a woman waiting for justice.

Meanwhile, she is being applauded through a film, largely based on her life, called "Bawander" ("Sandstorm" in English). Its director Jagmohan Mundhra (see box) has already accepted one international award on behalf of Nandita Das who plays Sanwari (name changed for legal reasons). Raghuvir Yadav plays her husband while holding his own. Lillette Dubey is the social worker dealing with the warped system. Gulshan Grover is Bhanwari's lawyer, Ravi Jhankal is the police inspector who sadistically makes her remove her ghagra for evidence without offering her any other cover. Deepti Naval plays a composite of all those selfless women who supported Bhanwari at that time; Naval's breakdown in court when the rapists are acquitted is world-class acting. Grammy winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt gives the background score while Ashok Kumar, winner of national and Tamil Nadu awards for "Nenjathai Killathe" works effective magic as cinematographer.

What makes "Bawander" important is also the way it has dealt with the harrowing details which often follow a rape - lodging an FIR, medical examination, semen samples from the accused, re- victimisation of the woman during cross examination .... Mainstream films from "Patita" to "Grahan" essentially showcase man's goodness in restoring the woman's honour, rape is not the central issue. The rape-revenge "Bandit Queen" country cousins have women turning to dacoity or castrating men, like Dimple Kapadia in "Zakhmi Aurat". Rekha in "Ghar" dealt with her shattered emotional psyche after being raped. "Insaaf ka Tarazu" did make a forceful point, but it was a copy of the international hit "Lipstick".

True, "Bawander" is no finely-finished product, it is jerky at times and as national award-winning film critic Deepa Gahlot points out: "The film turns caricaturish at points, which is unnecessary." Like the scene at the police station when the policewomen appear almost comic in their menace. Women who have suffered at the hands of policewomen - as has Bhanwari Devi - know that chilling fear when they see policewomen aping the worst in their male colleagues.

Nevertheless, to accept a film or reject it, is the audience's prerogative. Festival audience, including men, admire the film because it is direct, with no intellectual cud-chewing. The Indian audience is being denied this opportunity because of the censors. Assistant director of "Bawander", Rajesh Rathi, has the dates neatly noted in his diary. The film went to the examining committee on September 18, 2000; committee head Asha Parekh said it was being despatched to the revising committee - which saw the film on October 6, gave it the expected "Adult" certificate and recommended five cuts, although international audiences seeing it without any cuts.

Two cuts are fair enough and one which asks for deletion of an entire dialogue can be settled with the substitution of a word. Cut one and cut five are grotesquely unfair to Bhanwari Devi.

Cut one: Bhanwari Devi and her husband were held down by men as she was raped, in quick succession, by an elderly uncle and his nephew. The faces of these two men are seen in "Bawander" from Bhanwari Devi's, or any raped woman's, point of view - on top of her. The censors do not like this real-time view, nor the forcing apart of a woman's legs during the crime.

Cut five: "Delete the visuals of suggestive masturbation by a police officer." The censors could not have been offended by the suggestion of masturbation since they allowed it in "Fire" and "English August". It is the police officer. But, then what is the explanation for those unidentifiable semen stains on Bhanwari's ghagra after she was forced to take it off by the police inspector as evidence?

Mundhra took "Bawander" to the censor tribunal, the final authority, in Delhi, on October 17, 2000. They are yet to see it. Reason? Their theatre was not working. He even offered to fly them to Mumbai to watch the movie. The theatre is now working, but the technical committee, which needs to approve of the theatre's working, has yet to check it. There is no word on when this is likely to happen.

Now Bhanwari must wait for her own country to see her story. As for her court case, in a judicial system sadly corrupted by sexism and political opportunism - where the truth is the first suspect - Bhanwari is not the only Indian woman waiting.

Pinki Virani is a journalist and author of Aruna's Story, Once Was Bombay and Bitter Chocolate. She is based in Mumbai.

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