Poignant portrayal of sexual assault in Indian cinema

Bollywood leaves behind tired tropes of damsels in distress

Cinema

October 22, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Poignant portrayal of sexual assault in Indian cinema

The Rapist is one of the few films made in India that say it like it is on the issue of rape and sexual harassment in India

Recent hits produced by mainstream studios as well as Over The Top platforms show that Bollywood is finally ready to move on from problematic portrayals of women, with critically-acclaimed films and dramas that sensitively tackle sexual assault and harassment all too familiar in Indian society.

On October 17, renowned filmmaker Aparna Sen’s The Rapist (2021) won the prestigious Kim Jiseok award at the 26th Busan International Film Festival. The bold film deals with Konkona Sen Sharma’s character, Naina’s, trauma in the aftermath of her horrifying rape, and how her family and the society in general struggles with cast-in-stone perceptions of rape in India. In an interview, Sen said it was “a hard-hitting drama that examines how much of society is responsible for producing rapists” and what drew her to the story was the psychology of the characters and being able to “[strip] off the layers and carefully built up facades to get to the real person underneath.”

The Rapist is one of the few films made in India that say it like it is on the issue of rape and sexual harassment in India, something that the Bollywood and even most regional cinemas have long portrayed in absentia or with patriarchal overtones.

Another film that dealt head-on with the controversial subject was Pink, a 2016 production of Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and Shoojit Sircar. Reviewing Pink, film critic Shubhra Gupta wrote, “That it has taken Bollywood so long to make a movie which says it so clearly, without beating about the bush, without prevaricating or using obfuscatory language, tells us a great deal about the country we live in, and the social mores that its women have had to live by, buried under crippling patriarchy and misogyny and a sense of mistaken shame.”

Starring Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu, Pink was lauded by critics as being one of the first Bollywood films to address the concept of consent so openly, after decades of Indian audiences being exposed to the idea that harassment somehow equals romance in much loved films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).

Today, with the advent of the #MeToo movement and a more socially conscious audience and society, the Indian film industry, especially over the last five years, is churning out content that addresses sexual assault head on, instead of hiding it behind some twisted idea of a love story.

Incidentally, some critics also believe this is where many filmmakers get it wrong when it comes to portraying sexual assault on screen. Netflix drama Bombay Begums (2021) tells the story of four working women and one teenager striving to make a name for themselves in Mumbai high society. Although the show makes an impressive attempt to tackle the prevalent issue of workplace harassment in a male-dominated corporate world, as both Ayesha and Pooja Bhatt’s Rani Irani, two women from different generations as well as statures, deal with sexual assault from their male mentors, the story seems slightly rushed towards the end. Moreover, although the show expertly takes an in-depth look into the complicated nuances of speaking up against those in positions of privilege, much of the characters’ problems become shrouded in what a patriarchal society sees as the disadvantages of being a working woman.

“The show was being written was when ‘MeToo’ taking off in India, so it was very much influenced by the social commentary happening at the time. One aspect that was dealt with well was that sexual assault was shown without trying to blame the woman by saying she shouldn’t have worn certain clothes or behaved a certain way,” Saraswati Datar, a movie critic, tells Media India Group.

“Something I found problematic is these women who are supposedly heading one of the biggest banks in India, are not really given any opportunity to show us why they have been given these positions. There was so much focus on their private lives, on their physical issues, women having hot flashes, fertility issues. While there is nothing wrong with talking about these issues, in a show about women in power or women who have worked very hard to break glass ceilings, I think it takes away from their achievement,” she adds.

Another Netflix production, Delhi Crime (2019) is based on the horrific Nirbhaya gang rape in 2012 and received universal acclaim upon its release for its portrayal of how Delhi police apprehended the victim’s attackers.

“Just the way it was spoken about by the characters involved: cops, families, the doctors who treated her, it was done very well. So, I think that was a show that handled sexual assault with a lot of sensitivity,” recalls Datar.

Content like this signals a huge and important shift away from Bollywood in the 1970s-1990s, when rape was often glorified as a cinematic tool. For example, Benaam Badshah (1991), stars Anil Kapoor as Deepak, who rapes Jyothi, played by Juhi Chawla, and then gets married to her without any consequence as a twisted trial of love.

“I think for a long time, if you see films from the ‘60s, ‘70s, the way they showed rape or sexual assault in films was quite tacky; very often it was the woman getting slut-shamed or blamed, held responsible for what had happened to her, and in the worst scenarios, the woman was married off to her rapist because there was this idea of ‘who else will marry her?’ In Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat (1996), Rani Mukherjee’s character is sexually assaulted and she stands in court and tells the judge to make her rapist marry her. Despite the fact that he tortures her and tries to kill her even after marriage, she eventually ‘wins him over with her love.’ This whole idea of a woman reforming a man is just a grotesque and inexcusable kind of writing, and that was what used to happen in old films,” says Datar.

Although OTT platforms especially have made huge waves in good, female-centric content that tackles sexual assault, Datar feels that with the recent upsurge in content that deals with such characters, when not done well or explored in-depth, it can often feel simply like a way to attract a certain niche of “woke” film-goers rather than an appropriate look at the issue.

“I review OTT shows often, and have noticed that in a way, sexual assault and rape have been reduced almost to a backstory device for women. In Kiara Advani’s Guilty (2020), for example, where she’s supposed to be a victim of child sexual abuse, everyone only listens to her finally when a man speaks up, which I thought completely defeats the purpose of saying we should believe victims when they speak up,” explains Datar.

She surmises that while films and dramas such as Bulbul (2020) and Mirzapur (2018) boast excellent performances and storylines, women are often reduced to a repeated trope of a vigilante seeking revenge.

“While it is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed, especially because it is shamefully too common in India, you cannot turn something as serious as child sexual abuse or rape into a convenient tool to make the woman interesting or relevant; either you have these ditzy, fun-loving rich women like in Masaba Masaba, or you have characters who rise to take revenge and their whole journey revolves around overcoming trauma. It cannot be a coincidence that multiple shows and movies releasing on OTT platforms around the same time, deal with the exact same issue, and it is becoming kind of a trend, where you are choosing these stories because you feel it makes for an entertaining viewing, which is problematic,” she says.

Yet, as more films and series portray women as strong, independent characters with their own lives and ambitions, the idea that Bollywood is gradually moving away from a dependence on item numbers to attract viewers signals an optimistic future for Indian cinema.

“Not just specifically with sexual assault, but I think what is happening is there is a positive change and a lot more awareness being generated about viewing women as equals and more than just as wives, mothers or people who will manage the home. And if you see films of Taapsee Pannu or Vidya Balan, audiences are enjoying films with women who are ambitious, feisty, and away from what society has dictated for years. There will always be films that objectify women with item numbers, the occasional offensive Salman Khan film, but most filmmakers are consciously trying to move away from the old portrayals of women and actually show women more realistically as they exist in society today, breaking all barriers,” Datar adds.

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