Sexual assault is a crime, not entertainment

Published - September 25, 2016 01:10 am IST

Towards the end of Shoojit Sarkar’s Pink, there’s a scene in which the grim defence lawyer harshly cross-questions the molestation victim in the dock — his own client — about her personal life. Shocked and confused, she falters, then unsteadily blurts out the answers. No, she’s not a virgin. Yes, she’s had several relationships. Yes, she enjoys the occasional drink.

Just when you’re wondering where this is leading, the lawyer turns her words on their head and launches into a scathing indictment of the misogyny, judgmentalism and hypocrisy that’s so prevalent even in twenty-first-century urban India. A woman cannot be considered fair game on the basis of her clothes and lifestyle, he thunders; and when she says no, it means no, whether she’s a stranger, a girlfriend, a wife or even a sex worker. I swear there was pin-drop silence in the cinema hall when the formidable Amitabh Bachchan belted out these words.

The significance of Pink lies in this perspective. For the first time in the history of Bollywood, a film champions the right of women over their own sartorial choices, lifestyles and eventually their own bodies. It posits that sexual assault is not so much about lust as a feudal display of power, and lances a defiant challenge at the notion of male entitlement. None of this is news to those who know even the rudiments of feminism — what is radical is the mainstreaming of these ideas via a Bollywood film and star. And for this the makers of Pink deserve applause.

Pink ’s treatment of a sexual assault story is path-breaking (ideologically that is — it’s not extraordinary as a film) mainly because of what depictions of rape in Hindi cinema have largely been. Apart from a handful of films that looked at the issue in a non-exploitative way, the sole purpose of rape sequences in Bollywood was to titillate, an idea that came into its own through a 1971 film called Do Raha . The film had a rape sequence picturised on its leading lady that was reportedly almost one reel long and horrific in its lasciviousness. B.R. Ishara, the director, wasn’t from the mainstream — indeed, his movies, often centering round the theme of sexuality, were considered offbeat and vaguely progressive. However, his film clearly inspired commercial film-makers, who, chuffed by this instrument of titillation that could add box-office heft to their potboilers, went all out to borrow it and add new layers of ugliness to it.

For the next two and a half decades, gratuitous rape sequences flooded the movies. Some were particularly depraved conceptually: the attempted rape of a blind woman in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (1981), the gang sexual assault on a hungry woman lured into a grocery store in Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974) or the two rape sequences in the 1994 film Mohra (I remember veteran critic Iqbal Masud disgustedly rueing the fact that the film actually began with two consecutive sexual assaults). And then there were entire films constructed around the theme of rape like Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980) and Zakhmi Aurat (1988) which purported to be feminist but had the same lewd rape scenes played out in detail. It was Bollywood insidiousness at its best.

The same disingenuity coloured films that ostensibly were merely borrowing from real life. In the 1990s, Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat and Benaam Badsha latched on to an issue that was then in the news — marriage to one’s rapist. A practice that was considered desirable by village panchayats and even some judges and lawyers to save the ‘honour’ of the victim, it was a grotesque idea that was fought by most victims themselves and very recently slammed by the Supreme Court. Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat and Benaam Badsha, however, endorsed the patriarchal view and went one monstrous step further by making the victim fall in love with the rapist. In Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat , Rani Mukherjee unbelievably demands conjugal rights from her assaulter who hates her; while in Benaam Badsha , Juhi Chawla, who’s raped by a hired hoodlum hours before her wedding, goes all out, giggly and coy, to seduce him into marrying her. Bad enough that these sickening exercises in perversion were made – two decades later, they continue to be regularly aired by TV channels.

It would take way too much space to go into how Bollywood films over the decades have contributed to rape culture and strengthening the hands of the patriarchy — what matters is that the perspective is finally changing, perhaps because of the healthier mindset of contemporary film-makers. It’s significant that of the three films I saw recently, which had sexual assault as a part of the story, three didn’t dwell on the act for more than a few seconds — and certainly not lecherously – while one didn’t show it at all. The woman who’s attacked in Angry Indian Goddesses dies but Phobia and Pink ’s survivors, though scarred by the assault, don’t recede into the shell of shame and self-blame from which only a ‘good’ man can rescue them; they don’t attempt suicide either and continue living their lives with dignity. Pink is also refreshing for the way Tapasee Pannu smashes a bottle over the sexual assaulter’s head rather than stereotypically pleading with him to let her go; even the aggressive way she deals with the telephonic rape threats later, though her heart is clearly in her mouth, is novel for Hindi cinema.

Two decades ago Indian audiences, brought up on the rape-as-entertainment paradigm, had controversially reacted to the horrific scenes of sexual assault and forcible stripping in Bandit Queen in the same way that they did to the designed-to-titillate scenes of commercial cinema. Failing to see the terrible humiliation of a helpless human being and focusing only on her nudity, they had hooted, laughed and clapped at the sight. I was reminded of this ugly response when I saw several social media posts and heard accounts from friends on the audience reaction to Pink . Applause has been ringing out here too — but far from being directed at the humiliation of the girls, it’s for Amitabh Bachchan’s sarcasm-dripping ‘safety manual for women’ and for his final speech on misogyny and consent. It’s the kind of unexpected and heartening reaction that gives you hope about both the Indian mindset and Hindi cinema.

The author is a freelance editor and writer

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