The recently released Tamil web series Suzhal – The Vortex (Amazon Prime Video), created by Pushkar-Gayatri and directed by Bramma and Anucharan, deals with the sensitive issue of child sexual abuse and how the abuser, in a vast majority of these cases, is someone within the social circle of the victim. It is in the final episode that this revelation is made. The girl is in close-up, the camera focused on her traumatised face. A man’s hand roves over her face and body, attempting to unbutton her school uniform and lift up her skirt. The shot lasts for about 35 seconds, presenting a voyeuristic view of the teenager’s sexual assault.
The intention behind the series may have been to draw attention to child sexual abuse, but the manner in which the assault is shot is violative and triggering. Unfortunately, such depictions are all too common in mainstream Tamil cinema and web series. Take Paava Kadhaigal (2020), the four-episode Netflix series on honour killings, for instance. Gautham Menon’s short Vaanmagal revolves around the sexual assault of a minor girl, and the scene lasts for about 90 seconds. It has shots of the victim being forcibly held down, explicit dialogues on how the perpetrators can “enjoy” her body, and a close-up shot of a man’s leery expression. There is also a fourth-wall-breaking “joke” in the scene; one rapist tells another that if he manages to rape the girl’s mother (played by Simran), he will become an “aal thotta Boopathi” – this is a reference to Simran’s popular dance number from Youth (in this context, the lord who touched it all/touched the person).
Sexual assault is about power; it is about the perpetrator refusing to see the victim as human. He treats her instead as an object to play with because in the society we live in, it is she who will bear the consequences of the crime. Not him. This is “already” the lens through which society views sexual assault. If the film intends to create empathy for the victim/survivor, it has to reverse the gaze. By focusing on the victim’s body parts, amplifying their humiliation, and celebrating the perpetrator’s pleasure, the camera only succeeds in reiterating patriarchal ideas about sexual assault.
In the blockbuster serial killer film Ratsasan (2018), one of the red herrings is a teacher who sexually abuses his students. The film features a nearly three-minute sequence that depicts the man tormenting the young girl. In Ponmagal Vandhal (2020), the victim is again a child; the girl’s mother finds her assaulted daughter, and her eyes go to her bloodied lower half. We then see a reconstruction of the crime where the young girl is weeping in close-up and a man is unzipping his sweatshirt and removing his belt.
Muthazhagu’s (Priyamani) gangrape in Paruthiveeran (2007) is among the most violent and graphic sequences we have seen in Tamil films. With Muthazhagu gasping and pleading with the men taking turns to sexually assault her, the film prolongs the trauma as a prelude to the hero’s arrival and his subsequent grief. The gangrape sequence in Saani Kaayidham (2022) is eerily similar and is almost a homage to Paruthiveeran. The victim (Keerthy Suresh) is shown lying on the floor with men of all ages, elderly, and minors, hitting her and sexually assaulting her.
In Netrikann (2021), a film about a serial rapist, the camera shows naked (the body is blurred) victims being tortured and videotaped as the perpetrator enjoys himself. There’s also a close-up shot of him licking one of the victims at her doorstep, and this is compared to the mutton being cooked inside the house. The suggestion is that the woman is like a piece of meat that will be “ravished” soon by the man. Several Tamil films like Etharkkum Thuninthavan (2022) have used the real-life Pollachi sexual assault case as a major plot point, recreating the viral video of a young girl seen begging the perpetrator to let her go.
Why the gaze matters
It is not that these recent films condone rape (unlike Rajinikanth’s 1991 film Dharma Durai in which he convinces a survivor to marry her rapist); many of them even have powerful dialogues against sexual violence and question victim-blaming. But, while Tamil cinema has changed by leaps and bounds when it comes to technology and storytelling, there is very little difference across decades in how sexual assault scenes are conceived and shot. Victims are typically shown to be running, screaming, their clothes in disarray, the camera focusing on different parts of their body, and the perpetrator unzipping his pants or leering with great enjoyment.
The camera’s gaze does not just document the crime, it also underlines the victim’s humiliation and the perpetrator’s enjoyment of it. The voyeuristic shots are an invitation for the audience to participate in the violence.
Reversing the gaze
The Netflix true-crime series Unbelievable (English, 2019, created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon) is based on a serial rapist who went undetected until two women police officers took charge of the case. The first episode begins with Marie, a teenager, speaking to the police about a masked intruder sexually assaulting her. We only see the crime in brief flashes, and through point-of-view shots from Marie’s location. The series uses the same cinematography technique for other survivors, too, as the investigators speak to them and piece together the criminal’s profile.
While we see what happened, we view it from the victim’s perspective and not the perpetrator’s. It is her feelings, thoughts and observations that are in focus, and not how he feels about what’s happening. By making this switch, the camera gives the victim agency instead of objectifying and silencing her (which is what the perpetrator is trying to accomplish).
In Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink (Hindi, 2016), the sexual assault that triggers the series of events is shown only at the end as an overlay, when the credits are rolling. This is a choice that reflects the core idea of the film. It does not matter if the victim was “friendly” with the perpetrator, if she’d had a few drinks or if she was in a room willingly with him. What matters is that she did not consent to the sexual act. By placing the visuals at the end, after the viewer has travelled with the protagonists in a long and arduous journey for justice, the film succeeds in creating the empathy that it may not have won from the audience had the sexual assault been shown in the beginning.
The point of Pink was to dismantle the image of the “ideal victim”, and the way the assault is filmed and placed in the narrative, complements it. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (English, 2001) and Anjali Menon’s Koode (Malayalam, 2018) both have adult protagonists who were sexually abused as children. In Monsoon Wedding, the incident comes to light when Ria (Shefali Shah), the survivor, breaks her silence after noticing that the perpetrator (Rajat Kapoor) is repeating the abuse with another child. She comes to this realisation over a seemingly innocuous remark made by the child – “I know how adults kiss.” We see the man taking the child to his car on the pretext of putting her to bed, and that’s when Ria intervenes. The abuse is laid out in Ria’s voice, it is her account of what happened; there are no shots of the abuser taking pleasure in her plight.
Moving on to Koode, we have Joshua (Prithviraj), a male victim of child sexual abuse. Here, the abuser, Joshua’s uncle, reveals himself through a throwaway line on Joshua not being “so small anymore”. The next hint is when the uncle is taking Joshua away with him to the Gulf. The scene happens at the railway station. Joshua’s family surrounds him, touching and hugging him with love. Joshua welcomes their attention. But when the uncle places his hand on his shoulder and slightly rubs his back, the background score turns menacing. You recognise it immediately as an unsafe, unwelcome touch without any other prompt. The next shot is of an adult Joshua taking a shower – Anjali conveys what he must have gone through as a child without filming any of it. Not only is the imagined horror more effective, it also goes with the characterisation of Joshua, a man who finds it hard to articulate his feelings.
Yet another sensitive portrayal of abuse is found in Pa Ranjith’s Kaala (Tamil, 2018), where Puyal (Anjali Patil), an activist, is sexually assaulted on a bridge by the police unleashing violence on her community. As she hits back at them, the men pull down her churidar pants. The camera’s focus isn’t on her bare legs, but on her shaken yet defiant face. We then see her crawling towards the pants but picking up her stick again to hit the men. Kaala is an interesting, subversive commentary on gender, caste, and religious politics, and the scene overturns long-held cinematic traditions of “ideal victim” behaviour”.
These examples are from films and series that are varied in theme, but one can see that the makers have applied a great amount of thought in how they chose to tell stories of sexual violence. The depictions tie in with what the films want to accomplish – and that’s what good cinematography and direction are all about.