Violence against women and girls is increasingly becoming a prominent and rampant social issue across the world and particularly in the Indian subcontinent. It is estimated that 70-90% of women in Pakistan have endured abuse of some kind, according to a study conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2009. Similarly, in India, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported that criminal offences against women are committed every three minutes. With harrowing stories being blasted across the media, followed by an unprecedented number of conflicting opinions on who is to blame, the issue has progressively received more attention from politicians, activists and of course, the movie industry. Since movies are conventionally thought to pose as a reflection of societal truths, Bollywood has a monumental role to play in shedding light on the unspoken reality of our communities.
As a big Bollywood fanatic, whilst also being truly passionate about the subject of violence against women and girls, I’m often drawn to films which encompass this theme.With this issue becoming ever more prevalent in today’s society, this begs the question as to how Bollywood movies are portraying these themes and characters. Traditionally, Indian cinema displayed female victims as weak and feeble, however, in recent films, the ‘damsel-in-distress’ narrative is being shattered by empowered and strong female characters who proactively seek justice. Here, I’ll review a select few recent Bollywood movies which have tackled this concern and attempt to reveal what these films expose about female victims and their perpetrators, as well as the responses of society as a whole.
Can we have Faith in Criminal Justice Systems?
There have been a number of incidents where judicial systems in the Indian subcontinent have been heavily criticised for their course of action in dealing with cases of violent criminal offences against women, leading to many cases going unreported or shelved. The critically acclaimed 2016 hit, Pink follows the story of three friends seeking justice due to a molestation incident. Personally, I felt that this film was a true portrayal of how many people react to female victims. The prosecution lawyer defending the boys who molested the girls, focuses his courtroom argument against the girls on their poor moral character. He repeatedly refers to them as prostitutes, implying that their choice to live alone without family and the fact that they went to a rock concert and had drinks with the men in question is sufficient evidence to prove that they led this secret life. The prosecution lawyer invites many witnesses from the apartment in which the girls reside, who all follow the same tenet that women who choose to live independently and work, drink and have male friends are not examples of ‘good’ Indian women. Ultimately, the defence lawyer Deepak Sehgal played by Amitabh Bachchan enrages one of the molesters who admits to the sexual assault, claiming that the girls “got what they deserved”, leading to the court charging the boys for their crimes. In his closing remarks, Sehgal gives a powerful speech emphasising that no means no. It is deeply disheartening to me that a two-letter word is still so evidently misunderstood by many. The movie highlights that although the process of seeking justice through the courts is a gruelling journey, eventually justice can be served. The movie also portrays very evidently the stereotypical viewpoint that women in these incidents are often not considered victims and instead are shunned by many members of society who claim that their actions, such as wearing certain clothing or going out late, lead to their fate.
a staggering 90% of rapes in India in 2014 were committed by people known to the victims, including relatives
Conversely, the 2016 thriller Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, highlighted the negligence of law enforcement in recognising and proactively tackling rape cases. The protagonist Durga Rani Singh, a survivor of child abuse, works as a clerk in a school and very cleverly suspects that a student, Minnie Devan is being sexually exploited. After several attempts to befriend Minnie, the young girl confides that her uncle is sexually abusing her. Singh attempts to file a case against the uncle but is ridiculed and admonished by several members of the police force for insinuating that Minnie’s own uncle is responsible for such a heinous crime. In fact, on Minnie’s grandmother’s command, Singh is also assaulted by a policewoman. The police force all follow the same notion that Minnie’s own relative, whilst also being a respected member of the community could not be accountable for this incident. Throughout this movie, I felt pain for Singh because in her mind it is proven that the circle of child abuse at the hands of anyone and in particular your own relative can never be broken. I felt anger because although Minnie had provided a confession, it was not legitimate in the eyes of the police. I felt deep sadness because although criminal justice systems are intended to uphold the rule of law, this movie revealed how fragile these systems are and how susceptible they are to corruption and exploitation.This movie truly showcased the failures of law and order in acknowledging these kinds of rape cases, and this is particularly relevant because according to the NCRB, a staggering 90% of rapes in India in 2014 were committed by people known to the victims, including relatives.
The Impact of Male Insecurities and Superiority on Treatment of Women
The 2015 romantic drama Hamari Adhuri Kahani unfolds the many methods of enforcing male superiority over women, that need not be violent. Of particular mention is that the protagonist Vasudha’s husband Hari coerces his wife to get a tattoo of his name, thereby physically imprinting his ownership on her body. Through Hari’s words and actions, it is clear that he perceives Vasudha to have no identity of her own, that her only identity is the one attached to him, as such, her identity should be eroded physically, legally, spiritually and psychologically. Towards the end of the film, Vasudha gives a compelling monologue about the stringent bias of leadership towards men after marriage, shown below.
The 2014 romantic thriller Ek Villain uncovers the deep dark truths of the impact of male anxieties and insecurities on women who unfortunately are at the receiving end of this frustration. One of the male protagonists Rakesh Mahadkar, is shown as a failing and henpecked man who’s love for his wife is overruled by her disappointment in his character and career. Mahadkar vents his frustrations and uses tortuous methods to inflict suffering on the women who undermine his male ego, including his boss who claims that the photocopying machine is more useful than him. Despite the fact that his male best friend also ridicules him, he does not harm him in any way, reinforcing the idea that he cannot grasp the concept that a woman considers herself superior to him. Mahadkar’s best friend advises him that he should “be a man” and demonstrates this by physically abusing his wife, emphasising that he too deems women worthless. Although this movie does not provide a holistic depiction of why men inflict violence against women, it illustrates the fragility of the self-confidence of these men, who resort to any methods of retaliation to silence the women who question their ‘manhood’.
It is truly infuriating to me that women are still being subjected to violence simply because they are women. It is deeply saddening that a woman’s character often comes under fire during a rape incident for example, insinuating that they are not true victims of these crimes, thus somewhat justifying the actions of the perpetrators. I am glad that Bollywood is making headway in portraying more empowered women in movies. Bollywood has such a vast reach and such an immense following that it can indeed help to turn these perceptions and incidents into stories of the past.