Most human beings have felt it at some point in their lives: an anger so overpowering that in that moment, you wanted to kill the person who had infuriated you. Few of us give in to that primal urge. Devki does.
In her new Hindi film Mom , Sridevi plays Devki, a high-school teacher who methodically executes the men involved in her daughter’s gang rape, after a court frees them. Mom ’s first half is heartbreaking and credible as it establishes the mother-child relationship, portrays the rape with extreme sensitivity and shows us the family’s initial battle to retain sanity. The narrative changes track completely though when Devki sets off on her applause-inducing rampage. This is not self-defence or spur-of-the-moment violence, but carefully planned revenge. It is the Zakhmi Aurat Syndrome all over again, harking back to the 1988 Hindi film Zakhmi Aurat ( Wounded Woman ) in which a policewoman played by Dimple Kapadia joins forces with rape survivors like herself to bobbitise their attackers.
Like Bollywood, India’s other big film industries too have, over the years, delivered a small crop of populist films favouring vigilante justice for rape. Just last year, Nayanthara and Mammootty starred in the Malayalam film Puthiya Niyamam ( New Law ), which was about a woman killing her rapists with help from unexpected quarters. Another high-profile Mollywood film from the genre, 22 Female Kottayam in 2012 had Rima Kallingal’s character killing a rapist and castrating his accomplice.
Admittedly, real women rarely react in this fashion, but how can a spot of fantasy hurt, you ask? Besides, zakhmi women are still not a common occurrence whereas zakhmi men have been the bedrock of escapist Indian cinema for decades, taking the law into their hands in droves when the ‘system’ fails them.
Well, at an artistic level it is true that both are clichés, but at a sociological level, there is no equivalence between them. The unrealistically vengeful man of cinema does not carry with him the same baggage of off-screen social prejudice that the woman does. He, therefore, calls for a separate discussion.
Commercial cinema down the decades has swung wildly from the female rape victim with no agency — who weeps helplessly or commits suicide, while her male relatives or lover exact revenge for her lost ‘izzat’ (honour) — to another extreme, where she metamorphoses into a raging Goddess Durga. The latter is an extension of our national vocabulary, which perennially pedestalises the female as “mata” or “devi”, a deification that then becomes an excuse to deny women the right to be ordinary humans — flawed, fearful, normal, like men. When women deviate from these superhuman standards set by society, the penalty is harsh, whereas men — seen as hapless slaves of their hormones and feminine wiles — are casually absolved of grave crimes. While saying, “ Ladke hai, galti ho jaati hai (after all they are boys, mistakes happen),” UP neta Mulayalam Singh Yadav echoed a widely-held view of rapists emerging from this mindset.
The rape-victim-as-avenging-Durga cliché comes from film industries that almost never give space to stories of ordinary, believably tough women responding to sexual violence (Bollywood’s Pink in 2016 being an exception).
Vengeance is a quick route to applause. Watching a woman chop the genitals off a sexual predator can be deeply satisfying for those of us frustrated with the ‘system’, but such films do not compel us to introspect about our own part in that system and a culture that socially sanctions rape. These films point fingers at everyone but the citizenry. Why demand self-questioning, I guess, if letting viewers feel self-righteous pays off?
By cheering Devki in Mom , do we not prove that “we”, the good people watching her, are disgusted with rapists, that “we” are different from “them”? So what if at home we have conversations with our sons blaming women’s attire for rape? So what if our sons see evidence of women as lesser beings in the relationship of inequality between Mum and Dad? Stop this feminist bullshit, please! “Our” boys do not commit rape, only “they” do.
Films like Mom let “us” off lightly.
There is another point worth considering. In recent years, India has displayed a bizarre need to attribute qualities to anonymous rape victims that would give us the drive to fight for them — as if their being humans is not enough. The news media’s nicknames for these women reflect this attitude. In 2014’s Uber case she became Veera (the brave one), the toddler gang raped in a basement in 2013 became Gudiya (doll), and of course there was Nirbhaya (the fearless one) from 2012.
What if that woman was cowering in fright in that taxi? What if that child was not Barbie-like? What if that physiotherapy intern was begging for mercy? Would they then not be worthy of our empathy and support?
Rape victims and their families should not be objects of public fantasy. Like it or not, Vasuki of Puthiya Niyamam and Devki of Mom are the cinematic equivalents of our imagined Nirbhaya, The Fearless One. It is as if X, The Ordinary One — on or off screen — does not deserve us.
(This is the concluding piece of Film Fatale)
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad