...AND THE PRICE WOMEN PAY ON SCREEN
In January 2011, a police constable from Toronto addressing a forum at York University about crime prevention made the comment, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” His statement sparked off a worldwide agitation called Slutwalk (the organisers of the campaign picked up the word ‘slut’ from his speech, presumably to draw attention to the movement and to reclaim a term which has been coloured with a decisively negative connotation, as a mark of rebellion), whereby women in various cities around the world have taken to the streets to protest against their objectification and to fight for their right to dress as they please without fear of being violated. Next month, Slutwalk comes to Delhi, perhaps the most unsafe city for women in a country that is considered one of the most dangerous places on earth for them owning to its horrendous record on human trafficking, female foeticide and infanticide, not to mention rape and other forms of abuse.
A poster for Slutwalk Chicago. Pic Courtesy Melissa Huang
It may take a much longer thesis to examine how Hindi cinema (even today, largely produced and consumed by a male populace) perceives and portrays women in general. But since the provocation of this movement was the constable’s claim that women leave themselves open to rape because of the way they dress (a view that is rampant in our society), it may be pertinent to examine how our cinema handles the sexual violation of women in order to understand to what extent the objectification and chastisement of women is central to the narrative of rape and how little the way they dress or behave has to do with their abuse.
In Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), Radha’s (Nargis) attempted rape by the lascivious moneylender Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal) is crucial to the screenplay and to her elevation from an ordinary woman to Mother India. She refuses to sell her body even to feed her starving children, but the point is—Sukhilala believes that in the absence of her husband and in view of her impoverishment, she is fair game. Unlike most others, Khan doesn’t focus on the heroine’s physical allure (Nargis is drenched from head to toe, but her entire face and body are covered with mud) to use the sequence for generating voyeuristic gratification. However, he swoons to the other end of the spectrum, turning his female protagonist into a supra-human figure and projects her as the epitome of Indian womanhood, as damaging an image as the objectification of commercial cinema.
Nargis Dutt plays the archetypal Mother India in Mehboob Khan's 1957 film
Till nearly two decades after Mother India, although attempted rape continued to be a sub-plot in many Hindi films, more often than not, the heroine was rescued from the villain's clutches in the nick of time, quite like the heroines of the Ramayan and Mahabharat, whose chastity was preserved on account of their inherent 'purity'. Still popular villain of the 1970s, Ranjeet has earned himself the notoriety of having committed a record 350 screen rapes! At one time, claimed the actor in an interview, producers asked filmmakers to feature a Ranjeet rape in their films quite like the ‘item numbers’ of contemporary cinema.
Infamous: Ranjeet in Feroz Khan's Dharmatma
A WOMAN’S ‘IZZAT’
The film that brought rape to the forefront of the narrative space was B R Chopra’s Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), which has subsequently become a case study for many film academicians. Coming as it did at the end of a decade in which the feminist movement was taking firm roots in India and women in urban areas were joining the workforce in unprecedented numbers, Insaaf Ka Tarazu, made by one of the pillars of Bollywood patriarchy, voices the male establishment’s anxiety over women’s liberation. The manner in which it goes about its business of reaffirming a woman’s chastity and restoring her ‘izzat’ (a word vital to mainstream Hindi cinema’s representation of women) is more titillating than righteous, as is often the case with such themes.
The film opens with a rape followed by a murder and subsequently, a courtroom deposition, where an army officer (Dharmendra in a guest appearance) admits that he committed the murder, but describes it as a heroic act, suggesting that preserving a woman’s honour is as noble a task as defending the motherland. Straightaway then, a woman’s ‘izzat’ becomes a matter of national importance and the privilege of the male order to protect and restore it.
Insaaf ka Tarazu was a remake of 1976's Lipstick, featuring the Hemingway sisters
The film then moves on to its main business of the systematic (and systemic) humiliation of its female protagonist. Not only is Bharati (Zeenat Aman) an independent working woman, she has chosen to be a model, a profession that commodifies women most blatantly. We first see her at a fashion show where she walks the ramp in front of a packed hall that is meant to judge the most beautiful model of the lot. Playboy Ramesh Gupta (Raj Babbar) is so enamoured by her physical allure, he can’t stop drooling from the minute he sets eyes on her. Soon he visits her on an ad film shoot on the beach. We see Bharati, dressed in a semi-transparent night-gown and the director telling her, “Come on Bharati, I want more sex!”
She has been objectified long before Ramesh denudes her, and the filmmaker seems to suggest she asked for it on account of her choice of profession. Casting Zeenat Aman in this role also appears to be deliberate, given that she had already made her mark in the film industry as a ‘sex symbol’, another term that clearly posits her as an object of lust.
Zeenat Aman—Indian cinema's quintessential 'sex symbol'. Here in Satyam Shivam Sundaram
Ramesh persistently stalks her, lands up at her doorstep and, on being spurned in favour of her fiancé (Deepak Parashar), rapes her. But not before he assaults her verbally and physically, tears up her clothes and makes her grovel at his feet. The film’s most horrific and enduring image is a shot of Bharati collapsing at Ramesh’s feet, framed between his spread out legs. The director takes his time delineating this sequence, and also the subsequent rape of Bharati’s younger sister Nita (Padmini Kolhapure).
The court case is a sham (as Bharati’s lawyer played by Simi Garewal has already predicted) and another chapter in the assassination of Bharati’s character—which includes condemning her for coming out in the open about her rape instead of hiding her face in shame and letting the matter die a natural death as any ‘respectable Indian woman’ would. Ramesh is acquitted for lack of evidence and goes on to force himself on Nita, before Bharati finally empties a gun into him and pleads guilty for murder.
Unlike the avenging heroes of the ‘angry young man’ films where vendetta is a man’s to take, Bharati must still justify herself to the patriarchal establishment about her motivations and eventually get validated by the judge’s approval of her actions and admission of his own error of judgment.
Taking the law in her own hands—Zeenat Aman in Insaaf ka Tarazu
But the greater harm that Insaaf Ka Tarazu did was on account of the way it constructed its schizophrenic protagonist, a woman who may be liberal enough to take up a career in modelling, but whimpers obediently when her prospective husband tells her, “You will not work after the wedding.” Also, for a woman who appears to be living on her own terms, she is still steeped in regressive tradition, whether it be dressing up like a demure bride to meet her in-laws, or describing herself as a ‘polluted’ woman to her fiancé who insists on marrying her even after the rape. Worse, in her final deposition, she likens a woman’s body to a ‘temple’ and pillar of Indian modesty. Its violation then, isn’t just a matter of personal shame —although there’s plenty of that too; unable to bear the social stigma, Bharati and her sister are forced to relocate to another city.
In the ‘avenging women’ sub-genre that Insaaf Ka Tarazu spawned, there were many films with popular actresses at their centre, often focusing on urban working women who are raped, humiliated and denied justice, before they take recourse to violence and avenge their violation. Prominent amongst these was Avatar Bhogil’s Zakhmi Aurat (1988) where a policewoman (Dimple Kapadia), after being raped, forms a gang of avenging angels who go about delivering justice by castrating rapists. Predictably, the story ends with a courtroom scene where Kapadia invokes the Gita and derides the nation’s leaders for proving incapable of passing laws to ensure that rape victims aren’t required to provide evidence of their violation. Once again she speaks of the ‘purity’ of a woman’s body and womb and her ‘izzat’, which, once snatched can never be restored.
It is interested to note that even a sensitive filmmaker like Hrishikesh Mukherjee subscribed to this theory of a woman’s fall from grace being irrevocable and a permanent blot on her character. Hence, even though Satyapriya (Dharmendra) reluctantly agrees to marry Ranjana (Sharmila Tagore) and accepts her illegitimate son born of a brutal rape at the hands of the local prince as his own, he refuses to touch her body throughout the course of their relationship in Satyakam (1969).
Hrishikesh Mukherjee with his stars on the sets of Satyakam
DOMESTIC BLISS SHATTERED
Another film that was made a little before Insaaf Ka Tarazu also brought rape to the forefront, albeit in the context of an intimate relationship and handled the subject with far greater restrain. Manik Chatterjee’s Ghar (1978) is about a young couple, Vikas and Aarti (Vinod Mehra and Rekha), who are finally enjoying marital bliss after a long struggle to find a permanent home. One night while returning from a late-night film show, four goons accost them on a deserted road. Vikas is hit on the head and loses consciousness, while Aarti is abducted and gang-raped. Here the director spares us a graphic representation of the woman’s humiliation (standard issue in our cinema) and instead uses the faces of the four rapists to evoke the horror of her tragedy.
The couple struggles to overcome this traumatic episode, even though Vikas is a caring and supportive husband who wants his wife to put the episode behind her as just one unhappy incident in her life. This position itself is revolutionary in the context of Hindi cinema—rarely if ever, has anyone close to a rape victim suggested that the incident was merely an unfortunate episode and not the end of the world or the victim’s life.
Rekha and Vinod Mehra in Ghar
But Aarti can’t shake off her sense of guilt and humiliation, while Vikas too struggles to put up with the social stigma and false sympathy. What the film effectively portrays is the voyeouristic pleasure society at large derives from rape – people read newspaper articles about the incident with relish, ask pointed questions or then, shun contact with the victim. Once a vivacious woman who openly flaunted her desires in the song Tere bina jeeya jaaye na—again amply aided by Rekha’s persona—Aarti wilts into a dull, fearful shadow of her old self, suitably chastised for her unbridled sexuality.
In Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini (1993) the maid of the house is gang-raped by the younger son and his friends after drunken revelry on Holi day. Damini (Meenakshi Seshardri), the upright daughter-in-law witnesses the rape and her determination to speak the truth not only alienates her from her family, but also drives her to a mental asylum (her husband’s family tries to prove that she’s lost her mind) and is ultimately raped by proxy in court by the ruthless defence lawyer who asks her to describe what she saw in minute detail and cross-examines her as though she was herself guilty of a grave offence.
Meenakshi Sheshadri in a career-defining turn in Raj Kumar Santoshi's Damini
Typically garish and over-the-top in its exposition, Damini, while purporting to be a mainstream ‘feminist’ narrative, is essentially another chapter in the degradation of women on screen. The maid, belonging to a disenfranchised section of society, needs someone else to take up her cause. And Damini too has to rely on drunk lawyer Govind’s (Sunny Deol) ‘dhai kilo kaa haath’ for protection and implores her husband (Rishi Kapoor) to believe her and stand by her. The emphasis from the male-centric worldview doesn’t shift an inch, even when the woman is supposedly in the foreground.
BODY AS BATTLEFIELD
Following the release of Shekhar Kapur's critically acclaimed Bandit Queen (1994) based on the book by Mala Sen that chronicled the life of Phoolan Devi, Arundhati Roy wrote a scathing critique of the film and of Kapur's 'middle-class outrage' against Phoolan's character (the director never met the woman he put at the centre of his film, even though she was very much alive and available to corroborate events from her own life).
Roy writes, "According to Shekhar Kapur's film, every landmark—every decision, every turning-point in Phoolan Devi's life, starting with how she became a dacoit in the first place, has to do with having been raped, or avenging rape. He has just blundered through her life like a Rape-diviner. You cannot but sense his horrified fascination at the havoc that a wee willie can wreak. It's a sort of reversed male self absorption. Rape is the main dish. Caste is the sauce that it swims in."
The point Roy is trying to make is that Kapur constructs his heroine as a victim-avenger (not very different from the avenging angels of the B-movies—except that since he employs a realistic style of storytelling, the violation and humiliation of Phoolan is that much more graphic in its representation) and leaves out critical information about her life that is relevant to the construction of Phoolan Devi's personality and a part of Sen's book, but not to Kapur's imagination of her.
Seema Biswas in Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen: full circle since Mother India
Towards the end of Mani Ratnam's Dil Se (1998), Meghna (Manisha Koirala) narrates to Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) the horrors of the Indian state's brutality in the North East. While we never see the faces of the men who rape her (as a young girl) and her older sister, the film insinuates that it's the ugly face of the Indian army. In every conflict zone women pay the price with their bodies which are pulverised.
Sudhir Mishra's Hazaaron Khaiwshen Aisi (2004) depicts the rape of its female lead Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) when she, along with her revolutionary friends, are arrested by the local cops in a remote part of Bihar during the Naxalite movement of the 1970s. Here, the director displays rare sensitivity (as does Ratnam) not just in sparing us the gory details, but also in suggesting that while the episode is traumatic for the heroine when it happens, it doesn't shape her life and in fact, she goes back to resume her work in the same parts with the same conviction as before. This goes against the conventional mythology of rape that Hindi film has constructed over the decades.
More often than not though, the emphasis is on the humiliation of the victim rather than the issue of patriarchal society’s perversity (as perpetrators, bystanders, voyeouristic consumers and law makers). Or then a flippant subject of 'comic' interest as evinced in the infamous scene in Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009), where Rancho (Aamir Khan) modifies the speech Chatur (Omi Vaidya) is meant to deliver at a college function and replaces the word ‘chamatkaar’ with ‘balaatkaar’, which features repeatedly in the address. Chatur innocuously delivers the said speech and everyone in the audience (including the Education Minister) laughs hysterically at his faux pas. As does the audience watching the film in the cinema hall.
Interestingly, 3 Idiots went on to win the National Award for the Best Popular Film providing wholesome entertainment that year and Aamir Khan was conferred the Padma Bhushan, the nation’s third highest civilian honour, in the wake of the film’s unprecedented success. In the realm of popular cinema (and indeed popular imagination) ‘balaatkaar’ is nothing more than a source of salacious pleasure for male audiences (and sometimes for female audiences too, since they see the world through a gaze that's predominantly a male construct)—the woman’s background, her education, career choice, dress or demeanour has absolutely no connection with her unfortunate fate. If she can be exploited, she will be, because the perversion lies not in her body or appearance, but in the eyes of the beholder. A fact that seems entirely lost on our filmmakers. ✑
With inputs from Vikram Phukan. Also featured on Firstpost as 'The 'sluts' of Hindi Cinema - paying a price with their bodies.'