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03 October 2016

Holding Our Films Accountable

I’m on record as being an inveterate lover of masala films. I cut my eyeteeth on them, and I’ve grown up with a long-lasting love for commercial films. As I grew older and my world grew with me, my interest broadened to ‘cinema’ of different kinds. Despite that, masala films were like comfort food — I went back to them, again and again and again. Over the years, when popular media decried the influence of films or actors on society, I vociferously protested. No, I argued, our films reflect society, they are not responsible for it. Where’s the personal responsibility, I questioned; why are we holding a film responsible for whatever an individual chooses to do, operative word being ‘choose’. Why blame cinema alone? 

I didn’t believe that a hero smoking meant his fans would smoke, or that showing someone drinking on screen would induce someone to go pour themselves a drink. Perhaps because, despite my love for all things filmi, I certainly didn’t live in a fantasy world where my favourite hero would appear out of the blue and fall in love with me, I was able to enjoy the romances of my childhood. I certainly didn’t take films that seriously that I assumed what I saw on screen was how it would play out in real life. Therefore, I believed no one else would, either.

I was wrong.

The heroes of my childhood were easier to like – yes, they did, like Shammi Kapoor, persist in annoying the heroine till she fell in love with him. Yes, following her around, singing songs in Mohammed Rafi’s or Manna Dey’s or Kishore Kumar’s voices meant that we took the stalking as a pleasant, if persistent, manner to win the girl. 
Certainly, ‘persistence wins the girl’ was a trope that boys of my acquaintance believed, as they wrote misspelled love letters in order to convince the girls of their dreams to fall in love with them. Equally certainly, ‘playing hard to get’ was important for the girls if they didn’t want to be seen as ‘easy’. However, no one I know (or read of) ever crossed a line in their quest for romance. What usually happened was that if the girl expressed her disinterest, or broke up with the boy, the latter would go unshaven for a few days, look interestingly morose and dishevelled, prop himself up on the nearest pillar or tree on the school grounds, probably listen to sad film songs that expressed his angst better than he knew how, and perhaps, if he was old enough, get drunk with his friends a couple of times. Until his bruised heart healed, or he learnt to let go.

They were more innocent times.

The difference between that way of romance and what’s happening today is the difference between the earth and the sky. In those films – whether the hero was Shammi Kapoor or Dev Anand or Dharmendra, one never got the idea that they would ever harm the woman they loved, or indeed, any woman at all. Yes, they persuaded their heroines to fall in love with them – through poetry, or song, or even dialogue. To a certain extent, this reflected society as well. In a country where men and women do not get to meet openly, much less date, the way of expressing interest was often to follow the woman of your dreams until she noticed you, and verbally, or quite often with non-verbal clues, either encouraged you, or let you know in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want to see you anywhere in her vicinity. 

However, in no scene did the heroes threaten harm, either to the women or to their own selves. Emotional blackmail to make the heroine fall in love with them was not a weapon in their arsenal. They definitely had more self-esteem than to threaten to kill themselves if a woman rejected them. They were ‘heroes’ and therefore, had a moral compass that was inviolate, even if, like Dev Anand, they had grey shades in other areas. The ‘villains’ had the job of chasing, seducing or raping women, and they were clearly marked ‘evil’ so no one really thought of them as role models. (Yes, before you point it out, there were exceptions, and yes, they were regressive.)

Was this behaviour, innocent or not, still egregious? Sure. Two years ago, in a post written for this very blog, I wrote that that plot element '...should have been retired a long time ago.' Because, '...we are not going to fall in love with you because you follow us around, call us a billion times, and basically act like you have no life of your own. Nor are we in love with you because we smile at you and talk to you. If we liked you (yes, in 'that' way), we would tell you so. You don't need to 'pursue' us. We are not game to be hunted.'  

Somewhere along the line, we blurred the lines between heroes and villains. Beginning with the 80s, our films became crasser and more regressive. Heroines became mere arm candy, there for the regulation song-and-dance, and ‘romance’ became less about wooing than it did about being manhandled. Also, the trope about ‘modern’ women needing to be tamed, was well and truly alive. (This, I think, began from the late-ish 60s where heroines, dressed in smart trousers and skirts, and with short hair or sophisticated bouffants, would, overnight, turn into ‘model’ girls-one-could-bring-home-to-mother’, demurely attired in saris/salwar-kameezes and with long hair in a single braid.) The Madonna-whore dichotomy was also well and truly alive. The women had to be ‘shown their place’, had to depend on manly heroes to teach them how to be 'good' women, redeem themselves (if they were the heroines) or die (if they were too 'modern'). And all was well with the world.

Romance acquired sinister overtones when persistent wooing turned into stalking; what was, until then, seen as a relatively innocuous past-time, began to take on more dangerous hues. In Hindi films, this period began in the 90s, and it coincided with three films in which the protagonist was the ‘anti-hero’ – Baazigar, Darr, and Anjaam. Coincidentally, they all starred Shahrukh Khan, the acknowledged king of pure romance in Hindi cinema today. A man who, by all accounts, is extremely respectful of his heroines. 

Each of the three films cast Khan as a man obsessed with the pursuit of his cause: in the first, pursuing revenge for his father’s death, he seduces a young woman, and then throws her to her death. Following which he seduces her sister as well, until his motive is discovered, and then begin more murders.
In Darr, Khan’s character falls in love with a young woman and relentlessly stalks her, painting her name in his blood, gate-crashing a party at her home, following her everywhere she goes, to the point of terrorising her. There is no evidence that she even knows him, much less has encouraged him to fall in love with her.  

In Anjaam, similarly, Khan mistakes an airhostess’s attentions for love, causes the death of her husband after she rejects his proclamations of love, frames her for his own (faked) death, kills her sister and daughter, and is, in the end, killed by her. 
Certainly, as a lover of cinema, I have no quibble with a character being shown as morally vile. Or for a film to be narrated from his perspective.  However, my problem lies with the fact that in each of the above mentioned films, Khan’s character walks away with audience sympathy (even if in the latter two, the women do not fall in love with him). There were always reasons to excuse his behaviour.

Lest my examples be misconstrued, I’m not picking only on SRK – his compatriots, Salman (Tere Naam) and Aamir (Dil, Deewana Mujhsa Nahin), have had their share of playing such egregious characters. In Dil, Aamir, whose 'love' has been rejected by Madhuri, 'teases' her on campus with a particularly sleazy song, in which he sings: Humne khaayi hai kasam, Thodenge iske guroor hum... Now imagine Ranjeet or Prem Chopra or... [insert villain of choice here] leering behind the heroine singing the very same lyrics, surrounded by a gang of guys: would it still be seen as 'love'? The characters' 'one-uppance' episodes culminate in a mock abduction-and-rape to teach the heroine the error of her ways.
They are not the only ones: Anil Kapoor in Benaam Badshaah (the woman he’s paid to rape decides to follow him, marry and ‘reform’ him), Ajay Devgan (Deewangee), Sunny Deol (Jeet), Suneil Shetty (Dhadkan), Akshay Kumar (Kambakht Ishq), Dhanush (Raanjhnaa), Shahid Kapoor (R…Rajkumar)… the list goes on.

Why do I say all this now? Why am I raking up the age-old chicken-egg argument where movies and society are concerned? Because a) in a country like ours, films have a reach that is unprecedented. That they influence impressionable  minds (as do television and advertisements), as our brains absorb subliminal messages in a way that science still hasn’t been able to explain, is ground reality b) The number of stalking incidents recently – in just the past few months where young women have lost their lives to their stalkers, who would not take ‘no’ for an answer, has been alarming.
What is ‘stalking’? It is legally defined as a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, non-consensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear". In India, this egregious behaviour was recognised as a crime only in 2013. 

If Swati’s murder (four months ago) did not initially cause ripples outside her home state of Tamil Nadu, until the capture of her alleged assailant, Ram Kumar, and his subsequent [alleged] suicide while in custody, last month brought the shocking news of Karuna, fatally stabbed by her stalker in broad daylight in our nation’s capital. These cases only bookend several others in which young women have lost their lives because they dared to reject the advances of men who believed that persistence is the way forward to attaining their love, and that a woman’s ‘no’ means, if not a ‘yes’, at least a ‘maybe’. 

Am I blaming films alone for this? No. There’s definitely other reasons at work here – socio-economic status, social norms, gender roles, demographics, a screwed-up education system, patriarchy, prejudices, genetics, mental health, personality, self-esteem… However, for cinema to disclaim all responsibility 'because Art TM', is self-serving at best, disingenuous at worst.  Nor does the argument that films mirror society and not vice versa hold – if no one thinks, in real life, that a man can beat up 20 goons single-handedly or that all anti-national villains have dens of ignominy filled with test-tubes of various chemicals, from where they plan the annihilation of the world, or that the hero, an ordinary man, can infiltrate said den when the police forces of the world could not, then there should be no reason to believe that the stalking-as-romance-trope is any less fictionalised. Yet, there are. Many.  

An average youth in small-town modern India has probably never really ‘known’ women outside his immediate family; the first time he interacts with them is perhaps in college. Or even when he begins working. What he does know about women and love and romance is what he’s watched in films. When film after film glorifies a young man’s love as ‘true’, and therefore deserving of reciprocation, when female characters in films are chastised for ‘rejecting’ a ‘worthy’ man’s ‘true love’, when women in films are given no agency to choose, much less consent to a relationship, then you can hardly blame impressionable young men for believing that all one has to do is to follow the ‘girl of your dreams’ in real life as well, and voila! She’ll fall in love with you. The key is ‘persistence’. 

In a country where what our cinematic idols say or do on screen (or off) is taken as the word of God, and God save you if you breathe a word against them, it is not just their fashions or their mode of speaking or walking that fans emulate. If [insert star of your choice here] can pester an attractive girl, threaten to inflict self-harm, stalk her until she demurely acquiesces, why cannot they? All they have to go on is how the heroine responds to such advances on screen. 

Unfortunately for these real-life emulators of reel stalkers, real-life women do not fall in love with them. When they not only refuse, but have a strong negative reaction to being importuned, stalked, emotionally blackmailed, the frustration of these young men spills over. The next step becomes manhandling, abduction, rape, or murder.

Is this true of every young man who sees his heroes do these things on screen? Not at all. I admit that there has to be something wrong inside somewhere for these men to act upon the subliminal messages that these films/roles send. But when films show stalking-as-romance working, with the woman falling in love with the ‘hero’; when it glorifies the threats that the hero makes, or the things he does, in order to ‘make’ her fall in love with him; when this behaviour is normalised, glorified even, as a valid way to ‘get’ a woman, then impressionable young men who know of no other better way, internalise this message to their detriment, and that of the young women around them. 

Schools and colleges, which should educate these young minds at their most impressionable, pass the buck by talking about the safety of girls, and ‘Indian’ culture. The argument that we need to keep our girls 'safe' in order to keep our boys from harming them is laughable, until one realises that it insidiously restrains the women from exercising their independence, their choices, or even their sense of personhood. 

With great power comes greater responsibility. Or does anyone think that Art (TM) has none? [How many women must be raped and killed before 'Art' realises that it is part of the problem?] What is the solution? Where do we start? From the film-makers and scriptwriters? From the stars who can refuse to enact such scenes? 

I’m not against freedom of expression. I’m not saying don’t show a stalker on screen. Nor am I asking for the censorship/ban of offending movies. When we talk about the influence of the  movies on such behaviour, when people jump to the movies as possible cause for murder and rape, it is because films have a more pernicious influence than one thinks is true of fictionalised fare.  

I am saying that if you want to show a character stalking a woman, don’t pretend it is the norm. If you want to show a rape as part of the narrative, do so if it is integral to the cinematic plot; show it for the violent crime it is. Do not glorify it as ‘romance’, or worse, make it a 'comedy'; do not validate a woman falling in love with her stalker/rapist and reforming him with her patient self-sacrifice; do not frame it as ‘she asked for it’ and let that premise go unchallenged. ‘No’ means ‘no’. 

In this context, it was heartening to watch Aamir’s Satyamev Jayate episode on the cinematic representation of wooing where he confessed to being ashamed of having acted in movies which glorified eve-teasing/stalking,  and to know a film like Pink is not only being made today, but becoming a resounding success. Farhan Akhtar’s recent ‘open letter’ to his daughter (a Hindustan Times series on sexual assault) gains importance in that it admits to the responsibility of the industry he works in: "As an industry, we are guilty of normalising the invasion of a woman’s space, the woman’s body. Those watching our movies think it is ‘normal’ to harass a college or a village girl even when the girl is saying she’s not interested. You must also have seen movies in which the entire supporting cast conspires to help the ‘hero’ know the girl he’s interested in… to the point where he’ll hold her, catch her dress, even jump on top of her in some instances. Such behaviour — which flies in the face of consent that I’ve always tried to talk to you about — has been normalised by movies. Stalking, unfortunately, has become a mutated form of cinematic romance."

He goes on to add that as a filmmaker, he needs to be wary of such visualisation. That he cannot remain wilfully blind that what he shows on screen has no influence on the audience. And I say, ‘Kudos’ to him for admitting that on record. For women are not objects to be ‘won’, no matter how our film present them. The stereotype that one has to only follow a woman around, harass her, not take her ‘no’ for a final answer, and she will fall in love with him eventually, needs to be retired.

Again, I cannot emphasise this enough: films are not the sole reason for these murders. Need we change at grassroots-level, to tilt at the patriarchal mindset that women are property? Need we educate our youngsters on appropriate behaviour with the opposite sex, to empower our women to say ‘no’ and our men to accept it? Need we tighten our laws, and make it easier to report crimes of such nature? Need we make the punishment for stalking stricter in order to curb this menace? Hell, yes! All of the above. However, changing social behaviour takes time time that Swati and Karuna and Dhanya and Naveena did not have, time that several other Swatis, Karunas, Dhanyas and Naveenas will not have, if we don't make a beginning. So in the meantime, can we not hold the people who have the power to change, and to influence impressionable minds, accountable for the way in which they depict women and romance?

A young activist, Iswarya V has begun a petition to change things in Tamil Nadu where, from all accounts, the films are more egregious than even Hindi films in this regard. [Disclaimer: I was part of the initial draft of the petition, though the impetus came from her, and the hard, thankless task to drive the point home, and to be heard, has been solely hers.] What she says about the glorification of stalking in Tamil films as a route to a woman’s heart, and the violent consequences thereof, can be extrapolated to films in any language. Certainly, my native cinema, Malayalam, is not free of this (and other) misogyny.  

If you believe, as I do, that:
  • Film-makers need to be more responsible for what they depict on screen, and how they depict it; 
  • Stalking-as-romance trope should not be glorified, and indeed, should be shown for what it is – an assault on a woman’s agency; 
  • If we need to see change in society, we need to be that change
then please do take a moment to read Iswarya’s petition on Change.org, and if you agree with what we’ve said there, please sign it and share it on social media. As I said before, the petition may be restricted to Tamil cinema, but the issues raised by it are pertinent across languages and regions.

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