Nobody told me this. It was just an association of ideas (thanks to Hindi movies, I also used to think that if someone saw you naked, you had to get married to him). While I was growing up, there was no concept of life, post-rape. The idea that a rape victim might want to live, and might want relationships and kids and so on at some point in the future - it just didn't occur to us. It wasn't just me. It didn't occur to classmates or cousins either (if it did, they kept it a closely guarded secret). Our films didn't show us. The books we were allowed to read didn't show us. And no adult even mentioned the word 'rape' or 'sex' in our presence.
I did have a vague idea that the police was supposed to do something but rarely did, and that this failure led husbands or brothers or beloveds to take up arms and seek bloody vengeance. I also remember thinking that it had to be the worst thing that could happen to you, because not only could you not do anything about it, you also had to kill yourself. It doesn't get much worse than that, does it?
In my teens, I watched a few movies where an alternate was presented - you could marry your rapist. Or rather, he married you. You even got to sing songs through the whole mucky business. (It is worthwhile noting at this juncture that the Supreme Court of India, even today, is passing orders that specify that an offer to marry a rape victim doesn't translate into bail for the rapist.)
The first time my ideas were shaken off their perch was when I saw Zakhmi Aurat (Wounded Woman). I cannot remember how old I was. I didn't have a clue about what rape meant but with this film, two things came undone. One, the way the rape itself was treated. Until then, rape scenes meant actresses running - usually in sarees or lehenga-cholis, sometimes in slow motion - or attempting to crawl backwards as they lay on the floor or bed, wherever they had been tossed. The villian would be struggling to pull away her pallu. Even when I was little, I used to wonder why the girl spent so much time and energy holding on to the fabric, clutching it to her chest, saying 'Let go!' Why didn't she just drop the saree and run?
I have seen Zakhmi Aurat only once. But one rape scene has never left my memory. Here was a young woman who dressed in pants. A cop. And she was being gang-raped inside her own house. She wasn't just an object being used to satiate a villian's ungovernable lust. She was being deliberately humiliated. In fact, she wasn't just being humiliated. She was being physically hurt. This was the first time I remember thinking: "Oh my god, they are going to break her bones, or crack open her skull."
This was the first time I saw a film that showed the trauma of life after. Because, instead of hanging herself from the ceiling fan, leaving an accusatory note behind, or complaining to her brother about her stolen 'izzat' and how she was no longer fit to show her face, this victim was living in her own house, where different objects and spaces were constant reminders of her pain and humiliation.
Most significantly, this was the only movie I had seen in which a victim takes some action barring murder. She puts together a vigilante gang of women who have been raped themselves, or whose family members have been raped. They start kidnapping rapists and castrating them. Surgically, mind you, with the man being placed under anasthesia.
Much later, I found out that this was supposed to be a controversial film. Some people had objected to the sheer number of rapes and the explicit scenes. I still don't fully understand the controversy and don't want to get into the politics of crime and punishment at the moment. All I want to say is that it was an empowering film for me.
For the first time in my life, I was being offered the idea that rape was brutal but it need not lead to death. For either victim or culprit.
There were other ways in which this film broke away from stereotype. It showed the rape victim being dumped by her fiance, but afterwards - after she is arrested and put on trial - he finally asks her to marry him. She is pleased to be taken back, of course. But even this - a happy ending - seemed like such a novelty in a film about rape. Besides, it got me thinking. I remember thinking that perhaps, the heroine should not be going back to her fiance, not after the way he abandoned her when she needed him most.
The only other Hindi film that helped me break away from stereotypes around the rape of the bhartiya nari was a black-n-white film called Patita (the one with that lovely romantic number 'Yaad kiya dil ne, kahaan ho tum...').
It was the first Hindi film I saw in which a rape victim is not only happily married - not to the rapist, thank god - but her baby is a product of rape, accepted and cared for by her handsome husband. It was the first time I saw a screen rape victim being allowed to sing romantic songs in the moonlight, allowed to be something other than traumatized.
Another scene from Zakhmi Aurat that surprised me was a song. The villain/rapist has just been castrated. He is back home and now his wife is demanding sex. She is attempting to seduce him and he is pretending to have turned spiritual, to have undertaken a 'Brahmachari' fast (which means that he is going to abstain). His wife sings and dances and finally strips him, which is when she discovers the truth.
The song was supposed to be comic, I suppose. I cannot decide whether it is in bad taste or not. But it achieved something important. It showed that rapists might have non-aggressive sex lives too, that their relationships with their wives might be very different, that their wives might actually be happy, and completely clueless about their husbands' brutalization of other women. This idea came as a bit of a shock to me. I still find it a little hard to deal with, but it taught me to think of things that are flattened out of the frame when you allow for only uni-dimensional screen characters. It taught me that just as victims are stereotyped, rapists and their families are stereotyped as well.
Possibly, if I watched Zakhmi Aurat now, I'd find fault with it both from a storytelling perspective and a feminist perspective. Nevertheless, the film is significant.
Just like The Accused was significant. I was made to watch by a friend. In fact, her father made her watch it while she was quite young. Perhaps, he wanted her to know that she should never, ever, blame herself in case something like that happened. That it doesn't matter if you're drunk, or drugged, or promiscuous, or in a bar, or even if you have been kissing the accused. Perhaps, her dad was trying to tell my friend that even if other people are blaming you, or laughing at you, you shouldn't give up. Not when it comes to demanding justice for yourself.
I am grateful to my friend for leading me to the film. Like every other woman, I was brought up on the usual bullshit ideas that seek to shift blame onto the victim. The Accused once again shook up my ideas, forced me to look at rape with new eyes.
What really worries me is that over the last two decades, I have not seen any Hindi movies that take this a step further. I remember the horror of rape scenes in Bandit Queen, and there has been the odd rare film that puts rape in perspective within the context of another narrative (Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi did so), without allowing it to become the dominant feature in the female lead's life. By and large, either filmmakers avoid the subject altogether, or end up churning out rubbish that echoes old justifications for rape, such as how a woman dresses, and where she goes. The rest of the film is about everything else - from the horrors of westernization to the erosion of values among spoilt rich brats - except the rape itself, and the way our society deals with survivors.
Perhaps, the trouble with too many artists is that they forget their own power. The power of media. Films and books are as much a tool for challenging social ideas as they are tools for emotional discovery or just plain storytelling. You can break stereotypes. You can stretch limited imaginations. You can help others become less judgmental human beings. You can save children. But you have to want to.
(Cross-posting now on BlogHer)