An industry that boasts of a wide variety of cinema, Bollywood is just as much an influencer as the internet in modern India. However, does the industry realise its responsibility in its portrayal of sexual violence?
With the debate increasingly heating up on banning item songs like Shiela Ki Jawani, Chikni Chameli or Munni Badnaam; one pertinent question pops up. What of the direct portrayal of rape and sexual assault? Is Bollywood informing the audiences or feeding their dangerous fetishes?
Do Bollywood films that ostensibly revolve around the theme of rape, actually serve only to objectify women? Do they provide more fodder for the patriarchal set up?
Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980)
Justicia is a woman, a blinded woman. The Tarazu of Insaaf in this story interestingly tips in the favour of the criminal time and again. First, Zeenat Aman is shown being brutally raped by Raj Babbar in a graphic scene that sexualises her more, portrays a criminal act less. Right from the helpless woman's bra straps being dramatically removed (expect background music) to the enormous amount of her skin showed, the rapist just throws "rapist looks" but the camera stays on her.
This scene followed by the one where Raj Babbar's character "ravishes" the rape survivor's sister. Padmini Kolhapuri models a bra and panty outfit, standing awkwardly. The helplessness is overbearing. The monster just growls at her while she whimpers like a puppy.
One wonders where the insaaf is? No, not in the plot.
The critically acclaimed Damini has been touted as one of the most realistic woman-centric films in Bollywood. And Bollywood has definitely attempted many.
Sunny Deol went on to win a National Award for playing the brooding lawyer who assists Damini (Meenakshi Sheshadri) in restoring justice. However, justice is a bit flawed, my lord.
Damini's husband Shekhar Gupta (Rishi Kapoor) is a romantic hero. The sort that falls in love at first sight and marries the 'object' of his affection. But unfortunately for him this film doesn't stop there. It goes on to tell the story of how a rich family like the Guptas breed absolute brutes. Damini witnesses the rape of their domestic help at the hands of her husband's brother.
While for the most part of the film Gupta's character stays in the background, in what appears to be an epiphany he rediscovers his love for his wife in the final minutes of the film owing to a speech by Sunny Deol. What more? She runs back to her husband. But, of course.
Notice the complete absence of women in this scene.
A Durga Puja release (cannot be a coincidence), Chakravyuh is a rather recent film that handled the issue of sexual violence vis a vis the Naxal movement in India. A typical Prakash Jha multi-starrer, Chakravyuh brought out an interesting take on how sexual crime is a means of establishing power.
Anjali Patil, who plays the woman who is sexually violated by the police isn't just about that. She is a strong character who escapes at her own will, without any saviour (unlike Damini) and makes her own choices. Her story may not be central to the plot of the film, but it remains a poignant portrayal of a fighter.
Woh Lamhe (2006)
The Kangana Ranaut, Shiney Ahuja starrer Woh Lamhe was a film about a man trying to revive his true love. Kangana's character survives an abusive relationship with her boyfriend that ends up in domestic violence and rape.
The rape scene on the stairs in this film is quite disturbing, for it is partly unanticipated and completely savage. Kangana, who plays the lost, pained woman in a lot of films, pulls this one off passably.
The important message in the film, however, is that she needs a man to recover. Fortunately, (or not) she doesn't.
Vinod Mehra and Rekha play newlyweds who are really happy with their youthful love. However, paradise is lost when Mehra's character Vikas Chandra gets attacked by a bunch of miscreants who then abduct his wife and rape her.
Disturbingly close to the Delhi gang-rape case in its order of events, the young couple walk out of a late movie and get no cabs to get back home. The story follows the life of the couple after media infiltrates into their lives, leaving her hollow and him distraught.
The film does not over-complicate the matter, but ventures briefly into the turmoil inside the husband's head. Chandra isn't comfortable with the media presence. Or is he swayed by the society's shunning of "impure" women?
Thankfully the film doesn't tag him so. The rest is just speculative.
Prem Granth (1996)
Madhuri Dixit plays Kajri, a young "low caste" girl (the camera loves to linger more on Madhuri’s curves than the issue at hand) who gets raped by a powerful man. However, this man remains in the background as the story follows a search led out for Kajri by her guileless lover Somen (Rishi Kapoor) who finally discovers a woman who has lost a child. A child born to her by way of rape.
The film ends at a vengeful note with the rapist being burnt on Dussehra (again the Goddess Durga motif) which in turn raises a gamut of problematic questions. The film's approach to a sensitive issue like rape is crude and conveniently primitive.
Mani Ratnam's take on a new-age ramleela where Raavan is painted in shades of grey was laboured but redeeming original by Bollywood's standards. Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) abducts Ragini Sharma (Aishwarya Rai) in an attempt to avenge the rape and suicide of his beloved sister Jamuni.
The narrator of Jamuni's story, fortunately, is Jamuni herself. She gets captured by police during her wedding and gets raped in the station. Soon after this narration Jamuni drowns herself by jumping into a well.
The narration is entirely that of patriarchy, which I'm certain is Mani Ratnam's succinct critique of the epic. However short her role may be, Jamuni highlights exactly what is wrong with system of wielding power by means of sexual violence. A custom not very alien to India.
7 Khoon Maaf (2011)
An interesting (and long) take on Ruskin Bond's Susanna's Seven Husbands, 7 Khoon Maaf delves into the very hush-hush territory of marital rape. Wait, what's that?
Susanna's (Priyanka Chopra) third husband Musafir (Irrfan Khan) is a poet, a charmer by the day and a fiend who assaults and rapes her night after night. Despite Susanna's attempts to cover up her violent marriage, her internal scars begin to show. Following the norm of the film, she ultimately kills him in a cold blooded murder and buries him in his own didactic land of beauty and violence, Kashmir.
Given that the very pre-requisite of this film is that she has to murder her husband at the end of every marriage, Musafir's death is fairly painless. A borderline sociopath, Susanna, then ventures into yet another failed marriage.
UTV calls it a "rough bed scene". Like I said, what's marital rape?
Manish Jha's Matrubhoomi is the foretelling of the story of India c. 2050 AD following the death of girl children to the common practice of female foeticide and infanticide.
Tulip Joshi plays the central role of Kalki (again, no coincidence) a woman in a time when the sex ratio is close to nill. Married off to five sons in a family (notice the parallels drawn with Draupadi) she is repeatedly raped by all of them, one each night. The story gets more and more gruesome as the family gets into politics for which she becomes the unwilling receipient of the villagers' "anger".
Tied to a post in a cowshed, she's gangraped merilessly and relentlessly. The film ends at a poignant note. She bears a girl child as a result of all the sexual violence. Call it catharsis, if you may.
Dushman tells the story of identical twins (both played by Kajol) who are diametric opposites (always a favourite with Bollywood). When one twin is raped and savagely killed with a pair of scissors, the other decides to take revenge.
A woman seeking revenge for her sister is not a common narrative in Bollywood and for that Dushman scores some points (as does Damini, to an extent). However, she ultimately needs Suraj (Sanjay Dutt), a blind pilot, to lead the way.