"If you ask your wife for sex, you are a bhikaari (beggar). If you deny her sex, you are an atyachari (abuser). And if you manage to have sex with her, you are a balatkari (rapist)." These lines from the December release Pati, Patni Aur Woh (starring Kartik Aaryan, Ananya Panday, and Bhumi Pednekar) are the latest addition to Bollywood's rape joke roster, this time the joke being marital rape. Why get married if it does not mean a lifelong license to have sex without consent? India is one of only 36 countries in the world that does not recognise marital rape as a crime.
This is only the trailer of Pati Patni aur Woh though, the film may well throw up a bouquet of misogyny. The source material is itself unpromising: the film is a remake of a 1978 project starring Sanjeev Kumar and Vidya Sinha, in which Kumar is married to Sinha and has an affair with his secretary. (A good print of the film, directed by B R Chopra, is available in full on You Tube). At first, the film is fun, underlined with a markedly jaunty self-aware voiceover by hero Sanjeev Kumar and a non-coquettish Vidya Sinha. But the affair with the secretary is a textbook case of sexual harassment in the workplace. For instance, Sanjeev Kumar's character lies to his secretary about his perfectly healthy wife, then uses the opportunity to take her hand in his and clasp it over his chest. The secretary instantly asks permission to return to her seat. Even in 1978, 20 years before the Vishaka Guidelines of 1997, the makers of the film knew this amounted to sexual harassment.
In the film, Vidya Sinha's character is no shrinking violet. She is still nervous about sex with a partner for the first time as Kumar is. In the new version, matters are updated—Pednekar says that she enjoys sex and this directness is nice in a mainstream Hindi film. How do you go from this to a joke about marital rape?
The industry has a catalogue of rape jokes, the most popular of which is the speech in 3 Idiots (2009) which replaces the word chamatkar (miracle) with balatkaar (rape) and mentions rape 8 times, and breasts three times within a span of 4 minutes. The film is one of the biggest blockbusters in the industry. We often ask the (rhetorical) question: how do these 'jokes' get written? The answer is in the box office figures.
In Badrinath ki Dulhania (2017), the joke was on men being molested. The hero, played by Varun Dhawan, is roughed up one night in Singapore by a gang of masked men who coo over his soft skin and rip off his T-shirt. The background music took a turn for the exaggeratedly comic when the sexual interest of the masked men in Dhawan is revealed, and afterward, when heroine Alia Bhatt drapes a dupatta over Dhawan's exposed cleavage, she bursts into giggles. There is no point considering the Housefull and Masti
It's likely that the new Pati, Patni aur Woh too will do superbly at the box office. On the other hand, a film which talked about marital rape like Aks, albeit briefly, tanked commercially. Remember that scene where Nandita Das confronts her husband, played by Amitabh Bachchan, about the lack of consent? Look it up if you can. And look up Rituparno Ghosh's Dahan, where a woman molested at a metro station is then raped by her husband.