Sunday, March 29, 2009

In the Wake of the Wounded Woman

When I was a little girl, I equated rape with death. The movies (and bad pulp fiction and even comics) were to blame, of course. I did not know yet that men - and children - got raped too and I was too young to know what rape meant, yet I was convinced that if a woman was raped, either she got killed, or she had to kill herself. The only other alternative was to die whilst fighting the rapists.

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)


Indyeah said...

Brilliant post Annie.
I have seen the first two hindi movies..way back when I was growing up and I too went through the same emotions that you have written about here ..

Cant remember if I have seen the Accused or not but will def watch it , if not..

''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.''

These lines said it all for me...'

the artists can provide a catharsis if they want to, they can break stereotypes, heal hurts, help us in becoming less judgemental human beings, show us a difefrent side of the picture, make one NOT feel like a victim...
...but as you said ONLY if they want to..

Indian Home Maker said...

I think we all grew up believing that all rape victims must, but obviously kill themselves. And whether or not a movie maker/book writer or an artist accepts it, every thing we watch, read or admire leaves some impact on us.

Movies are a powerful medium.

I am going to make sure I watch 'Accused'.

bluespriite said...

I think Zakhmi Aurat first made me realise (not consciously albeit) that rape is not sexual crime but a power-driven one.

Arfi said...

Two films come to mind from the past few years, that seem to have pushed things a bit. Co-incidentally both have Nandita Das in major roles. There's Bawandar, based on the Bhanwari Devi rape case, and then there was Provoked, which raised the issue of marital rape.

On a tangential note, there's this new (and quite good) Punjabi film by Deepa Mehta called Heaven on Earth, which is not exactly about rape, but the abuse suffered by women hastily married off in arranged marriages, into NRI families.

But, I agree that far more is needed; for, all the films I mentioned are by NRI directors, which again says something about our industry.

Renu said...

Lovely post, I also always wondered why all the same comes to victim and the the perpetrator.

Ghar was also a very sensitive movie on this.

Poonam said...

This was a wonderful post. I was with ya all the way in this post. I find it so heartening to know there are men like your friend's father who actually believed in it and encouraged his daughter to knwo matter what happens he is there and she is not to be blamed. Half the battle is won there.

apu said...

Great post. One other 'popular' film which revolves around a rape is Damini. Here, the victim herself isn't shown as fighting back, but neither does she die in the conventional 'meri izzat nahin rahi' suicidal manner. In fact I thought the brutality of rape was clearly shown, including the fact that powerful people will collude, in this country, to defame the victim or silence her by any other means.

Pareshaan said...

I am surprised you did not mention Bhawandar with Nandita Das - I remember it being pretty hard hitting.
As far as the influence of Hindi cinema, let me add my two bits here.
I was about twelve years old and had recently been introduced to the concept of sex.
Having gotten over my initial revulsion and having come to terms with the realization that sex must have been a necessary part of my being in this world; I was growing increasingly enamored of the concept.
At this stage, thanks to the filmi variant of rape that I had been exposed to, I thought of it as a delightful variant of otherwise very boring sex!
I remeber sitting with a bunch of guys at school talking about how it would indeed be a glorious thing to rape one of our finer looking female teachers.
I also remeber the shock and dismay when one of the guys rather precociously mentioned that though it may well be fun for us, it would be rather a traumatic occurence for the lady in question.
All of us thought that he was being a total kill-joy.
That was the first time this angle was broached upon. Rape = Trauma = Wrong.
Till then it had just been:

Victim: Chorhh do - chorhh do Bhagwaan ke liye chorhh do!!
While the Villain goes (as he chuckles mirthfully): Itnee badhiyaa cheez Bhagwaan ke liye chorhh doon?
After which he proceeds to lustfully rape away, thoroughly enjoying every moment of it.
Shameful as this admission of mine is now, I know that most guys in that day and age were convinced that rape was an erotic option and little else.
I share this in the hopes of underlining many a malaise deeply ingrained in Indian society.

Priyanka said...

I remember reading an article Reader's Digest, when I was a kid and used to think about rape, just like you did. In the article (they called it real life stories), a woman recounted her traumatic experience first-hand of rape. She said she accepted the inevitability of it when she was held at gunpoint while he drove to a secluded spot and how she thought about how she still wanted to live a normal life after the experience - yes, before the thing even started! And I went like, wait a minute... something is wrong, how can she think of living later when the guy is going to have his way with her?
Btw, Ghar was another good movie about the life after rape of a married woman.

Deepa said...

Bravo Annie!

What we need most today are journalists like YOU who believe and are actually doing your might to break stupid unhealthy stereotypes.

Yes, you are right... even i was misled a lot by these Indian movies. They offer inadequate knowledge which is always dangerous.

Pawan said...

A really good piece, Annie.
That there is so much that can be read in a B movie is an often ignored idea. I remember even Titanice was hailed a study of class relations while in India it would've been ignored as another rich girl- poor boy romance.
As a boy, Rape was the first sexual word, courtesy movies of course, that I learned. Making love came much later. It must've been a Harold Robbins, I think:)
BTW, Raakh was another film which was interesting in the way that the victim moved on in life, but her male friend who witnessed the even(and he wasn't her boyfriend) kept on struggling with the guilt trip.

Kits said...

Super post Annie. V well written. I haven't watched any of the movies you have talked about but liked the way you ended the whole post. Nice work

Dr. Ally Critter said...

Thank you for this, Annie. You know after watching Bandit Queen and the rape scene there, i really wonder why that was not how rape was ever shown in Hindi films. It was an incredibly ugly scene, one which I remember watching in parts, because I could not take it all in at the same time. It made me angry that we had always been made to watch the glamorized "Bhagwaan ke liye.." scenes.

Dewdrop said...

A very thought-provoking and beautifully written post... what I like about it most is the way you have taken us through your journey of forming ideas on rape and currently where you stand... I completely agree on the societal standpoint- in fact our movies mirror what society by-and-large think and perceive rape and its after-effects to be... and agree with Pawan as well - we hype rape and sex so much that softer words like 'making love' come much later in our dictionaries!

anoop said...

very well presented annie.

Sohan D'souza said...

What Pareshaan has pointed out is quite true. Thanks to Bollywood's covering up of consensual sex (babies appearing out of nowhere), and over-the-top depictions of rape, the latter tends to be many a young Indian male's first audio-visual introduction to the concept of sexual intercourse (along with the "peep" scene). Indeed, this is likely the reason why, when you go to Indian web forums for sexual media sharing, you will find a shockingly large amount of filmi, purported and staged rape scenes being passed around. A malaise indeed. I hope our film-makers eventually get past the sex barrier and depict the pleasant nature of mutually consensual sex more often.

mekie said...

Annie, excellent post. I haven't seen these Hindi movies, but the depiction of rape in Tamil movies is pretty much the same - stereotypical, and the rape victim lives ostracized or kills herself .. It's a shame that we live with such taboos.. after all, art imitates life.

I have linked to your post on my blog. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I wonder if there exists anything like Male victim of Female crime.

If yes, any movie made on that topic?

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