Home is where the hurt is reveal two short films

Kavita Chowdhury | Updated on September 05, 2020 Published on September 03, 2020

Lend an ear: In Nandita Das’s seven-minute film Listen to her, the victim is a frightened voice over the cell phone as Das’s character listens to her pain

Two short films on YouTube are breaking the silence around the rise in domestic violence as more people work from home during the pandemic-induced lockdown

* Domestic violence is faced by women irrespective of the social class you belong to

Working from home during the lockdown, the relationship manager of a bank suddenly overhears a woman’s anguished scream on the other end of a phone call. In another instance, a professional who juggles office Zoom meetings with the demands of her husband and child, receives a call — a wrong number — from a frightened woman seeking help.

The two scenes are from new films being widely watched on YouTube. Falguni Thakore’s The Relationship Manager (with Annup Sonii in the lead) and Nandita Das’s Listen to Her were written and shot during the lockdown, and present the ugly side of working from home — a rise in domestic violence.

“When I was writing the story, I wanted to explore how each of us hears of such incidents and then regards them as a ‘personal matter’ and decides not to interfere in it. My film shows it is possible for anyone within their own limitations to help a victim of domestic violence by just showing empathy, extending support and empowering her to take a step. The fact that the person is a complete stranger, at times, helps the victim open up,” writer-director Thakore says.

Using interesting cinematic storytelling devices, the films successfully engage with their audience. In Das’s seven-minute film, the victim or the domestic violence she is subjected to is not shown on screen. Instead, the victim is “heard” — in more ways than one: She is a frightened voice over the cell phone, and Das’s character listens to her pain.

“As a society we rely too heavily on the legal route and not enough on changing regressive social norms that reinforce discrimination and violence against women,” says Das, who has written, directed and acted in the film. “When we will listen, more and more women will speak up.”

Unlike most films on the subject, the focus is not on depicting brutal physical violence on screen. Instead, through everyday characters in relatable situations, they focus on how to reach out to people.

Thakore deliberately chose a male protagonist for the lead role in her 18-minute film. He is voluble and endearing, but decides uncharacteristically to engage with this particular woman customer, a victim of domestic violence, not for promoting bank products but to encourage her to step out of an abusive situation.

“I think I wanted to break the myth that only a woman can help another woman; empathetic men can also support and help,” Thakore says.

Challenging the typical portrayal of domestic violence on screen as an issue that generally concerns poor households, actor Divya Dutta, who plays the abused woman in Thakore’s film, says that there is a perception that women from affluent middle-class homes are “strong and well settled”.

“Our film throws light on how these women are also vulnerable. Domestic violence is faced by women irrespective of the social class you belong to,” Dutta says.

The actor chose to play the character in an atypical manner. “I had discussions with the director about how best to portray the character, and we decided that her suffering should be seen in her silences; it didn’t need to be melodramatic. So, she spoke through her pauses and the story comes out through what she doesn’t say. She just needed a nudge, which is provided by the relationship manager who listened to her silences.”

Das and Thakore wanted to turn the lens on one of the shocking side-effects of the lockdown — the increase in domestic violence seen in different parts of the world, including in India. Data released by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) show an increase in domestic violence cases in these months of the lockdown following the Covid-19 pandemic. Women’s rights activists from Kolkata state that the number of domestic violence cases in the city have doubled from an average of 56 cases a month (before the lockdown) to 104 now.

To create a conversation around the issue — without making the subject unduly heavy — the film-makers decided to adopt the short film format, which they feel is the perfect vehicle for a subject as sensitive as this. “I was very clear I didn’t want to make a long film on the subject; I wanted it to be short and full of punch,” says Thakore. Das adds that short films are not just a more feasible medium to work with during the lockdown but can be immensely powerful, too.

“It is a pity that in India we haven’t given short films the space it deserves. I hope more short films will be made beyond the pandemic,” Das says. Her film has been backed by UN bodies.

The films have also garnered eyeballs, with The Relationship Manager clocking 1.5 million views.

Das says she is “overwhelmed” by the response to her film. “I was glad that it got shared widely. Many women candidly posted their stories in the comments section of YouTube or emailed me. Since then I have got many requests for helpline numbers.” The actor-film-maker adds that she has not copyrighted her film so that it can be shared freely. “I am happy for it to be an open source, that people want to use it to break the silence,” she says.

Kavita Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on development, politics, culture and gender

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Published on September 03, 2020
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