When a woman says no

Close call: Raanjhanaa endorses and glorifies stalking

Still from Annayum Rasoolum

Anna MM Vetticad   -  BUSINESS LINE

Despite all our differences, it appears we are a nation bound together by a love of films that legitimise, normalise, even romanticise stalkers

“All love stories in real life starts (sic) after stalking,” a chap wrote to me on Twitter the other day. “What if the stalker loves her more than anybody else?” asked another. The two were reacting to tweets I posted after I chanced upon the Malayalam film Annayum Rasoolum on TV earlier that evening.

In case you don’t know, Annayum Rasoolum is an inter-community romance that earned critical acclaim, audience applause and multiple awards last year. It’s the love story of Rasool, a Muslim taxi driver in Kochi played by Fahadh Faasil, and a Christian woman called Anna (Andrea Jeremiah) who is a sales assistant in an upmarket sari shop.

Like many Indian film heroes before him, Rasool falls for a woman whose pretty face he happens to see one day. That’s when the unnerving behaviour begins. Rasool tails Anna down crowded roads and deserted bylanes. He starts taking the boat she takes to work every day. In some of the film’s most disquieting scenes, he follows her to the very gate of her home, then hangs around peeping over the low wall. In another scene that sent a shiver down my spine, he is seated right behind her on a bus and surreptitiously passes his hand over her flowing hair. As is usually the case with such creeps in Indian cinema, she is initially oblivious to him, then uninterested, and later intrigued. The film ultimately rewards him with her love.

“Watching Annayum Rasoolum on Asianet just now. That’s a seriously disturbing stalker!” I tweeted that day. Not surprisingly, while some responses condemned the film, and some admitted it had not occurred to them to think in such terms, many went along these lines: “Relax! It’s just a movie”; “Maybe you’re right. It’s a good movie though”; “Stop looking at it as a feminist. It’s so romantic.”

This was mild in comparison with the reactions I had to contend with after reviewing the Bollywood release Raanjhanaa, a Hindu boy-Muslim girl encounter starring Sonam Kapoor and Dhanush. In that film, Dhanush’s character Kundan unrelentingly chases Zoya (Sonam), although she slaps him on 15 occasions. She finally tells him she is impressed by his “consistency”, a choice of words that no doubt reaffirms convictions held dear by roadside Romeos across India.

The tragedy is that Raanjhanaa marked a rabid return to a dictum Bollywood had been gradually letting go of since the 1990s: the assumption that when a girl says no, she means maybe or yes. Darr in 1993 epitomised a bucking of the horrendous trend by portraying the stalker as a murderous psychopath who remains repugnant to the heroine till the end. Twenty years later in Raanjhanaa, despite his crude conduct, Kundan gets to hear Zoya say she loves him for the first time when he slashes his wrists in her presence. Large sections of the audience seem offended — not by Kundan’s behaviour, but by the criticism of it. The comments section below the Raanjhanaa review on my blog is filled with responses such as, “What an elitist review”; “You are sooooo disconnected to the country” (sic); “You don’t have an Indian heart”; “You are an extreme feminist”; “Save The Tiger campaign would soon need to shift focus on men” (sic).

Their words echo sentiments earlier expressed in Parliament by Sharad Yadav of Janata Dal (United). “Who among us has not followed girls?” he had asked while criticising the criminalisation of stalking and voyeurism in the new anti-rape bill (now an Act).

This then is what unites politicians, sexual predators and filmmakers across that fabled stretch from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Bollywood to Tollywood, Kollywood and Mollywood: the belief that stalking is an acceptable form of courtship. Despite all our differences, it appears we are a nation bound together by a love of films that legitimise, normalise and romanticise male pests.

Decent men and women inured to such transgressions through repeated exposure to insensitive films, and men who see films as a justification of their crimes, need to be constantly reminded that there’s nothing romantic about stalking; nothing charming about a man who shadows a woman, intimidates and frightens her, or intrudes into her life with unwanted phone calls, SMSes or emails. Delhi law student Priyadarshini Mattoo was raped and killed by her stalker Santosh Singh as revenge because she rejected his advances. Social activist Laxmi’s face was destroyed in an acid attack by a man whose romantic overtures she turned down.

Mainstream cinema tends to steer clear of such horrific cases. By presenting stalking in a humorous light instead and/or by repeatedly showing women like Anna falling in love with the likes of Rasool, too many films are — with calculated intent — catering to the wishful thinking of their mass male audience. They are not merely portraying a condemnable reality, they are glorifying it. And like all trash, cinematic garbage deserves nothing more than to be thrown into the dustbin — not just by critics, but by audiences too.

( Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic)

Follow her on Twitter >@annavetticad

Published on June 06, 2014

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