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Care for some rape?
Our filmmakers defend the mindless excesses of commercial cinema by saying that they provide entertainment to the masses. Sure, escapism is a perfectly valid need, no problem with that.
Now consider the opening scene from the recent release Aashiq-- a girl is chased down a dark street by goondas. Cut to a brothel, where a man is selling maal (that is girls) to buyers from Bombay. The pimp asks a cowering woman about the missing girl. Soon the runaway girl is dragged back.
The woman who was being questioned is doused with kerosene and set aflame, the killer watches her burn with an expression of undisguised glee. (A similar scene was used in the film Baaghi, also about a girl trapped in the flesh trade).
The scene makes you feel sick. Nothing that follows helps take away the feeling of unease. Women are abused, slapped, the heroine (Karisma Kapoor) is auctioned to a bunch of leering Arabs. The director Indra Kumar makes no attempt to condemn the buying and selling of women, or show any sympathy for the girls.
The backdrop is used simply to add as much crudity and titillating violence as possible to lure the so-called masses. The film flopped quite badly, but it is still frightening to imagine the impact such images have on the minds of impressionable young men. They probably think women are supposed to be treated like that -- there were little audible sighs of enjoyment in the theatre whenever Karisma was battered and gave that wide-eyed terrified look.
A film like Aashiq has no pretensions of exposing the horrors of the flesh trade. It is supposed to be a commercial entertainer. But obviously not many found it entertaining enough to make it a hit. So what is the point of a film that does more harm than good?
On the other hand is the well-intentioned Bawandar by Dr Jagmohan Mundhra, which tells the true story of the Rajasthani saathin (rural welfare worker who was raped by upper caste males for trying to stop child marriages in her village. It is a case that got wide coverage in the media, more because of the flagrant miscarriage of justice-- the rapists were acquitted on really flimsy grounds due to political pressure.
It's a story begging to be filmed. For a sensitive filmmaker, the crux of the story is not the rape, but the aftermath-- that fact that feudal values still run so deep in our society, that it is next to impossible for a poor lower caste woman to get justice.
First of all, Mundhra has turned the middle-aged Bhanwari into a young Sanwari (Nandita Das) in far too colourful clothes. Then the rape scene is quite brutal, though shot with far more restraint than one would expect from Mundra.
Later, the humiliation borne by the woman is portrayed through the reactions of people she encounters, like a bunch of shrieking female cops who taunt her about having enjoyed the rape. The language used by people, the insulting questions asked by the lawyer make one cringe, but also ask was it necessary?
The kind of viewer this film is aimed at would understand her plight without everything being underlined. By recreating every lip-smacking detail, is the director pandering to the viewer who would 'enjoy' Bhanwari/Sanwari's rape?
Where does social comment end and exploitation begin? In hindsight, such questions came to mind even about a film like Bandit Queen, in which Shekhar Kapur showed the rape and stripping of Phoolan in graphic detail, to evoke horror and revulsion. But a section of men went to see it precisely to see a nude woman and greeted the gut-wrenching scene with whistles and catcalls.
That is not to say that filmmakers should not take up issues, but how they handle it is more important. There were rape scenes in old films like Patita, but depicted symbolically.
Today a rape scene is like an 'item' in a film, and shot in a way that is clearly meant to thrill the predominantly male audience.
When Insaaf Ka Tarazu was made, ostensibly an anti-rape film, the scenes were shot in such a lascivious manner that villain Raj Babbar was seen as a hero by many and used to get fan mail!
The Dimple Kapadia starrer Zakhmee Aurat also had an anti-rape story, but was studded with explicit scenes, which defeated the purpose! However, the rape in Shyam Benegal's Nishant didn't get the same cheap response.
The filmmaker's intention can be discerned in the way he/she treats a disturbing scene. Benegal made a film, Aadmi about a prostitute way back in 1939. In 1958, B R Chopra made Sadhna about the rehabilitation of a prostitute into normal society. And in 1973, Chetan Anand made Hanste Zakhm on the same subject.
None of them had a trace of vulgarity, all used the mainstream format to tell the stories of their unfortunate heroines with maturity and compassion. These films had a lot more impact on the audience than the blood-and-gore films made today.
See the difference between these three old films and the relatively new Mitti Aur Sona, Sadak, Baaghi and Aashiq, and decide which approach has more power -- the subtle or the sledgehammer.
The sad truth is that most people forget all about the issue as soon as the come out of the movie hall, so anyone who says they wanted to arouse the audience's conscience is fooling himself. But it is even more dishonest to take up a cause and subvert the message by insensitive treatment.
Still, some causes have to be taken up and issues addressed by filmmakers, if cinema has to have any meaning in the larger scheme of things.
Hollywood makes terrific commercially successful films like Erin Brockovich and The Insider -- to name two recent ones-- on inspiring real life stories.
All we can manage is a superficial and boring Bhopal Express (on the gas tragedy) or the silly references to Kargil (Pukar) and Khairnar (Ghaath) in regular commercial films, as a nod to the fact that there is life outside and beyond Bollywood.
E-mail Deepa Gahlot
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