Reading Rhea Chakraborty's public vilification as a modern-day witch hunt: Actress' harassment has historic roots

The way women who are accused of witchcraft are dragged outdoors to be publicly shamed has now translated into a countless number of people consuming a new 'exposé' on Rhea Chakraborty every day on primetime television.

Shivangi Deshwal and Sumati Thusoo August 31, 2020 10:42:02 IST
Reading Rhea Chakraborty's public vilification as a modern-day witch hunt: Actress' harassment has historic roots

Rhea Chakraborty. Image via Facebook/@RheaChakrabortyOfficial

The terms witch and witch-hunting are used in the Indian subcontinent in myriad ways. The synonyms for witch are churail, daayan, etc. and the process of reclaiming these terms, used for centuries to vilify women, is being done through the medium of cinema.

Two such recent stories that have been hailed as feisty feminist tales are Bulbbul (2020) on Netflix and Churails (2020) on Zee5. This type of women empowerment-oriented revenge drama fetishises violence against women, glamourises shots of their mutilated bodies, and shows that the only way women can be empowered is by killing the men who necessarily wrong them in gendered ways. This kind of cinematic experience acts as a hyperbole for a cathartic experience for the viewers.

Apart from using ‘the witch’ for furthering the cinematic plots in films and series, the term witch-hunting is also being used as an analogy for the online harassment and vitriol directed against Rhea Chakraborty after her boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. However, this is not the first time that a young starlet whose partner died an untimely death was witch-hunted by sections of the media and by society at large.

Most millennials who grew up in the 1990s think of Rekha as a glamorous but reclusive diva. However, in Yasser Usman’s biography, Rekha: The Untold Story, the tightly monitored image of the actress’ life and household emerges as the polar opposite of the carefree actress who always spoke her mind in interviews from the early 1970s and 1980s. In her early years, Rekha gave ‘bold’ statements to the press about premarital sex being natural and abstinence until one’s wedding night being unnecessary — and was policed by a hypocritical Bollywood. After a couple of heartbreaks in the industry, in an in-the-spur-of-the-moment decision, she finally tied the knot with a Delhi-based businessman, Mukesh Agarwal, after a quick courtship in the year 1990. Merely seven months after their wedding, Agarwal died by suicide.

Instead of empathising with a grieving widow, Rekha was painted as a culprit. Agarwal’s mother was quoted as saying, “Woh daayan mere bete ko kha gayi (that witch devoured my son).” The print media came up with vilifying labels such as ‘The Black Widow’ and ‘The Macabre Truth behind Mukesh’s Suicide’. Posters of Rekha’s film Sheshnaag (1990) were vandalised. Industry veterans like Subhash Ghai and others made sexist remarks about Rekha being “a blot” on the film industry, and how no respectable family would accept her as their bahu (daughter-in-law). It was after immense ridicule, humiliation, and having to defend herself against wild and baseless allegations that Rekha shut the door on the outside world and became the reclusive diva that we see today.

In order to understand the present-day media witch-hunt, it is important to understand the history of witch-hunts in India, and across the world. The term ‘witch’ has limitless interpretations varying from the hyper-sexualised youthful witch, to the old decrepit hag, and everything in-between. Sociologically, a witch is regarded as someone who brings misfortune or casts spells/influence on an individual or group either within or outside the community and to use non-physical means to cause injury or misfortune usually to kin rather than to strangers. A sense of control and ability is gained by blaming an unfortunate situation such as the death of a child, a disease outbreak, lousy weather, or a meagre harvest on a woman by accusing her of practicing witchcraft.

Real witch-hunt practices are extremely gendered in nature arising from incidents that are a deviation from the prescribed code of conduct for women. For example, the traditionally-defined feminine spaces are the home, the kitchen, the sickroom, the nursery — which also culturally define female tasks or occupations. Hence, the opposite of these roles — poisoning as opposed to feeding, infanticide as opposed to child-rearing, harming as opposed to healing and death as opposed to birth — have historically been associated with the identification of witches around the world.

A study conducted by a Delhi-based NGO called Partners for Law and Development (PLD) in Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh found that witch-hunting begins with verbal taunts and slurs and that subsequent name-calling goes beyond accusing the women as a witch often entering into a sexual domain. Mob-violence takes place publicly to set an example for women stepping out of the patriarchal structure and becoming a threat to the existing social order. The male gaze consumes this violent ‘act’ of witch-hunting. Some of the ways in which this violence is perpetrated against the woman who is accused of being a witch are by humiliation, shaming and demonising of the victim through forced disrobing, parading, blackening of face, tonsuring of the hair, breaking teeth, the long term consequences of which result in forced displacement and isolation, amongst others.

The three states where the study was conducted have special laws dealing with “witchcraft” and “witch”-related offences wherein there was also acute administrative neglect manifested in poor healthcare, sanitation and education. This could very well be correlated to the illnesses and deaths in the respective states for which women are blamed by accusing them of witchcraft. Hence, the context within which victimisation plays out reflects various structural failures at multiple levels.

Similar to the real witch-hunts in India, Rhea Chakraborty’s media witch-hunt has played out in the exact same fashion. Despite due process not having concluded and her criminal culpability yet to be proven, the gendered victimisation by name-calling (vish kanya) and slut-shaming is now being consumed as primetime content. While real-life cases of witch-hunting arise from the structural issues such as lack of access to resources, the reason for Rhea’s media witch-hunt seems to be arising from a concoction of a deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset, the lack of mental health awareness and the superstitious beliefs in this country.

The way Rhea has repeatedly been called a vish kanya is similar to the representation of the witches in Shakespearean literature. The witch produced in the Renaissance theatre has been often accompanied by a pattern of iterations. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the three witches speak three times almost in iteration; the number three being a sign of the devil lets the audience know something ominous is going to happen. In a similar manner, when we see the repetition of the term ‘black magic’ with Rhea, iterated with repeated patterns on national television, to the audience, this very iteration is ominous to the witches entry in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

In response to the maternalistic readings of witchcraft by earlier scholars, Johnson’s analysis posited that witches were women because women are mothers. There were complaints of witchcraft often centred on feeding and child care. However, a critique of this analysis states the danger of such a reading that it “naturalises hostility toward women” by locating misogyny in a universal mother-child conflict.

In a recent interview with India Today, Rhea mentioned how she wanted a younger Sushant to take care of, to elucidate about her relationship with him. The same sentiment was echoed by Susan Walker in her interview to Barkha Dutt where she said that the late actor depended on Rhea like a mother-figure. The caretaking or child-rearing role (maternal role), which is the norm and subsequent failure in caretaking is looked at as the deviation from the epitome of motherhood leading to the construction of a witch’s imagery. The term ‘inverted motherhood’ is therefore used for the maternal subject who reverses the structure of supposedly essential order and refuses socially sanctioned roles.

Early modern England's obsession with the female reproductive body constructed the witch-imagery wherein the witch’s teat was a sign that the maternal body is turned upside down. The inversion resulted in the natural (maternal) function being displayed on another side and used for another purpose. There is a search for the teat, evidence of carnal relationship with the representative of the devil. It suggests that witches are not witches simply because of the devil but because of the female body, a body that requires examination and control. The pictures of a bikini-clad Rhea being plastered on our TV/social media on a daily basis almost appears as a hunt to find the devil’s mark and the demonisation of the female body as it is believed that a woman’s witchcraft could be read off the visible signs of her body, like a map.

The way women who are accused of witchcraft are dragged outdoors to a visible place to publicly shame them has now translated to a countless number of people watching a "new exposé" every day on primetime television. While Rajput’s grieving family may have their own reasons to file a complaint against her, what reasons do millions of people consuming this overt witch-hunt of Rhea have? With the consumption of such news and media, we become a part of this ritualistic media witch-hunt that wants Rhea’s blood.

Shivangi Deshwal is a gender-based violence prevention interventionist and feminist researcher. Sumati Thusoo is a research author at the department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala.

— Featured image via Facebook/@RheaChakrabortyOfficial

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