"Hans mat pagli, pyaar ho jayega…" Listening to Sonu Nigam's melodious voice with a cup of coffee in the morning is just amazing. However, you are merely listening to the song on Spotify. You are curious about what the video might contain, so you open YouTube and begin surfing. Oh, how sweet it is. Akshay Kumar as the love-struck protagonist in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is adorable as he blushes and follows the female lead – Bhumi Pednekar's character – everywhere. She is in an auto, and he is on a bike. She is near a tea stall, and he covers his face using a monkey cap, filming her on his phone. She is on a train, and so is he. On another occasion, he is on a tree, still filming her. It looks harmless. He is merely in love with her, "trying his best" to capture her attention while simultaneously trying to avoid being caught. He is filming her? No problem. Perhaps he wants to wake up to her picture every morning. Is that not romantic?
Let us substitute Akshay's and Bhumi's characters with Basheer "Babbu" Khan on the bike and Malti from Chhapaak. The girl is screaming, as the flesh on her face melts away, having been splashed with acid. The Chhapaak title track is playing in the background – an ominous song on the horrors the victim of such an attack has to face.
All I did was change the tone and scenario, et voila! You have a new perspective. Perhaps, if you have not watched the entirety of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, you would actually want to caution Bhumi's character in the video by saying "Hans mat", because, harmless or not, she was deliberately being stalked by the male lead.
When it was criticized, later on, Bhumi Pednekar defended the whole song sequence. I wish to break down what she said to explain how stalking has actually been normalized by cinema, and even movie stars are unaware of this (the following contains excerpts from an interview with PTI).
"I agree but in the second part of the song, she is doing the same thing." Yes, that is the point. Neither of you was supposed to do it. There is a common misconception that stalking is attributed to males only, which is not true. Anybody regardless of gender or sexuality can stalk another person. It does not help when the IPC has a vague, redundant definition of what constitutes the act of stalking. There was no reason for your character to follow the male lead's example, it is still wrong. It does not matter if both of you were interested in each other; neither of you knew the other, and neither of you stalked the other after asking for their explicit permission. Of course, if you had, that would not have amounted to stalking. Hearing a proper "Yes" or a "No" would have brought you back to your senses. Let me list what exactly constitutes consent, for your benefit. This has been laid down by UN Women, perhaps the best party to approach regarding this:
1) Consent comes with enthusiasm. It should be an active "YES" instead of a "NO". If the person is worried or unsure or silent ("No", "I don't know"), that does not amount to consent.
2) It should be given freely, and without pressure, or without being under the influence of substances or alcohol.
3) It should be informed consent, that is, when the person has all the facts, or has the maturity to understand the circumstances.
4) It should be specific. If the person has consented to one thing, and not another, you have no right to do that which they have not agreed to.
5) It should be reversible, that is, it should be revocable.
Perhaps this is a harsh exposition, and perhaps consent is subjective, but for a huge population of people – of whom most face some kind of abuse every single day – this generalized definition of consent will be of some help. If it is subjective, then you must ensure that you ask and get a concrete answer regarding what the person may consent to. It does not hurt to ask. What if you were not the girl in the film, Bhumi? What if you were that one terrified college girl who got stabbed by her stalker? What if Akshay was a boy who perhaps had some childhood trauma? Are you completely sure you know the person well, and what they want? If so, kudos.
"Had this been an important aspect of the story, where he has become an obsessive lover, threatening her (then it's a different thing)… he isn't mentally harassing the girl." This argument really does not stand. It does not matter if the stalking bit was not the main focus of a mainstream film. It was the focus of an entire romantic song sequence. A song, which, separated from the rest of the film, is available on YouTube for billions of people to see, especially in a country where cinema is a second religion for the people, and the passionate youth are waiting to become the next romantic superheroes. Akshay's character may not have been an obsessive lover, but that does not stop a person in the audience from whipping out their phone and terrorizing an innocent individual. It is extremely irresponsible to assume that "haters will hate" and that it is the audience's responsibility to only take home the good aspects of a film. No. The makers of the film, the director, producers, scriptwriters, actors – everybody has a responsibility to scrutinize every single aspect of the film and analyze the impact it will create for the audience in general. When we rush into theatres, we are high on emotions. When we rush out, we are still high on emotions. Not every person sits down to critically analyze the good and the bad that the film propagates. For most people in the country, films are a mode of learning languages and gaining knowledge, especially when it comes to the illiterate masses or children. The makers have a responsibility to them, no matter what. In a film speaking about the rights of a woman, the stalking sequence is not something that should be ignored.
This is not exclusive to Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. I recall watching Badrinath Ki Dulhania in a theatre. Varun Dhawan's character initially follows the uninterested female lead everywhere, and then their marriage is fixed. When she runs away to Singapore to pursue her dreams, he follows her there, kidnaps her in a car, and takes her to a place to declare how she had wronged him. It was such a well-enacted scene that I felt pity for his character, the jilted lover, and irritation towards her. It was much later that I realized how horrifying his actions were. No, he was not a lover who was "working hard" to earn the woman's love. He was the product of patriarchal genes that have caused us to believe that things are not as bad as people think they are. But what is wrong is wrong, no matter how subtle or harmless it may seem. Of all the methods you can find to woo a person, do you have to resort to stalking? Take the rejection in the face, and accept it for what it is. That is something films are yet to teach us.
Be it the recent Ginny Weds Sunny, or Raanjhanaa, or Darr, or even Bahubali: The Beginning, stalking has been a presence in our films. Males are following females, females are following males, males are following males, and females are following females. Stalking is no less a crime even if there is no threatening or blackmailing involved. The act may not lead to nightmarish consequences – for instance, as depicted in Drishyam (2015) – but there is no guarantee that it cannot morph into something worse.
"But if I am not objecting to it, how's it stalking?" Sure, Bhumi, you may not object to it, but you can at least take the responsibility of changing the person's ways and making them aware. Because tomorrow, he might follow a girl who does object, and then there is no turning back. Inspired by your lack of objection, he will be encouraged to do whatever he wishes to. So stop it, right there. It may appear sweet, but it isn't.
The problem with the normalisation of stalking in Bollywood is that it is has been depicted as cute, even comedic, at times. Either stalkers have served the purpose of unnecessary caricatures, or inconsequential villains who are usually beaten up by the hero. But is the issue addressed? No. Our focus is on the hero being the hero, not the fact that the stalker is stalking and that the act is wrong and creepy. What the masses deserve is a series like Pushpavalli or a movie like Fan, which shed light on this much-ignored topic, rather than covertly glorifying it. Or perhaps they deserve a character like Mohsina from Gangs of Wasseypur, who says it straight in our faces: "Permission leni chahiye thi."