A monthly eye on all things women in the entertainment business.
The courtroom drama has a superb, progressive tradition of showing up the prurience and misogyny of the “system”, not only the medico-legal systems in which these films are located, but also society in general. The Hindi film Section 375 is an aberration to this—nicely made but really sly about the point it makes about the amended Indian law that gives rape survivors the benefit of doubt and places the burden of proof on the accused. The emotional momentum following the gangrape of Jyoti Singh led to a law in favour of rape survivors. In Section 375’s universe, this law is being misused by women to avenge the inequity with powerful men. Also, in this universe, lawyers are reasonably sensitive, judges are thoughtful and the arc generally bends towards rule of law and procedure. The hashtag #MeToo briefly appears on the screen when the credits roll at the start, although the film is careful not to use this hashtag thereafter, choosing to go with #hangtherapist.
As a genre, the courtroom drama has shown us the opposite – sexual assault/harassment complainants are done in by a system that demands evidence for sexual assault, consumes this voyeuristically, and shames them with sexual prurience. The Hindi film Pink did a nice job of excavating the misogyny, prejudice and general patriarchal and majoritarian attitudes of the Indian legal system. The film cut out the sexual incident entirely, featuring it after the film had ended during the end credits. With Amitabh Bachchan as the male champion of the women confronting a marvellously misogynist world, the film appeared to take its cues from the 1981 Bengali film Adalat o Ekti Meye. There, actress Tanuja played the central role of a woman gangraped on a beach. Her only ally in a perverted, judgemental courtroom was a cop who never got promoted, played by the Bengali stage legend Manoj Mitra, an oddball like the weird lawyer character of Bachchan in Pink.
A decade later, the Hindi film Damini (1993) had echoes of this male feminist champion in the alcoholic, unemployed lawyer played by Sunny Deol. Damini showed up not just the legal system’s prurience and viciousness, but also how murderous its bureaucracy is, burying the rape complaint with delays. Its politics was also about class in addition to gender—the girl raped was a domestic help, the complainant was her female employer, and the accused were her male employers.
Four years after Damini, the Bengali film Dahan (1997) directed by Rituparno Ghosh had a courtroom that was as sadistic and disinterested in listening to the sexual assault survivor, but crucially, there was a woman supporting the woman who went to court against her assaulters. One evening, when the character played by Rituparna Sengupta is returning home with her husband, she is molested by a bunch of men near a Metro station. A school-teacher, played by Indrani Halder, comes to her rescue then and testifies in her support in the court, but they lose the case.
Dahan carried echoes of the relationship between Jodie Foster, whose character is gangraped, and her attorney played by Kelly Mcgillis in the remarkable The Accused made a decade ago (1988). Foster’s character is drunk and interested in sex at first before she is gangraped humiliatingly on a pool table in public view. And at first, her attorney is unsympathetic—like the courtroom, she feels the girl had asked for it—before Foster’s explosive, inarticulate rage brings her around. Of all these films, The Accused perhaps is the most remarkable of all. Like Damini, it stacks class politics onto gender—Foster plays a working class, barely educated woman, her attorney is solidly professional. But unlike Damini, it does not have a male champion.
28 years before Pink, The Accused reaches the same conclusion: that no means no even if it comes after yes. That a person may express interest in having sex, and then change her/his mind and withdraw consent. That even consent to sex does not mean a free pass to a person’s body, that every sexual act has to be consensual. 30 years is a generation in medical terms. One generation ago, The Accused posited a view that feels progressive, almost thrilling, when you articulate it even today.
What’s interesting is that the Hindi, Bengali and Hollywood film all have a history of showing up the savage misogyny in the courtroom, underlining how similar legal systems are in this respect. The courtroom drama has a direct and obvious connection to what is the other rape genre—the vigilante revenge drama. A number of recent Hindi films, such as Kaabil starring Hrithik Roshan and Yami Gautam, MOM starring Sridevi, Bhoomi with Sanjay Dutt and Aditi Rao Hydari, Maatr featuring Raveena Tandon and Ajji fall in this category. Only Ajji did not have a major film star. The English language rape-revenge film, on the other hand, is a non-A-list affair. The point made by this genre is that revenge is the only answer to rape/sexual assault because the legal system does not serve justice. The Hindi film Insaf kaa Tarazu (1978), directed by BR Chopra who had shown no previous interest in gender justice, show the connection between the two genres clearly. The first half is about the perverted court proceedings that bring no justice to the rape survivor, played by Zeenat Aman. The second half is her vigilante crusade for justice.
A Nasty Snub to #MeToo
The #MeToo movement is itself a vigilante response of sorts to the patriarchy in the justice system. It does not involve physical violence, but uses the powerful guerrilla tactic of rumour and shaming sexual predators. On Twitter and some online spaces, it briefly nurtured a supportive temper of listening to survivors without judgement, although there was furious pushback from certain predators and their families and friends (which is expected). Section 375 dismisses the MeToo movement as a kangaroo court, the film uses the phrase “the honourable Twitter court of India”. It also twists the existing narrative of the courtroom drama. Here, the system is fair, functional and feminist, and rape is a ruse to settle other scores.
The hit film Super 30 also made a nasty reference to #MeToo: a woman walks upto Hrithik Roshan who plays the hero Anand Kumar, and asks him to call the sexual harasser Anand Kumar. In other words, the gifted and the good are being brought down by fake harassment charges. The film’s “director” Vikas Bahl himself faces serious charges of sexual misconduct that were hurriedly “cleared” by an in-house committee in Reliance Entertainment, the production company for Super 30.
An Unlikely Comradeship
The Telugu film industry, which has a solid reputation for misogyny, has a surprisingly supportive film on sexual harassment. Dear Comrade, with the Arjun Reddy star Vijay Deverakonda and popular heroine Rashmika Mandanna, dropped on the streaming platform Amazon Prime in September nicely in time to mark one year of the MeToo movement that began in October 2018. The film raises the question every harassment story that emerged during MeToo faced: why didn’t (s)he complain when it happened? A state-level cricket player is abused by a smooth selector, and goes into depression, perhaps she is suicidal too. When she speaks out at an internal complaints committee meeting, she articulates a thought that bears underlining: she could only speak when she felt ready, and the wholehearted comradeship of a former love helped. There’s the most beautiful definition of a comrade I have heard—someone who holds you on the journey(s) you need to make, a lover, mother, brother, friend, anyone.
Interestingly, Deverakonda, who plays the comrade to the remarkable Mandanna, has also essayed the role of the reigning prince of self-pity Arjun Reddy (the Hindi avatar is Kabir Singh). Like Ayushmann Khurana, who has played both a fantastic sperm donor and an erectile dysfunction sufferer, Deverekonda has covered the full range of manhood from man-baby to genuine feminist comrade.
The Sober Alcoholic Who Drank for a Role
I’ll end with a pointer to a remarkable Twitter thread about range of voice and the human effort involved in portraying the Devil in in horror film classic The Exorcist. The actress Mercedes McCambridge ate raw eggs, chain-smoked and started drinking again although she was a recovering alcoholic, writes the Twitter handle Sady Doyle. And she asked for no credit for her work for years, it appears. As Doyle says, imagine if Christian Bale did this?
For all the questions people have asked me about "The Exorcist," no-one has asked me about my most deeply held opinion, which is that Mercedes McCambridge gave the most hardcore performance of the entire horror genre – maybe of the century – and wasn't even listed in the credits.
— Sady Doyle (@sadydoyle) August 29, 2019