what a truly controversial film on rape and rape culture in India could be like

Ayesha Kidwai teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Ayesha Kidwai

Ayesha Kidwai

I have just watched a film that leaves me underwhelmed but not angry or distraught. It is not hate speech, it is not racist, it is not trying to lead or appropriate the Indian women’s movement, it is not intended to harm tourism, it is not saying that all Indian men are rapists, support rape or valorise rapists. Each hateful comment is carefully framed by a statement that mitigates it, the humanness of the rape victim is repeatedly emphasised by the love and respect she inspired in many, yet the perpetrators, even as they show no remorse, no repentance, blame the victims, are still individuals rather than representative of a mass of poor people.

Yet, the film is still not great. It could have been one, in another universe, by another filmmaker who was less in awe of the Great Indian Protest. This other film would have also had only one heroine. And it would also have two grieving parents who try to communicate how their act of bravery in believing in the future of their daughter they had hoped to find another world to inhabit. That future has been snatched away from them and what has been left in her place are the ones who raped her. As long as those rapists are there, they are a reminder for what has been lost — a daughter, a fearless fighter, another world in which love for her, belief in her and her choices and freedom (to see a movie) is validated and rewarded. They want the rapists removed from this world by the same death that snatched their daughter away.

The rapists, in this film too, will resist. They think they assert their dominance by showing no remorse, but they will say ALL the things that we have heard before. Only one speaks, and it is scripted — yes, he drove the bus, but he didn’t rape her. The worst was the juvenile. They all took turns. Women abroad on the streets ask for it. His lawyers say the same things. The rapist would also describe the violence in some detail (perhaps not as much detail, but the viewers need to know that rape is not sex), but nothing he said can alter the reality of his situation — he is in jail, on death row. But in my film, I would show why he dwells on the violence so — because he also remembers that she fought them. And that when she no longer could physically continue, thousands rose in support of her.

(image: Prakash K Ray)

(image: Prakash K Ray)

In my film, I would not let him escape into his narrative — I wouldn’t let him just assert his innocence. I would not be so transfixed by his violence that I wouldn’t dare ask him or his lawyers even one question that would unravel the script being played out for me. In my film, I would not be so respectful to the Great Indian Protests either. I would not be so in awe of this mass uprising that they would just be great visuals, I would ask them — young men and women — what had changed? What did social change mean for them, who was Soni Sori, who was Manorama Devi, why did she speak to all of them. How did she become every woman — every young person actually — was it because she did not have a name, a caste, a religion? Were they there because she didn’t have one? What if she did? And why did they all go home after a while? Did they leave because they were scared? Or were they sent away? Have they indeed gone home, or are they still there, kissing in front of Jhandewalan?

At the end of my film, I would not be left with two grief-stricken parents and her rapists, both living with violent death, though Leila Seth’s words would also be the point at which I closed. I would ask Sheila Dixit a few more questions, roast Arnab a bit, and go to Muzaffarnagar, Khairlanji and Badaun and 377, and perhaps also to Azerbaijan where seven women protested outside the Indian embassy on 23rd December 2012.

But that would be MY film, not this one made by another. She doesn’t have to make mine (she doesn’t have to be ashamed of the colour of her skin, you know), I can do it perfectly well, thank you. She may know very little about who was in the protests, who made the speeches, who sang what, and how many nights were reclaimed, but she has the right to respond to a single event that was a defining moment, as much as I do. As I do to her story, to the fact that she is herself a rape survivor, that she was once a body that endured the violence that she made this film about. She is wrong to lecture to us about the image of India in the world, but that expectation, like solidarity, has to go both ways.

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