Why Are Rape-Revenge Films So Popular In Hindi Cinema?

The revenge-rape drama, irrespective of what its intent may be, represents only one facet of womanhood and one category of women
Why Are Rape-Revenge Films So Popular In Hindi Cinema?

The upsurge of the female vigilante in the rape – revenge films of 1980s can not be missed.  Scholars like Firoze Rangoonwala describe the age between 1981 to 1991 as "the age of violence". The escalation of violence as a cathartic space of creative vent is a well known and understandable space. However, the characterization of this violence, the absolute grammar of it shapes our public and private imagination. It shapes the psyche of the audience. It is debatable if the Emergency is to be blamed as the cause of crisis and chaos. But this autocratic decision sure did unravel a dialogue around the State of India’s belonging, its power and its authority.

According to Rangoonwala, the 1980s and early 1990’s saw the rise of revenge dramas in both the commercial and parallel domain of Indian cinema. The one critique of vigilante films was that in their attempt to break away from formulistic popular cinema, the films fell prey to systematized cinematic codes of ‘masala films’. Other scholars like Maithili Rao describe the merging trend in Indian cinema as reflective of the collective of schizophrenia of our society. Pratighaat, a 1987 film by N. Chandra, revels and heralds the victimization of women as a feminist drama. Female sexuality is dealt with in a masculine perspective in  the film based in modern secular Dharampura which is being terrorized by a underworld don.

Why Are Rape-Revenge Films So Popular In Hindi Cinema?
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However, even the logic behind the wronged, raped or hurt women avenging is problematic. It functions on the logicality of strength being a reaction to invasion which is again dependent on a man’s move. The daring, dominant and bold woman is a product of the patriarchial system. The female vigilante is a the byproduct of the masculine oppression, this misplaced feminism is actually a celebration of a certain victimhood masquerading as heroism. Again, subtextually this female heroism exists in gratitude to male violence. With generous heteronormative patriarchate, the character growth or change in the woman would then not have been possible. While directors like Chandra may have considered the female revenge drama as a possible alternative to the action-packed drama and providing the audience with another form of entertainment, this does not do away with the fact that the dramas continue to thrive.

In Rakesh Roshan’s (1988) film, Khoon Bhari Maang, Rekha is attacked by a crocodile after being pushed into the crocodile infested waters by her husband, Sanjay played by Kabir Bedi. Rekha’s return and her rightfully getting what she owns is done to provide a different sort of entertainment and while trying be different it is scopophilic in nature. The crocodile, has a metaphorical karmic presence. There is a nuanced presence of the state and property rights, even in Khoon Bhari Maang. Had the legal system allowed the transfer of wealth to Sanjay regardless of whether Aarti’s body was found or not, the revenge saga would not have been possible. This is again, the reinforcement of gender norms where the authoritative and all binding legality is a masculine presence that safeguards and  lays ground for Aarti’s return as a model. The victim poised as a scourge is, however, cunningly done so as to ascertain that the audience is either shocked, appalled or thrilled to see Rekha as Aarti pushing her husband to crocodile dominated water. It could also be providing a cathartic escapade to audiences trapped in abusive situations.

In Sherni, directed by Harmesh Malhotra, and in Zakhmi Aurat, directed by Avtar Bhogal, the introductory scenes display family in domestic solitude which is challenged by situational hazards that turns women into avenging spirits. Both of this films fall under the police genre. These films cater to patriarchial standards, except there is a deliberately missing heteropatriarchial figure and the women are always working women who also have a strong presence on screen. After the sexual assault happens, the woman challenges the overtly identifiable culprit in the court of law. The judiciary system is a failure and a tool of the bourgeoise, to be precise. The status of the woman transcends from being a sexual assault victim to a judicial victim and then to an avenger.

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The similarity of the film’s rape sequences to that of Hollywood rape revenge dramas were unmissable. Take films like Zakhmi Aurat, in which Dimple Kapadia’s ripped jeans were flung on the fan as testimony to the ghastly nature of the act of sexual abuse. This act was a replica of how horrific rape scenes were portrayed in B-grade Hollywood films. Like some critics like Carol Clover point out, these scenic sequences address unresolved and complicated issues around gender and its portrayal in cinema. They provide for sadomasochistic desires being met by cross gender identification. Low production values coupled with sex and violence that give the genre of rape revenge films the name of horror films, treat women as subjects of desire of sadistic or masochistic fantasies. Both these desires are elements that make horror films watchable.

In watching the rape scenes, there is, according to film scholars a certain identification with the victim or the rapist. The revenge drama may also be fueled by an imaginary participation in the act itself. This identification must be of the most corporeal sort. Rape scenes are however, prevalent in Indian cinema. The only causality they face is their battle with censorship. The explicit content which maynot be primordial to the plotline is often censored due to its nature and irrelevance to the narrative flow. However, incase of rape revenge films there is a duality that is confronted with when it comes to the narrative being dependent on the scene. The remnants through a traumatic flashback sequence is replayed to be accepted as evidence. The presence of the scene also forges an intimate relationship between sex and violence.

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B.R. Tarazu’s  Insaaf Ka Tarazu/Scales of Justice, which was produced in the 1980’s saw Zeenat Aman play Bharati, a beauty queen who murders her abuser. The film released during the growing feminist activism of the 1970’s post the Mathura and the Maya Tyagi rape cases, the amendment of rape law and the opening up of platforms that offer legal assistance to rape victims.The rape scene begin with a black-and-white shadow play that then cuts to a montage of still images from different religious places in India, which is significant of the metaphorical state of the nation state. The woman who is the victim of rape is also named Bharati suggesting her rape as an allegory for the beleaguered nation state.

The second rape sequence has a female voyeour, Nita ,who walks in while the sexual assault takes place. She is an emotional presence, in place, of an audience who is a horrified voyeur who witnesses a primal scene, infused with fear and pleasure in sexual knowledge without recognizing as a violation of the woman’s human rights. The scene in which Nita does not recognize the rape as non consensual in the courtroom is telling of the way rape scenes are represented on screen and also the discrepancy in exactly, how many spectators actually can identify between a consensual erotic scene and a rape scene. There is a tendency of female rape revenge dramas to place their climax in the the courtroom.

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In Pratighat, a classic of the genre, a conventional representation of rape sequences is broken and the rape sequence is considered to be a disrobing sequence as both the visual and the narrative registers. The disrobing scene is in a medium-length shot and as soon as nudity appears the scene cuts into colour negative to showcase the extent of violation in Indian cinema. The final killing scene is a result of juxtaposition of Kali’s larger than life cardboard cutout against the altercation between the notorious Kali and Lakshmi. There is however, a distance with which the filmmaker collages vigilantism and criminality together without making the legal system and State’s law and order role. Pratighat was a success at the box office, which could be credited to the ability of the rape sequences and the revenge sequences to elicit horror.

This genre also constitutes vociferous stagings of reality through tools like shots of newspapers, photographs of Gandhi on the walls of the courtroom with a footage of Indian flag. In Zakhmi Aurat, snippets of newspapers reporting actual rape cases are brought into forefront and there is also a link drawn to the famous police inspector Kiran Bedi. They recur to add on to our viewing pleasure. The escalating horror extends to icons that are extra-cinematic and events that have happened. The rape scenes seem to be a replacement for sex scenes that eroticise rape scenes to provide a viewership. 

In Pratighat, the director settles rape by killing the rapist and allusion to the Hindu Shakti Goddesses and by killing the rapist, whereas in Zakhmi Aurat the physiological question of castration comes into play. Castration through murder is used as a way of balancing the power between the phallus and the penis. This serves an easy solution and creates a false evasion of the horrors of rape by visually locating the dead male body to that of the woman after rape has occurred. Zakhmi Aurat also led to films like Aaj Ki Aurat and Damini, where the narrative creates a discrepancy between the raped woman and the avenger, return to exhaust the pleasure possibilities in violent rape situations. The woman’s body is synonymous to a sex scene.

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Revenge films do help female stars dominate the screen but the price they pay for this position is dependent on the male star’s violent assertion of masculine power. The avenging woman films are also filled with a problematic narrative of the woman possessing masculine trait about her, the anxiety it creates on the viewers is a masculine anxiety. The unstable and frictional narratives between rape and revenge prevent the avenging drama from becoming radical. The rape-revenge drama also falsifies the revenge trope, in which the woman seeks revenge and also is successful in securing it. In reality, the achievability of this goal may not be supported by power structures or the women may even be too traumatized confront another situation of the same intensity. The revenge-rape drama therefore, irrespective of what its intent may be, represents only one facet of womanhood and one category of women.

In other films like Kodi Ramakrishna’s Police Lockup, the concepts of power, authority and gender are opened up to greater imagination. There is a duality to Vijayshanti’s identity as a firm police inspector and also as a feminine force gracing the domestic space. Vijayshanti’s name, in which Vijay has a mostly masculine connotation, is representative of the film still complying with the notiont that for a feminine figure to be powerful, she has to have a masculine or vicious phallic streak about her.

According to Linda Williams, in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and Frenzy of the visible, the rape revenge genre relies on the generation of sadomasochistic pleasures and that overshadows the outright sadistic nature of the rape sequences. There are also contrasting opinions by some scholars that the images of violent scenes, in reality, contest patriarchy, normalizing gender issues and spectatorial interests. While rape revenge dramas do not provide a holistic truth, they do bring forth varied tones of sexual identity. The unacknowledged aggressiveness both in the public and private have come to forefront courtesy the rape revenge category.

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