• 02 Dec - 08 Dec, 2017
  • Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
  • Spotlight

Molestation of women, their duly-justified revenge against the men – and the legal system to an extent – seems to be in vogue at the movies these days. Just a cursory look at the genre, exploited as “rape-revenge”, between last year and now and we see Pink, Kaabil, Mom, Maatr, Bhoomi from Bollywood, and now Verna from Pakistan.

The genre despite its timeliness (especially in India, where rape is more prevalent), like all genres, has its share of pitfalls.

Then versus now

While the genre is picking up momentum, one can easily trace it back to its exploitive roots in the 70s. In those days, revenge films weren’t that uncommon. 1974’s Death Wish for example, turns Charles Bronson’s character into a vigilante in order to kill the intruders who sexually assaulted his daughter and killed his wife. The dramatic motive was enough to unhinge the protagonist, and send him off into a frantic, killing frenzy.

The genre wasn’t limited to men either. In 1976, Lipstick starred sisters Margaux and Mariel Hemmingway, whose characters are molested by a music teacher. The film was remade in 1980 by director B.R. Chopra as Insaaf Ka Tarazu, starring Zeenat Aman, with Raj Babbar as the sexual perpetrator. In 1988, Raj Babbar had a far better supporting role in Zakhmi Aurat, in which Dimple Kapadia, a police officer, is sexually assaulted by four hoodlums.

Zakhmi Aurat had a novel twist. When the law failed her (as it happens in most movies), Dimple Kapadia’s character exacted revenge by kidnapping her assaulters and castrating them.

Films in those days weren’t obligated to be insightful or sensitive to a woman’s plight (despite scenes that play into those emotions). They just had to be dramatic and commercial. Sometimes, for the wrong reasons.

Sensitivity and cinematic obligations – at a price

No one can argue against the brutality of this act, however, motion pictures being an escapist form of entertainment – no matter what film schools contrarily tell you – film-makers are bound by conventions to bolster some theatrics into the narrative. These cinematic obligations are necessary, and prone to short-sightedness and insensitivity to the people who suffered from such instances in real life.

Bollywood, like it or not, has grown-up a lot in this regard. One of the examples is Kaabil, which stars Hrithik Roshan as a blind man whose wife (Yami Gautam) is molested twice, before he takes matters into his own hands.

While superficially male-centric, Kaabil’s portrayal of the couple’s predicament is a well-defined balancing act, between Bollywood-fiction and real-world fact.

Both Pink and Mom serve different ends of the genre – the former being an intense (and relevant) court drama, and the latter, a revenge flick. Both, yet, exhibited enough sense to not be over exploitive.

Mom, in fact, was unexpectedly original, despite showing every sign of cliché. In the story, a step-mother (Sri Devi) takes revenge on her daughter’s molesters (this basic story-type, was revisited in Bhoomi, where the step-mom is replaced by a drunkard father – in a lesser appealing movie).

Mom co-starred Adnan Siddiqui as the father, Sajal Aly as the daughter and Akshaye Khanna as the obligatory no-nonsense, uncorrupt cop. Ravi Udyawar, the director, was insightful enough to limit the commercial obligations of the film intact, while making sure we are connected to the characters.

The film had two spellbinding moments: In the first scene, a near-silent aerial shot over the van where Sajal Aly’s character is being molested, we observe as spectators, as the vehicle slowly drives on a deserted highway road, stopping briefly when the perpetrators trade places.

In the second shot, Sri Devi learns of her daughter’s sexual assault, and wails as if her very womb is torn out. The moment, like the former, is near silent, and yet effective.

The key takeaway from these movies is that we feel for the characters. Despite cliché driving much of the story’s structuring, the narrative-tilt finds the right tonal balance to be cinematic (both technically and creatively), and yet tells a compelling, discerning, socially relevant tale.

But we’re just talking about one end of the spectrum. What of the other?

When everything falls on its face

This is where Verna and Bhoomi come in. Bhoomi’s biggest crime is that it makes all the logical decisions on paper and doesn’t factor-in relatable characters, or a tinge of originality. Verna, directed by uber film-maker Shoaib Mansoor, goes one step up, and bungles everything – including logic.

If, by chance, you haven’t seen Verna by now (which, by now, would be nearly a month after its release), chances are that you aren’t mesmerised by the trailer, the songs or the controversy.

In Shoaib Mansoor’s film, Mahira Khan plays Sara, the victim who was abducted by mean-looking men working for the governor’s son. She is subjected to physical violence for three days, and delivered back home with nary a scratch.

Her family is dissuaded against legal action, and she soon makes the inanest decision any woman can make against her molester: she woo’s him on the phone, dolls-up and willingly spends the night with him.

Her ploy is to use her molester’s DNA as evidence in court. The fact that she smiles when romancing the villain is enough to send any sane person into a frenzy.

However, Mansoor’s film doesn’t stop there. When the prosecution exhibits video evidence of the consensual nature of her night with her assaulter, she is stunned. The rendezvous wasn’t forced, nor was the consensual act.

Both, Sara (the character) and Mansoor, who wrote the film, come off as insensitive to real victims. Who, in their right mind, would romantically pursue their abuser – especially within a mere 15 day’s time from their abduction and molestation?

Even if one disregards this absolute indulgence in sensationalism (which, to be fair, is the main drive of the movie), there are other instances of amateurism at play.

For instance, the molester’s acceptance in court, that he used his influence on FIA, the hospitals and the police, to either manipulate or fake data, could very well cost his father, the governor, his seat. No one, no matter how dumb or ingenious, would accept this in court, unless cornered by unyielding evidence (FYI: there weren’t any).

Secondly, his acceptance on the consensual act also brings him under the Zina Ordinance, whose initial condition is the wilful acceptance of the guilty party – no matter how the case would eventually end up.

To my utter shock, Sara’s father, out of embarrassment, pulls back the case, because he could not bear to see the visual evidence in front of the judge. On such a crucial point of the story – however muddled it may be – after their family becomes a constant staple of the news and media, who takes their case back on fear of further embarrassment?

Especially if his daughter, who planned this charade from the start, is shown to be headstrong and resilient. That is, unless she fears, the evidence would indeed not show her in a good light.

There were always alternatives to the story. For one, in an earlier scene, Sara could have easily recorded the phone conversation she has with the villain where he confesses his crime. Furthermore, Sara could have invited him to a place of her choosing, where, potentially, she would have better control of the environment and setting. There, she could have incited him into accepting her abduction and eventual molestation, and there would be no need for her to dress-up and romantically pursue him.

Verna’s indulgence into sensationalism took away the only thing that should have mattered to Mansoor – sensitivity. A film can be bold, intelligent and sensitive, and yet be commercial at the same time.

If one doesn’t think that far ahead, we only end up with agendas – either good, bad, or sensationalist, but that’s another argument for another day – and a shocker-thriller where the victim only functions as a personification of gruesome death.•