By The Way

Laughing down NH10

A scene from NH10.   | Photo Credit: RIDHIIN PANCCHMATIA

Yesterday, I watched NH10 at the Rex theatre in Bangalore. It was a packed Sunday morning show. The film, directed by Navdeep Singh, is about (plenty of spoilers ahead) how Meera, played by Anushka Sharma, fights the vicious patriarchy that drives and encourages incidents of honour killing.

This post is not a review of the film, but a commentary on the audience that was watching it yesterday. Sitting in the audience, I heard comments made by complete strangers - mostly men - that were deeply revelatory of entrenched misogyny all around us.

In the film, Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) and Meera, a married couple, unexpectedly witness how another couple (who have mustered the courage to fall in love outside their caste - and worse - get married) is killed brutally by the girl's brother and friends. Now, having dared to step into what one of the killers in the film calls, “a private matter,” Arjun and Meera become targets themselves. They are chased through the night and ultimately, Arjun is killed. Meera survives to avenge the death of not just her husband, but the innocent couple as well.

To me, this film is significant because it portrays a female protagonist taking on the Khaps, the men, the police, and the women that perpetuate patriarchy and sanction the murders of their own daughters and sisters because they 'dared' to marry outside their caste.

The comments from the audience began from the very opening scene of the film. Sitting in the middle of the last row, I happened to get a glimpse of the entire audience in the balcony seats. One man predicted what would happen after a scene in which Meera drives off in a car alone after a party: “ Oye, ab to maregi yeh,” he said. I expected the worst too, so I found myself agreeing with him. Then, there was some innocuous laughter when the couple made stupid mistakes.“ Kya kar raha hai. Pagal hai,” someone said offering advice to the couple on screen.

But quite soon, it got worse. Each time Meera faltered, fell, ran or cried, it invoked nothing more than peels of laughter. It was strange. Here was a character desperately trying to escape mad murderers and all the audience seemed to enjoy was watching her fail. Now Meera sees her husband dead. She screams in horror and then decides that she had had enough. “ Desh ki bhabhi, Chalo bachao sab ko,” shouts someone in the audience and cinema hall bursts into ruckus laughter.

Something turned inside my stomach. This had suddenly stopped sounding like harmless fun.

In one of the scenes leading up to the film’s climax, Meera picks up a metal rod, a weapon that was previously wielded by one of the killers. Meera took the rod in her hand. It felt alien, its weight bogged her down, but she began walking with it, dragging it on the ground prepared to strike anyone that came her way. By now, she had been slapped, beaten and had seen enough blood. “ Chalo, ab to batting seekh hi jayegi,” said that voice which had become familiar now. More laughter followed.

The comments, the laughter, the disrespect were directed at Meera, but also at Anushka the actor, the woman. The cricket analogy was no doubt a not-quite-veiled reference to Virat Kohli.

And sitting in the darkness of the hall watching Meera bleed, scream and fight on screen, even as she was ridiculed by my anonymous, invisible co-cinema-goers, the reel and real began merging discomfitingly. Patriarchy was both on the screen in the form of the killers but also in the sexist, misogynist comments from the audience watching the film.

And this is not a quintessential Indian problem either. In 2013, Anna Gunn, the actor who played Skyler in AMC’s widely acclaimed television series Breaking Bad, wrote >a column in The New York Times, in response to hate mail she had received for weeks from men and women alike for what Skyler chose to do in the series.

When she finds out that her husband (a lung cancer patient) makes money selling meth and has even committed murder, she tries to stop him. She keeps him away from her family disgusted with all the manipulation and lies he has subjected her to. Fans did not like what they saw because they empathised with her husband Walter White. They wrote abusive emails and even started hate pages on Facebook.

Posts complained that Skyler was a “shrieking, hypocritical harpy” and didn’t “deserve the great life she has,” said Gunn. Another said “I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her.” According to Gunn: “The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife’.”

Anna Gunn wrote about how the hatred from ‘fans’ sometimes transcended her character and targeted her directly. “As an actress, I realize that viewers are entitled to have whatever feelings they want about the characters they watch. But as a human being, I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom. Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or “stand by her man”? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?” she wrote.

Episodes like these reveal a lot about the society we live in. Instead of typecasting these responses as being those from audience belonging to a certain class, or a city or even a country, we might as well accept that the uncomfortable truth is that patriarchy is universal.

To think that these movies and soaps are being watched when the country and the world are increasingly debating issues relating to women, masculinity and rape.

If this is how we react to it - with dismissive laughter or mockery - then what does it really say about our collective evolution?

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 9:15:08 PM |

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