Trigger Warning: This article mentions violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual assault. Please read at your own discretion.
The echoes of battered women crying out for help have haunted the cinema halls in India ever since screenwriters discovered the ‘damsel-in-distress’ trope to drive the narrative forward. From being collateral damage in a grand revenge story to becoming the punching bag of the hero’s obsessive infatuation, feminine characters in Hindi movies have often served as fodder for the toxic masculinity archetype much like in the 2019 ‘romantic drama’ Kabir Singh or to propel the hero on his righteous path to justice like in the 2017 thriller Kaabil. Side note: the women who have been sexually assaulted by men other than their partners are often met with swift execution in films like D-Day, Ghajini, and Badlapur. Somehow, Bollywood still seems to perpetuate the chastity myth of a dead woman being better off than one who 'has lost her virtue'.
When Kabir Singh was called out by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) member Vani Tripathi Tikoo for portraying Kiara Advani's character as someone who suffers in silence, the paradox of art imitating life was ironically relevant, if you look at the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) report from 2019 to 2021. According to this data, 87 percent of married women who are victims of marital violence do not seek help. Thus, the silent spectre of women's suffering evaporates from the silver screen and manifests into reality behind closed doors of Indian households.
The manner in which we interact with movies and fiction, as a community, is a sobering diagnosis on how we navigate similar situations in reality. In the past, domestic abuse of women was often a subplot or minor scene in the narrative of most Hindi movies but in the last few decades at least five groundbreaking movies have dealt better with the subject as a whole.
I. Darlings (2022)
Directed by Jasmeet K. Reen as a dark comedy, Darlings is set amidst the milieu of a conservative lower-middle-class neighbourhood in Mumbai, and portrays Badru (Alia Bhatt) hoodwinked into marrying who she thought was the love of her life, Sheikh (Vijay Varma). She has a rude awakening when she’s manhandled by her husband over her cooking, which is not far from why women get beaten up in the real world. More than 40% of women and 38% of men in the earlier mentioned study by NFHS, have reported to government surveyors that it is acceptable for a man to punish his partner if she disrespects her in-laws, neglects her chores or children, leaves the house without informing him, refuses sexual intimacy or doesn't cook properly.
Reassuringly, movies like Darlings are depicting survivors who don’t stand for intimate partner violence and even rally a counterattack. Typically undertaken with sadistic humour, these movies can sometimes unconsciously trivialise the real terror experienced by survivors who take the law in their own hands for the sake of revenge. Often transformed into the 'woman scorned' cliché, the survivor is portrayed as a force of reckoning to the entertainment of the male audiences baying for blood, secretly convinced they are not as aggressive as the fictional abuser.
II. Thappad (2020)
Challenging the notion that a woman must stick it out in a belittling relationship until her life is in mortal peril, Thappad directed by Anubhav Sinha showed Indian audiences that sometimes just a slap in the face is enough of a red flag to herald future signs of brutality. Unable to reconcile herself with the idea that her husband did not mean to hit her and wary of his gaslighting, she files for divorce, inspite of the disapproval of her family.
With a newfound interest in a more emancipated retelling of real events, recent films like Thappad have severed their scripts from the morality tales that show ‘adjustment’ as a way of salvaging an unequal power dynamic.
III. Parched (2015)
Gender-based violence can be pinned down to many factors in Indian households but alcoholism and the ‘inability’ to bear a male child are often listed among the highest. Parched is a film that tackles both these root causes through the character of Lajjo (Radhika Apte), who is assaulted regularly by her husband and called infertile for their mutually childless state. While her rebellion is expressed through seeking sexual communion outside her marriage, in a strange twist of fate, she manages to conceive.
Though the film is set in rural Rajasthan, the moral responsibility thrust upon women to give birth and endure abuse by their in-laws is a nationwide phenomenon. Lajjo frees herself from the social construct of her failing marriage and learns to choose her own safety and well-being — a concept that would still seem foreign to many women in India. Later in the movie, when her husband accidentally sets their hut on fire, she chooses to save herself and lets him burn. This cleansing of evil by fire is a theme that has a deep mythological significance for Indian dramaturgy. While Parched illustrates how self defence can sometimes lead to evading and even vanquishing the offender, the 2006 film Provoked traces the inversion of control that transforms the abused into the abuser.
IV. Provoked (2006)
Adapted from the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia (played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), a Punjabi woman who burnt her husband to death in 1989 in the UK, Provoked was lauded for its important subject matter but did not impress the critics with its clunky characterisation and melodramatic courtroom scenes. The redeeming grace of the film was in its rendition of the solidarity between the Southall Black Sisters — an NGO set up in 1979 to support Asian and Afro-Caribbean women fighting domestic abuse —reinstating the healing powers of sisterhood that can often save women who find themselves alone in their plight. Similar to the three women in Parched, intertwined by their trauma, the Sisters in Provoked are endearing in their defiant campaigning and inexorable support for the protagonist.
The 1996 film Agni Sakshi, exploring domestic abuse from the lens of a thriller, was based on Julia Roberts starrer Sleeping With The Enemy. The story revolves around Shivangi (Manisha Koirala) who is trying to start a new life with the man she loves (Jackie Shroff) until her abusive ex-husband (Nana Patekar) who she believed to be dead shows up at a family vacation. While the suspenseful cat-and-mouse story keeps you on tenterhooks, the lengths that Shivangi will go to hide her past and avoid falling back into the trap of her previous relationship, makes you wonder why she wouldn’t just seek protection from the law.
The Section 498A was enshrined in the Indian Penal Code in 1983 to make cruelty by the husband or his relatives, 'a cognizable and non-bailable offence’. However, in recent years, section 498A has come under unrelenting opprobrium from men’s rights groups, which have argued that it gives the female partner undue power over abused husbands and can be used to extort money from in-laws or as blackmail.
Combating stigma from society, redressal from in-laws, corrupt police and protracted family verification checks, many women chose to hide their bruises and emotional injuries from the authorities. Taut, deftly directed mainstream movies that avoid the trap of victim shaming can go a long way in changing the mindset around domestic violence and empower more women to speak up not just for themselves but for each other.