29 March 2020 09:09 AM

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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 7 DECEMBER, 2019

Rape in Indian Cinema Panders to Patriarchy

Fragmentation of the female body


Rape in cinema, in any language, in any patriarchal culture, has certain specific functions. One of these is to arouse the male in the audience sexually. Another one is to use, to a certain extent, the opportunity of explicit representations of the female anatomy in a physically violent act that has been forced on that very body.

The fragmentation and fabrication of the female body, the play of skin and make-up, nudity and dress, the constant recombination of organs as equivalent terms of a combinatory are but the repetition, inside the erotic scene, of the operations and techniques of the apparatus.

The camera offers infinite possibilities of capturing the female anatomy and the female persona in certain fixed ways.

In varied degrees of undress for example.

Or, in the process of being stripped either in a static position or in the act of being chased by the rapist/s.

Or, being raped with hands and feet tied to the posts of a four-poster bed which suddenly appears in the midst of an urban, sophisticated and sleekly decorated modern apartment.

This is graphically shown in Insaf Ka Tarazu and in Rajen Kothari's debut film Purush (1992).

Sometimes, the victim remains static but the camera is almost violently mobile, magnifying the tragedy of the victim by intruding into her moments of private pain.

Often, one can see clothes and underclothes strewn around in the act of being torn off the victim's body; a blouse being ripped off against an appropriate soundtrack, exposing a bra; the woman being dragged across the floor by her hair, and such other Western and Oriental visual variants.

But it is the rhetoric of these representations as much as, or more than, their immediate connotations that feminists are worried about. In an address to male spectators, the body of woman is constructed as a spectacle and the mise en scene of representations of women's bodies coded in various ways as both to be looked at by the spectator and, in the same process, to provoke sexual arousal in him.

These codes include the way in which the body is posed and lit, the overall composition of the image - including props, gesture, clothes and accessories - and the nature and direction of the gaze of the model. This is what 'objectification' of certain representations of the female body implies.

Every rape scene therefore, by constructing certain representations of women, codes woman in a general way as sign, as an object of the male gaze.

Rape has the powerful potential of constructing the body of a woman as spectacle. The aim is to cater to visual voyeurism. Props are cliché in their stereotype: a lamp falls across the floor during a struggle, the woman desperately tries to cover herself with her outspread palms/clothes/accessories, a cloud covers the moon in the sky on a dark, sinister night.

In Gulzar's Mausam (1975), one of the most brutally frank essays on prostitution, Kajri (Sharmila Tagore as the daughter) makes her way through the woods on her way back from the dispensary carrying medicine for her ailing mother (Sharmila as the mother). Instead of focusing on Kajri, the camera pans on the wall where Kajri, in her struggle with the rapist, (the proverbial village 'uncle'), drops the bottle of medicine. Her piercing scream of pain fills the sky, superimposed with the sudden burst of bird cries in the air. The upturned medicine bottle on the parapet shows the liquid trickling down the wall, ever so slowly.

In Mehboob's Mother India (1957), Radha visits the lecherous moneylender (Kanhaiyalal in one of his most villainous performances). The next shot cuts to a scene showing Radha (Nargis) staggering back home, her hair awry, her bindi a diffused blur, the mangal sutra torn off her neck. In retrospect, the signs appear cliched, but the cliche is undercut by the anger in Radha's eyes, which also spells out the desperation and the vulnerability not only of being a woman, but also of being a woman who is poor, young, beautiful and alone.

However, these are rare exceptions to the conventions of cinema which displays women at two levels : as erotic object for the characters within the story and as erotic object for the spectator within the theatre "with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen."For instance, in the scenes of gang-rape in films like Zakhmee Aurat (1983) and Aurat ka Intaquam (1984), the act of rape committed by one of the gang members permits these two looks to be unified technically without a break in the continuity of the male gaze : as one rapes, the other watch, and along with those 'others', the audience also watches. Yet, the visual depiction of rape freezes the flow of the narrative in moments of temporary voyeurism.

Phoolan Devi's gang rape in Shekhar Kapoor's controversial The Bandit Queen (1994) is a pointer to Phoolan Devi's vulnerability to rape right through her life. She was raped as a child-bride on her wedding night by a much-older husband. She was raped as a young, low-caste girl of her village by the upper-caste boys who remain surprisingly unaffected by the spectre of casteism where raping a low-caste girl is concerned. When she was kidnapped by the dacoits, she became the regular sexual outlet for Babu Gajjar, their leader, whenever he felt like releasing his libido right in front of the other men.

She was raped by the political goon (Govind Namdeo), who supplied ammunition to the dacoits, in Behmai who made all men in the village rape her one after the other, for three days and three nights in a row. This was to cut her down to size for being a dacoit leader in spite of being a woman. When she went to lodge a FIR at the police station, she was raped by the policemen. Her age, her marital status, her position within the community of dacoits, as a woman or as their leader, did not offer her immunity from being raped.

From the time she was a little girl to the time she laid down her arms in surrender, Phoolan Devi's life as shown in the film, is dotted with rapes - for being a low-caste girl-woman, for being very poor,for being married while still little to a much older man, for being an outcast in the very village which subjected her to rape yet labelled her a loose woman who had the 'itch', for being the only woman in a gang of dacoits, for being a dacoit-leader among men, and finally, for having complained against rape which gave the police the strange rationale for raping her because she was already raped, many times over, by many men.

The Behmai gang-rape of Phoolan, spread over three days and three nights, shot in natural light with the opening and shutting of the wooden door to the ramshackle shed offering a bizarre, rhythmic backdrop to the inhuman outrage, punctured with her stifled sobs in the darkness of the shed, is the most aesthetically picturised rape scene in the film, and perhaps, one of the most imaginatively choreographed rape scenes in Hindi cinema. The scene evolves into a scathing political indictment on the condition of low-caste, unlettered, poor women in some backward pockets of India where crime is a way of life for the entire village administration and law is conspicuous by its absence.

The nastiness of Phoolan as a woman underscores that rape has nothing to do with the beauty, or the lack of it, of the victim. This is significant in view of the fact that we all know Phoolan Devi, the real woman, who is neither beautiful nor physically attractive whereas the beautiful Radha of Mother India is born out of fiction. The Behmai massacre, shot deliberately through over-exposure to suggest the white and the wild rage of Phoolan who gives back as much as she gets, by taking the pink turbans off the heads of the village men, is also a memorable scene of retribution.

At times, a film that is truly designed to highlight the misery of rape in a patriarchal society (Nishant, Aakrosh, Ankur) finds itself turned into a titillating film merely through marketing tactics adopted by the distribution and financial network of the film. Posters and billboards with titillating pictures and copy to match draws the masses to the theatres. In other words, a filmic text gets easily transformed from a serious film to a titillating one by a set of institutional procedures.

This establishes two significant theories. One, that text and context could be made to function together to produce meanings more suited to the profit-aims of the financiers and distributors than to the director who made the film or, for the audience for whom the film is intended.

And two, that readings different and distanced from what the film-maker intended could be generated through manipulative conditions created to make the audience receive a filmic text in a desired way. This proves that the distribution and the financial network of cinema wields more power than one suspects, than the ineffectual and thoroughly politicised Censor Board.

If we are to make real changes in our lives and in our films, we must offer not only new cinematic structures but serious solutions to existing social problems.

Films that offer cheap answers, films that fall within the range of acceptable responses defined by a patriarchal, bourgeoise culture can never illustrate the extent of female oppression and the tenacity of patriarchy with honesty and integrity.

Nor can they offer real solutions to complex social, historical and political problems arising out of the very gender-bias patriarchy thrives on.

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