Using women characters as objects/props to further the hero’s journey, evaluating women characters based on their sexual purity, treating them as property, using rape and violence on women as a plot device — none of these are new in Bollywood. But it’s time to stop sacrificing women on the altar of heroism and machismo
As I sit to write this article, the world is celebrating Diwali — a festival that, in North India, is about Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya after retrieving his wife, Sita, by killing her abductor, Ravan. Ramayan is essentially a story of the victory of good over evil that has, over time, yielded many interpretations, some even as controversial as it being a tale of subjugation of the Dravidians by the Aryans and an attempt to propagate north supremacy over south. Reading the text through the lens of your personal politics or faith can give you multiple versions, and one such is that it reflects a society deeply entrenched in patriarchy, for Ramayan can also be read as a story where a woman’s chastity can be the deciding factor of her place in society, where a woman is abducted and has to go through physical and mental torture and then be pushed to suicide so that the man can become a hero, a god.
But then, Ramayan was written eons ago. Has the story really changed? Rape/violence against women has always been Bollywood’s favourite ingredient for a hero’s backstory. Item numbers, the sexy vamps, and eventually, the detailed rape scenes might have emerged in mainstream cinema as crowd-pleasing exercises. This is because the heroes and heroines of yore were too virtuous to do anything wrong, and sex was definitely regarded as something ‘wrong’. Hence villains /vamps, people who are on the other side of the moral compass, were required to ‘spice up’ things. Lovemaking scenes were a total taboo (interestingly, one of the longest on-screen kisses in Hindi cinema was filmed between Devika Rani and her real-life husband and co-star Himanshu Rai way back in 1929 for Karma, but then it was essentially a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), but the rape/attempted rape of the sister or the mother by a villain was not taboo. It seems the sole purpose of a sister in most Bollywood movies, especially in the ’80 and the ’90s, was to (apart from being chirpy and tying rakhi and singing hymns to the brother who is considered the ‘lord protector of the realm’) get raped and throw the hero on the path of ’heroism’ to avenge the crime. Ajay Devgn’s Jigar (1992), Akshay Kumar’s Zulmi (1999), Sunil Shetty’s Aaghaaz (2000), Salman Khan’s Garv (2004), Abhishek Bachchan’s Raavan (2010) were a few such movies (honourable mention: Rajinikanth’s Tyagi where he negotiates with the woman his brother rapes and convinces her to marry the brother and withdraw her police complaint).
But it wasn’t a ’90s phenomenon. Prem Chopra, an actor and one of the bonafide ‘rape stars’ of the ’70s and the ’80s with multiple rape scenes to his credit, in his biography Prem Naam Hai Mera, penned by his daughter Rakita Nanda, actually makes this remark, “I remember a time when the credentials of a villain were confirmed only after he had raped the heroine or the hero’s sister”.
In fact, what would often differentiate a character of a sister from that of the love interest is that the hero would somehow always manage to save the heroine in the nick of time (example: Bimal Roy’s Madhumati). And suppose our hero is ever late and the heroine falls prey to the villain’s evil intentions, she is promptly killed, because a rape survivor isn’t chaste enough to be with our hero. A recent example of this is Hrithik Roshan’s Kaabil. In the movie, Supriya (Yami Gautam) is raped twice. But the focus of the film is how her husband Rohan (Roshan) reacts to her rape. After the first incident, the movie doesn’t delve into the terrible mental trauma the rape survivor is going through. Instead, we see how it impacts Rohan. When she is raped the second time, she chooses death over life because she doesn’t want to put Rohan through more mental trauma — a decision that almost parallels Sita’s decision to self-immolate.
But far more problematic than this are the instances where our heroes rape their love interest and eventually, the rape victim falls in love with the perpetrator, simply because he is the ‘hero’ of the film. Himmat Aur Mehanat and Insaniyat Ke Dushman both came out in 1987 and had the hero raping the heroine and eventually marrying her, marking the beginning of a ‘happily ever after’. Then there was Benaam Badsha (1991) that had Deepak (Anil Kapoor) raping Jyoti (Juhi Chawla) for money, and then Jyoti tries to win the heart of her rapist and convince him to marry her, even feigning a pregnancy in the process.
Violence against women is a harsh reality one couldn’t close one’s eyes to, and cinema is supposed to be a reflection of society. The problem is the use of rape and violence on women as a trope, the existence of such gruesome scenes as plot points, to use them to further the story, or worse, to use them as titillation, to turn women into unwilling martyrs and pave the hero’s journey over their gut-wrenching screams and mutilated bodies. While the hero avenges the crime by killing the villain, the trauma of the rape victim never becomes the talking point; it is always what our hero feels about the rape, how his ‘dignity’ is dented. Women are brutalised to help our hero unleash his unbridled machismo, to justify his future actions that might otherwise question his moral compass. In Kaabil, Supriya’s story is just a plot device; the movie is about Rohan’s revenge. In fact, violence on women is not just used to forward the hero’s journey. In Pataal Lok, Vishal Tyagi becomes the ruthless Hathoda Tyagi after the brutal rape of his sister, which is shown in graphic detail in an attempt to create compassion and empathy for Tyagi.
Also, what matters is how the violence is portrayed. There are movies like Provoked and then there are movies like Kabir Singh. While both deal with abusive and aggressive partners, the gaze is very different. While the first is loosely based on the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a woman who had killed her husband after facing a decade of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse in the UK, Kabir Singh glorifies intimate partner violence and even justifies it. While in Provoked the abusive husband is killed by the wife, in Kabir Singh, the girlfriend goes on to marry him.
This is not something only Bollywood is guilty of. In fact, in almost every Christopher Nolan movie, we have a female character being made a victim of gruesome acts of violence just to take forward the hero’s story. In 1999, comic book writer Gail Simone identified the ‘Women in Refrigerators’ trope (named after the Green Lantern comic that sees the hero return home to find his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in the fridge, and it is the starting point of the revenge saga) where the woman is sacrificed to provide the hero with an interesting back story to develop his character arc. And it is not a new phenomenon either. In fact, the threat of sexual violence, often initiated by the abduction of a female character, was at the heart of many of the Arthurian legends, as well as that of The Iliad.
But what is ironical is that today, in a world where feminism is being celebrated, we are slowly seeing movies with strong women protagonists, more and more women filmmakers and writers are using their lived experiences to tell more authentic stories, and women are now given a similar backstory, one replete with sexual violence/exploitation, to prop them as ‘heroes’. Be it Anvita Dutt’s 2020 film Bulbbul, Leena Yadav’s 2015 film Parched, Vishal Furia’s 2017 film Chhorii, or even the way Beena Tripathi’s character arc in Mirzapur, we have some stunning movies with absolutely kickass women as protagonists. But one can’t help but wonder why violence and abuse so often play the main motivators in stories of women becoming a force to be reckoned with. It seems women need to go through torture and abuse to be deemed worthy of being treated as a ‘protagonist’ — the more gruesome the violence, the stronger her claim. It seems the same trope is being rehashed and repackaged and passed off as something new. Even the narrative structure remains near identical.
If traditionally, women were treated as objects and used for sex, in an attempt to invert the power structure, there is a rise in stories where women are using their agency to weaponise their sexuality. Having multiple partners, sexual promiscuity, violent sex, and verbal abuse are now traits that the ‘modern independent woman’ in shows like Four More Shots Please! are seen proudly flaunting. The toxic man and this version of the liberated woman are essentially two sides of the same coin. It is a classic case of the victim turning into the perpetrator. But there has to be more to the idea of an independent and strong woman. Creating such stereotypes of the ‘strong independent woman’ by turning her into Mardaani, the notion that strength is synonymous with men and hence a strong woman needs to imbibe characteristics of men, the tradition of considering only the male version of certain adjectives as valid, is a direct result of the patriarchy we are born into. One can argue that it is the classic case of the historically oppressed breaking the old narrative, but if the new narrative is always a reaction to the old, then we are stuck in an infinite loop.
Movies like Good Luck Jerry, Raazi, Made in Heaven, Jalsa, Bombay Begums, Aarya, Sherni, Aranyak are looking at women protagonists from a different lens where the focus is more on women as professionals, their economic independence, their ambition, their diligence and sense of duty, and the drive to create their own space, often outsmarting men in the process.
All traumas are valid. All backstories are valid. All stories deserve to be told. One can’t deny that violence against women is a very real issue. But when we turn trauma into a plot device, it seizes to be a reflection of society and becomes just a tool to manipulate the audience.
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