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Let’s talk about rape: Farhan Akhtar’s open letter to his daughter

Let’s talk about rape: Eight eminent Indians write open letters in Hindustan Times to discuss the reality of sexual assault in India. Actor Farhan Akhtar starts the series with an open letter to his daughter.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2016 15:17 IST
Farhan Akhtar
India’s record in punishing people accused of rape and other sexual crimes against women is shockingly low.
India’s record in punishing people accused of rape and other sexual crimes against women is shockingly low.(ILLUSTRATION: Rahul Krishnan)

Let’s talk about rape: Eight eminent Indians write open letters in Hindustan Times to discuss the reality of sexual assault in India.

Farhan Akhtar starts the series with an open letter to his daughter.

Dear Daughter,

How do I even start writing to you about sexual violence and rape? My instinct, any father’s instinct, is to protect and nurture, but it is an issue that we must confront and discuss. Let me start, dear child, by quoting from a poem I wrote after the brutal murder of a sprightly lawyer in my team in 2013. You were too young then, only 12, and all I wanted was to see you smile and feel brave and invincible, like you did. The attempted rape and murder was too dark a subject for me to bring up then.

Now, you’re 16 and I can read the questions in your mind. Yes, the same questions that I find myself asking:

What is this country that I live in?

That takes away her right to love

Brutalises her with an iron glove

Rapes her without fear

of there being justice for her tear…

…what do I tell my daughter?

That she’s growing up to be lamb for the slaughter

we’ve got to make a change

Reboot, reformat, rearrange,

and never give in

no matter how much our head may spin

Just keep asking the question

What is this country that I live in?

“...what do I tell my daughter? That she’s growing up to be the lamb for slaughter we’ve got to make a change..Reboot, reformat, rearrange and never give in,” writes Farhan Akhtar to his daughter. (HT File Photo)

I know your head spins. I know your young mind grapples with how we treat our women. We’ve tried, as parents should do, of teaching you the importance of equality, of never ever making a distinction between boys and girls, of introducing you to the concept of choice; of even talking to you about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’. We have open conversations. As parents, we’ve told you, if you’re uncomfortable with anyone touching you, that’s a bad touch and you cannot allow it to happen. You should tell that person, I don’t like it. Don’t think that because you’re a kid, someone is allowed to do something to you. I’ve explained to you that if you’re not in the mood for a hug even from me, I should not touch you. The right to your body is yours and yours alone.

I know too, from your Facebook posts, that as you spread your wings to fly into this world, you are troubled and annoyed. Why can’t I wear what I want to wear? Why can’t I pick my identity? Why can’t I be free in the true sense of the word free?

Yet, as a father, I can’t put my head in the sand because there are certain realities around us. We live in an unsafe, largely unequal world. We have never told you what not to wear or don’t go out. You can have blue hair if that’s what you want. You are growing to be a confident, independent and conscious young woman. You’ve spoken to me about the movies our industry makes, about how women are sometimes portrayed as ‘objects’ and I’ve always tried to answer your questions. It gives me great pleasure to speak with you about women and gender issues..

Yes, in Bollywood — and Zoya and I are conscious of crudity and vulgarity — the eye of the camera often goes on overdrive. As an industry, we are guilty of normalising the invasion of a woman’s space, the woman’s body. Those watching our movies think it is ‘normal’ to harass a college or a village girl even when the girl is saying she’s not interested. You must also have seen movies in which the entire supporting cast conspires to help the ‘hero’ know the girl he’s interested in. They get together to help him (not her); they block her path wherever she goes. They conspire to bring them face to face, to the point where he’ll hold her, catch her dress, even jump on top of her in some instances. Such behaviour — which flies in the face of consent that I’ve always tried to talk to you about — has been normalised by movies. Stalking, unfortunately, has become a mutated form of cinematic romance.

As a filmmaker, I need to be wary of such visualisation. We can’t put a blindfold around our eyes and say, I’m doing this for entertainment, or believe that it has no influence on the audiences. Our fans gather around us in the hundreds, even thousands, and they’re there because of our work, because they idolise us, because they’re in love with our screen image. That bestows on us a great sense of responsibility. I too, dear daughter, function in a field where, like you, I’m constantly battling for freedom of speech, of expression, of creative expression.

Rape and sexual harassment have often figured in movies. Earlier, the ‘bad guy’ was always the villain but think about it, the villain who used to be the stalker in college, for example, has now been replaced by the hero. Step back and see and what you’ll realise is that the creep you hated in movies is the one who is ‘getting’ the girl. Worse, the girl ends up believing that he’s stalking her because he loves her and she ends up thinking, ‘he must really love me’.

You and I have always had open conversations. We’ve always understood the importance of communication. I do worry about you when you’re out as any father would do. But like all fathers, I want you to remember that through your journey in life, you have a friend in me. You must always chase your dreams and live your life with freedom. Of course, be safe. You know what safe is. Have your wits about you. Be smart and be in control of yourself.

And as you ask yourself the question, what is this country that I live in, always remember:

I understand you little girl

Your rage, your surprise

Your confusion about the beast in human disguise

I stand with you, little girl, I stand with you

Yours,
Dad

The author is an actor, director, singer, lyricist and a father of two daughters aged 16 and 9.

Read Farhan Akhtar’s poignant poems on sexual assault against women

RAPE AND BOLLYWOOD

1950s
In its early years, Hindi cinema tackled social issues such as dowry. Rape was dealt with rarely. Mehboob Khan’s Amar (1954) centres around the rape of a village girl by the hero. In Biraj Bahu (1954), Mother India (1957), villains try to rape the heroines but there is no element of titillation.

1960s
This was the era of breezy romances. The villain, invariably played by Pran, was now an established character, but rape was not the fixture that it became later. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam (1969), the hero marries a girl who has been raped by a debauched prince.

1970-1980s
These were the years of action films and revenge dramas where violent, crude ‘rape scenes’ became mandatory (Roti Kapda Aur Makan, Insaaf ka Tarazu, among others). Movies like Zakhmi Aurat (1988), allegedly ‘women-centric’ (in this one, women took revenge on rapists), also left a lot to be desired. One of the few films that dealt with rape differently was the understated Ghar (1978), where a married woman, Rekha, is gang-raped.

1990s
By the 1990s, feel-good romances were on the rise. But there was also the rise of the obsessive lover and sexual harrasser: in Benaam Badshah (1991), the heroine pursues her rapist, and finally marries him.

2000s
By the turn of the century, there was a new crop of filmmakers with different sensibilities. The narrative around rape and misogyny changed and this began to be reflected in Hindi films. Recently, Pink tackled the issue of women’s consent.

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